Translator, Commentator, Writer


Lots 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 my edition).

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 translation.

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 example.)

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.