On the Word-Choice in a German Translation of the Scripture

by Martin Buber

To the Memory of Franz Rosenzweig

The special obligation to retranslate the scripture
which awoke in the present
and drove us to our undertaking
arose out of the uncovering of the fact
that the times had in many ways
turned the scripture into a palimpsest.

The original scriptural features
sense and word from their inception
have been overlaid with an all-too-familiar conceptuality
partly theological
partly literary
and what modern man usually reads when he opens “the book”
is so unlike that overheard speech
that is written there
that we have every reason
to prefer to such a sham reception
the shoulder-shrugging dismissal
of those who
“no longer know how to begin with this thing.”

This holds true not only for the reading of translations
but for the reading of the original as well
the Hebrew sounds have lost their immediacy
for a reader who is no longer a listener
they are shot through with the voiceless rhetoric
of theology and literature
and become compelling through it
rather than through the spirit that took voice in them
to proclaim a compromise of the spiritualities of two millennia

the Hebrew Bible itself comes to be read like a translation
a bad translation
a translation into that overpolished conceptual language
that is thought to be so well-understood
but in truth is only well-worn.
In the place of the awestruck intimacy
with its sense and sensuality
which the scripture demands
is a mixture of unthinking respect
and undiscerning familiarity.

The pseudobible of such readers
is identical to the object of that shoulder-shrugging dismissal
and its relation to the authentic Bible
can be compared to that of the “dead” “God” of our time
— that is, its vague familiar God-concept —
to the true God.

It would be hopeless
given these facts
to hope to accomplish anything through a new translation
had the scripture already been translated more rigorously
and in that form disseminated
for then it would have been truth of the text itself
that had become rigidified
not merely its paraphrase

then the vivid, turbulent, bodily force of biblical speech
would already have sunk deep into Western consciousness
and there simply been overtaken by a trivialization
from which it could only be rescued
by the new light of new religious experiences
not by yet another rewrite into one of the Western languages.

But this is not the case.

Even the most significant translations of the scripture
that have been preserved for us
the Greek of the Seventy
the Latin of Jerome
the German of Martin Luther
begin not essentially with the attempt
to preserve the original character of the book
in its word-choice, syntax and rhythm

carried from their intention
to convey to a specific community
the Jewish Diaspora for the Greeks
the early-Christian ecumenia
the Reformation faithful
a reliable founding document
they pull the “content” of the text
over into the other language

the peculiarities of its elements
of its structure
of its dynamic
not to be sure from the outset renouncing
but in fact rather lightly abandoning them
whenever reluctant “form” seems
to want to hinder transfer of the content.

As if an authentic missive
an authentic saying
an authentic song
contained a What that could
without damage
be detached from its How

as if the spirit-breath of talk could be tracked down
anywhere but in its spoken body-shape
and carried to the times and places
other than through its faithful and impartial rebuilding

as if a common understanding
won at the expense of the original bodiliness
would or indeed must not necessarily become a misunderstanding!

To be sure
the great translators stood in the inspired insight
that the Word of God was valid for all times and places
but they failed to know that through such insight
the weight of the "from whence"
the There and Then in the full press
of the folk
of the person
of the body
is not diminished but rather enhanced.

Total revelation is always human body and human voice
and that means always
this body and this voice
in the mystery of their onceness.

To the preaching of the prophets belong
not merely their symbols and parables
but also the undercurrent of ancient Hebrew sensuality
even in their most intellectual concepts,
the tensile architecture of the ancient Hebrew sentence,
the ancient Hebrew habit of taking words
that stand almost side by side
but also those that are far distant
and forcing them upon each other
through related roots
or similar sound,
the mighty meter-trampling stride
of ancient Hebrew rhythms.

To recognize this is of course to present the translator
with a fundamentally impossible task
for the particular is particular
and cannot be “reproduced”
the sensualities of languages are different
their imaginations and ways of spinning them out
their innervations and emotions
their passions and music.

Fundamentally the missive
in its fatal commingling of sense and sound
can not be translated
it can only be done in practice
— approximately —
as close as the boundaries of the language
into which one is translating
will allow one to come

but into these boundaries the translator
again and again must butt
into them only
taking only from the mouths of the highest watchmen
instruction on what he will allow
and what he will not.

Fundamentally in fact
the basic requirement can never once be fulfilled
— the uncovering of the original text —
for what was primarily meant by a biblical word
can naturally never be known
only cracked open slightly
and that often only guessingly
not uncommonly we must content ourselves
with guessing what the “Redactor” must have meant
i.e. that unifying consciousness that
out of forms and fragments
handed down through the ages
built the halls of the Bible.

But even this may suffice for our approximation project
for it is in truth not in “sources”
but here in that consciousness
that the Bible lives
that which gathered up testimonies and documents
and bound them into books and the book
time-fusing faith in reception and surrender
that convergent vision of all versions
in the peace of the word.

Out of this knowledge of living oneness was determined
our translation’s relation with the text.

Analytical science reserves for itself the right
wherever it sees fit
to substitute for the letters that were written
others that seem more suitable

we for ourselves the right to linger
in the givenness of the “solid letters”
for as long as it will let us

science may break a story
a song
a sentence
up into what really are
or only seem to be
its independent constituents

but we may take up the wrought work
in its totalities
study it closely
and model our translation after it.

In this by modeling we mean not the mind-contrary attempt
to reproduce the existing form
in a different sort of material
but rather the striving to create for it
in the language into which we are translating
with its different rules and regularities
a correspondence
an answering voice
a response.

German pronunciation can never reproduce Hebrew pronunciation
but it can
out of analogous efforts
by practicing analogous effects
respond to it in German
speak German to and through it
Germanize it.

In order to do justice to this requirement
the translator must coax
out of the Hebrew characters
their true pronunciations

he must experience the scriptedness of scripture
in large part as a record of its spokenness
which as the true reality of the Bible
is everywhere rousing itself anew
wherever an ear biblically hears the word
and a mouth biblically speaks it.

Not only prophecies psalms and proverbs
but report and commandment as well
were originally produced for the tongue rather than the quill

holy text is for all of its unbroken early history
not written but orally handed-down text
— handed down orally even where
alongside it
there coexists a highly advanced profane scripture —
which only when its undistorted preservation
despite its memorable rhythms
despite all strict memorization rules
became uncertain
or when other purposes demanded it
got written down.

But what arose in speech
can only live again in speech
and only through it
be taken in purely as truth.

In the Jewish tradition
the scripture is required to be read aloud

the so-called accent system
that accompanies the text word for word
serves the accurate return to its spokenness

even the Hebrew notation for “to read”
means “to shout”
the traditional name of the Bible is “the Reading”
properly then “the Shouting”
and God says to Joshua
not that he is never to let the Torah out of his sight
but that it is never to leave his mouth
he must
(this is what the next lines truly mean)
murmur it
i.e. rebuild the intonations with unmoving lips.

To this spokenness then
must the German pronunciation too answer
needless to say not for silent reading
but for true recitation
for voiced performance that brings forth
the full-bodied sound of the original.

The German translation of the scripture too wants to be shouted.
Only then will the unfamiliarity of its effect
not degenerate into mere strangeness.

This unfamiliarity is in fact necessary
is necessity itself
if after all the false learning about the Bible
after all its assimilations to the common
a translation is to help bring about a meeting
between the Bible and modern men.
It would be a false
superfluous and dubious
late-romantic unfamiliarity
if it had arisen out of aesthetic or literary reflections
if its word-choice had been determined
in whole or in part
by “taste”
— even an archaizing or arbitrarily neologizing taste —
rather than by the text’s own demands
by its imperious thusness
its characteristic majesties and intimacies.

To fashion for these the Western
the German response
one must often let go one’s grip on current vocabularies
and seize hold of the obsolete
the disused
the forgotten
whenever the obsolete word
has no true synonym
and therefore its reintroduction is legitimate and desirable

sometimes the translator must not shy away
from neologisms either
where he
to a biblical institution
or to a biblical idea
can find in the German vocabulary no full-bodied response
and then it will depend
on the seriousness of his linguistic knowledge
on the soundness of his linguistic tact
on his attitude toward the laws of the language of the translation
— an attitude that must be at once audacious and obedient —
whether the new word
itself only a sign of something in the biblical world
will be accepted and ratified by the generations.

The open-minded reader
seeking the way to the Bible
will search again and again
from the words of the new translation
which deviate from what is familiar to him
through to the realities
which speak through them
will weigh whether the familiar translation
does justice to these in their particularity
will gauge and test the distance between the two
so as to see how the new word-choice
holds up for him

and thus reading will open the biblical world up for him
region by region
its otherness from all that is common and familiar
but thus also open for him
the importance of weaving that otherness
into the warp and the woof of our own lives.

To be sure that other world
will seem to him linguistically far sharper
far more clearly articulated
than it did to those who lived in it
because the concept in the German translation
torn away from the familiar
enacts its sensual root meaning more emphatically than in the original
where the sensual and the visual were more of an undertone
humming somewhere beneath the use of concepts
though often quite effectively

but as this will make the serious reader
grow accustomed to it
and settle down in it
it must prove fruitful.

It is this very task that today
in another form
awaits the reader of the original
if he wishes to liberate the living There and Then
and thus also the bodiliness of the biblical spirit
from the tired familiarity
that all reading draws
over the student of Hebrew in our day
whether he experiences
in a dictionary
or in a dialogue in a conversation class
what the words supposedly mean.

Translated by Doug Robinson

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