Translator, Commentator, Writer
By MICHAEL CARASIK
of people who don’t know Spanish have read Don Quixote; lots of people
who don’t know Russian have read Anna Karenina. How did they do it?
The answer, of course, is that they didn’t. What they read was a book written
by Edith Grossman or, l’havdil, Constance Garnett. But nobody ever talks
about having read the new novel by Edith Grossman. Translators who stand in
between the novelists and their English-speaking readers have, quite
successfully, managed to disappear. You are reading a novel about Russians but,
amazingly, all of the characters are speaking English.
Synagogues are full of Jews who argue about what “the Torah” is saying when
they are really arguing with Rabbi Hertz, or some other translator/commentator.
For the majority of us, “the Torah” is not what’s written in the scroll but
whatever English translation happens to be available at our seats. We rarely
ask whether we can trust the translators; mostly we forget about them.
As the creator, translator, and editor of The Commentators’ Bible series, I try to hide in plain
sight. As a translator, I am not merely standing between Torah and its
English-speaking readers; I’m also standing between those readers and the 11
commentators who are trying to be only slightly less transparent.
The commentator’s personality will determine his relationship to the text. Some
commentators would like nothing better than to stand one step in back of the
readers, gently guiding them with a hand on the back when the path through the
text before them is not clear. Others hold up a large flag and a bullhorn,
through which they can shout, “Follow me!” No offense to him, but Abraham Ibn
Ezra strikes me as being this kind of commentator. He is the star of his own
commentary. He will indulge in long explanations about astronomy (Leviticus
25:30) or explain with glee how he completely stymied a “Sadducee” (that is, a
Karaite) who spent a month arguing with him about a point of tradition that the
sages had long ago settled (Leviticus 7:20 in Hebrew editions, 7:23 and 7:26 in
At the other extreme, Rashi displays a much milder persona. My presumption is
that this reflects his real personality, just as Ibn Ezra’s excitability
reflects his. When Ibn Ezra intrudes between the reader and the Torah, his
voice is obvious. But Rashi's quiet presence has spoken much louder over the
centuries than Ibn Ezra’s noise.
The commentators in The Commentators’ Bible wrote in Hebrew about a
Hebrew text; I had to insinuate myself in such a way that the commentator could
write in English about a text his readers would primarily encounter in English
With regard to the Torah itself, the way to make the translation vanish was,
paradoxically, to make it more visible. This I did by including two English
translations, rather than one, and by having the commentators criticize one or
both translations when necessary. This forces readers to be aware that it’s the
Hebrew text that is Torah, not the English. (Click here for an
Standing in between the readers and the commentators is trickier. It involves a
certain amount of mimicry and quite a lot of chutzpah. As the
English-language literary agent of Nahmanides, I have often had to tell him,
“Interesting! But the readers I’m introducing to you aren’t ready to learn
that.” The commentators in The Commentators’ Bible, therefore, are not
the commentators themselves—they are being impersonated by me, just as
Cervantes was impersonated by Edith Grossman.
Stated baldly, this sounds outrageous. So it’s worth remembering that the
prophets, too, (according to Ibn Ezra and Abarbanel) were not simply channeling
God’s message, but rather impersonating Him. The medium shapes the message, and
that is as true for Torah as for anything else.
Reprinted with permission from Sh'ma.