Aviya Kushner’s first book, The Grammar of God: A Journey Into the Words and Worlds of the Bible (Spiegel & Grau/Random House 2015), is about the intense experience of reading the Bible in English after an entire life of reading it in Hebrew. Her writing has also appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, Partisan Review, Poets & Writers, A Public Space, The Wilson Quarterly, and Zoetrope: All-Story. She has worked as a travel columnist for The International Jerusalem Post and as a poetry columnist for BarnesandNoble.com. She is currently an associate professor of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago and a contributing editor at A Public Space as well as a mentor for The National Yiddish Book Center. Editor Sarah Viren interviewed her for M-Dash.
M—: As you mention in your new (and fabulous) book The Grammar of God, it took you a long time to figure out how to organize this book. I’m curious how you decided on the final organization, and also how you decided what moments of translation to focus on in the Bible.
Kushner: Organizing this book was the biggest problem, as you can imagine. For quite some time, it was organized according to the seven days of creation, which is something a really talented friend of mine helped me come up with. Then several times over the ten years it took to write and publish this book, it was organized according to translation issue: punctuation, names, something like that. I still wasn’t happy. I think part of it was balancing the personal and the biblical. It was just really hard to get that balance right, and I felt that they both needed to be there. I didn’t want a dry book about translation issues. I wanted a living book. And then, as you may or may not know, I hit my head; I had a concussion; and I couldn’t read for half a year. After that, I looked at the most recent version, which was organized according to translation issue, and I really hated it. I felt it was getting worse. Something was wrong. I talked with my youngest brother, who said, “You need an outline,” and he made me an outline. I believe it was twelve questions. One was, “What is ‘creation’ in Hebrew and in English?” And he told me, “Everything that does not answer one of these questions, just take that out.” That’s what I did. I sat there with a pencil and I cut 130 pages.
M—: Oh, my.
Kushner: After I cut 130 pages, I suddenly started to see what was going on. Then I went with my mother to Dunkin’ Donuts one day, and we talked about the book, and I was telling her about my issues with chapters. We just took out a napkin. She was like, “Okay, what do you think is important?” Some of the words on the napkin were: God, Man, Time, Memory, things like that. And I realized that I had a structure that was like “The grammar of creation,” “The grammar of man,” “The grammar God,” and of course they all overlap. They all bleed into each other. But I just knew it was right. After ten years of struggling, at the end, I knew it was right. I called my editor from Dunkin’ Donuts again, and I said, “This is it. This is it.”
M—: That’s a great story. And it reminds me of a question I had about how you sold this book. Some memoirs have come out recently about the act of reading other books, like Rebecca Mead’s memoir of reading Middlemarch, but this is the first book I can think of that’s a memoir of reading a translation. Was it an easy project to sell?
Kushner: I sometimes feel like the only power a writer has is to pick her agent. So that was something my agent took care of. I really didn’t have anything to do with it. I know that’s not the answer you wanted—
M—: But when you when you were conceiving of the project originally, did you think of it as a memoir of reading a translation, or did you think of it differently?
Kushner: This book started by accident. I didn’t really plan on writing a book. It started as letters, and then it became essays, it became a thesis. And I wasn’t thinking “book,” and I most certainly wasn’t thinking about selling it. But I did want to bring across some points about the Bible in translation, and I also wanted to show how the Bible was alive. Those two things were there from the beginning. My family was there from the beginning. And the nitty-gritty grammatical things were there from the beginning. But I think the actual balance of those elements came through with time. So I don’t know that I would have been able to articulate what you’re saying. I don’t know if I would have been able to say, “This is a memoir about reading the Bible” because at first I really didn’t know what I was doing. And I don’t think I wanted to write a memoir. I didn’t set out to write a memoir. I just wanted something that would give an English reader a way into Hebrew.
M—: And that’s something I really liked about the book. At first, when reading, I found myself thinking, “I want her to be authoritative and tell me this is what this or that word from the Bible should be in translation!” But then at some point I realized, “No, we’re talking about translation. And about the Bible. There is no ‘should be.’” And so I think the memoir mode was really appropriate for this project. I really appreciated that.
Kushner: That’s so interesting. I really struggled with how to present it. I really did. I’m glad that worked. And I don’t think there’s a perfect translation. We know that.
M—: Yeah, that’s actually another question I had. While reading, I would also sometimes think, “Oh, I wonder how Aviya would have translated this or that phrase or word?” Did you ever attempt to translate parts of the Bible, especially passages where you felt like meaning was lost?
Kushner: Yeah. I did some. A lot of that got cut. I translated a lot of the medieval commentators—because they weren’t available in English. That I was doing throughout. At one or two points, I was also asked to do a really simple literal translation of something that had been really wrong for a long time. But I don’t think I was interested in translating the Bible. It wasn’t really what I set out to do. I was interested in seeing how the Bible had been translated.
M—: Another thing—and maybe this is also something else that got cut—that I was curious about while reading were those moments where the translation in English actually is wrong. Like the “torture” from the Hebrew becoming “afflicted” in the English translation. Did you ever figure out what might have been the motivation of the translators who blatantly changed words or phrases?
Kushner: That’s a great question. Some of the translators left notes about what they were doing. But I found that what I most wanted to know wasn’t there. And I think some of that is unanswerable. You could say there’s a mistranslation because a person misunderstood a single word or didn’t understand the structure of the language. But then, it’s really hard to separate translation from history. So, did this person think that Jewish tradition was irrelevant? Is it that there were no Jews available to consult, because the country the translator lived in had expelled its Jewish residents? Did this person feel that translating from a language you don’t speak is okay? I think a lot of what I wanted to know—Why did this happen?—doesn’t have an answer. I can certainly say that a lot of people in the Jewish community would just say, “Okay, this is hatred.” But I also think that it’s entirely possible that someone didn’t understand the language that well, for whatever reason. So, I kind of want to leave some of that up to the reader. I didn’t want to come down hard. All I wanted to do was to get people thinking. Let the scholars come in and take one side or the other. I just thought it was really interesting that so many very educated readers never thought about the translation of the Bible.
M—: In this book, you talk about translation as a brave act. People actually scarified their lives for translation. You also talk about it as an act of preservation, of trying to preserve a text. But then you also say it is act of loss. There is loss involved. I’m curious how your understanding of translation changed through the whole ten-year process of writing this book? Do you understand translation in a different way?
Kushner: Absolutely. When I started this project, I really focused on what was wrong. I hear that now, going around, doing readings. People who know Hebrew are like, “Well, I disagree with this word. I disagree with that word.” That really was my initial reaction: “Oh, boy, this is terrible. This is awful. This is just horrible.” But as time went on, I thought more and more about who the translators were and what they sacrificed, which in some cases was their lives, and I really started to empathize with them more.
It’s very hard to translate the Bible. I thought about that a lot, and I thought about who translators were and what they gave up. In time, I started to realize that even mistakes are part of the story in the Bible. That’s why I intentionally wrote about some of my own mistakes. I wanted readers to see how easy it is to make a mistake. But I think I became a more generous reader of translations as time went on. It’s really, really easy, to criticize translations, but it’s very hard to make one, and good or bad, wise or terrible, all the biblical translations are part of the story of the Bible. And I’m honestly not sure that the Bible would still be around if it hadn’t been translated so often.
M—: That’s interesting: the preservation part that you talk about in the book.
Kushner: Absolutely. I don’t know if this sounds creepy, but I thought a lot about the tie between translation and life. It covers the translation of death. When you translate something, you’re keeping it alive. And that’s the most important thing of all. So I thought about that. I was like, “You know what? A couple phrases may be wrong. I may be unhappy with the portrait of this speech or character. I may not even recognize God. But, you know what? The Bible is still with us.” Who knows why it’s still with us. I think it’s reasonable to think that translation was a part of the reason it’s still here.
M—: And that idea really comes through in your book, and also really reminds me of Edith Grossmann’s Why Translation Matters.
Kushner: I love that book.
M—: Because she also has a sort of celebratory voice when talking about translation
M—: And she criticizes it as well. But that celebratory factor is something that’s missing at times when people talk about translation because it’s easier to be critical.
Kushner: I think in general it’s easier to be critical.
M—: That’s true.
Kushner: I’m serious. I feel this teaching nonfiction. Many essays are slam jobs, many memoirs are slam jobs. I didn’t want to write that kind of book. I just did not. I think it’s much harder to show how complicated something is than to just say, “This is wrong.”
M—: So my final question is something I ask translators a lot: Do you have a favorite metaphor for the act of translation? There are so many out there already, but I’m always curious to hear new ways of describing this thing that we do.
Kushner: There’s a great Hebrew poet, Chaim Nachman Bialik, who supposedly said that translation is like a kiss through a handkerchief. So I always think about that. I feel like that’s both a positive and a negative comment.
M—: Because it’s still a kiss, right?
Kushner: Exactly. But it’s a veiled kiss. I think it’s not a bad description. It’s something, but you’re not going to get the whole thing, and maybe that’s okay.