An Ancient Text Gets a Twentieth-Century Voice

History records that the first translation of the Old Testament took place in Egypt at the great library of Alexandria during the third century B.C. when 72 scholars transformed some ancient Hebrew texts into Greek. Their combined efforts are still known as the Septuagint.

Seven hundred years later, a Roman scholar named Sophronius Eusebius Hieronymus—a man known today as Saint Jerome—spent two decades preparing a version of the Old and New Testaments commonly referred to as the Vulgate. His rendering became the official Latin Bible of the Roman Catholic Church, and was the text Johan Gutenberg used in the first successful operation of a printing press in 1450.

The first English version of the Bible to be printed was translated from the Hebrew in 1526 by William Tyndale, a theologian who envisioned Scripture that would be suitable for the “common man” to read. Tyndale’s radical efforts antagonized ecclesiastical authorities so much, however, that he was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1536.

Though it would provide little comfort to Tyndale, fully 90 percent of his translation was retained by a group of English scholars and writers who 75 years later collaborated on the Authorized Version of the Bible.

Commonly known as the King James Bible, the Authorized Version is a lyrical translation that is regarded in some circles as the only documentable instance in which a distinctive work of literature was produced by a committee.

Here in America, a book that became a collector’s item the day it first came off the press in 1661 was a version of the New Testament prepared in the Algonquin language by the Rev. John Eliot for use by Native American converts to Christianity. Known today as the “Eliot Bible,” the work brought the Puritan minister world-wide acclaim as the “Apostle of the Indians.”

The history of books, in short, is intertwined with the history of the Bible, and any time a new version of the Holy Scriptures appears, whether it be the Old Testament, the New Testament or both, millions of people are sure to take notice.

A new production that has prompted uncommon attention is an ambitious project called the Shocken Bible, Volume I of which has just been released, and is titled The Five Books of Moses (Shocken Books, 1,024 pp., $50).

Especially remarkable is that the new translation has been undertaken by one person, and that it was accomplished over a 27-year-period of intense, often obsessive work. The first volume includes the five canonical books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

In a front-page review for the New York Times Book Review, Edward Hirch described the effort as a binding religious text, a historical document of the first importance and a work of great literary imagination. Among the honors extended to Everett Fox, the translator, was an invitation to read segments of the Bible at the White House for the first family just before Christmas.

The purpose of this book is to draw the reader into the world of the Hebrew Bible through the power or its language,” Fox writes in a preface, a mandate he expanded on during a recent interview in his office at Clark University in Massachusetts, where he is director of the Jewish Studies program.

I saw the project as a combination of scholarly and artistic endeavor. Other translations have as their focus the language into which they are being translated, and they are trying to create a modern text which is comfortable and flowing and idiomatic, which is always a goal of translation.

One result of seeking a twentieth-century voice, which Fox studiously avoided, is that you miss some of the ancient dress, some of the rough feel of the Hebrew, and so I started seeing that it was possible to do it another way as a balance. I saw that it was helpful to rethink and rehear these stories and texts. So I don’t see it as aimed at a particular generation, though it certainly comes out of a particular generation.

Fox, whose wife, Cherie Koller-Fox, is a rabbi in Cambridge, Massachusetts, emphasized that he never intended a politically correct translation which takes text and bends it to ideological concerns, and it’s not like some recent efforts that try to address issues of sexism and so on. What I’m trying to do is to reproduce the text the way that I hear it. It’s an ancient text. That’s what it is.

But there were occasions, he added, where the text permitted him to make certain adjustments. When you translate the name Adam, which is not a name but a designation, it doesn’t mean a human being, it’s not the word necessarily from male. So I could use humankind, and I was happy about that, because it was my own approach though only because the text permitted it.

An immediate result of his work is a melodious Bible that pleases the ear as much as the eye, and demands to be read aloud. By dividing the text into distinct lines, Fox restores the rhythmic feel of poetry. “I used to play the piano and do a little singing—in fact music may be my one other obsession—and I worked hard to bring out the oral quality.

But unlike a musician who gets the immediate response from an audience for an evening’s work, Fox toiled interminably in the basement office of his Newton, Mass., home with the idea of pleasing himself, and with getting every word, every phrase every nuance from the Hebrew as precisely true to the original as possible.

Now 48, Fox said he hopes to see Volume II, books Joshua through Kings, in print in about three years, though he is not applying any undue pressure to himself to make any forced deadlines.

“It’s a slow process, he said. There’s a lot of good scholarship out there, and you want to take full advantage of that. There’s no sense in being rushed. The Bible is forever.”