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run, afterward, and read the whole Bible: Lore Segal

September 10, 2011

Lore Segal is one of my favorite authors. “The writer of children’s books?” you ask. “Well, yes,” I say, remembering reading her books to my children before they could read for themselves and appreciating as a parent and a reader all she wrote so obviously for us adults as well on the very same pages.  (And I want to remind you that she’s also a good novelist, but then I should tell you she’s a Bible translator.  That’s right.  I used to own a copy of her translation, which sadly got lost in our move to our new home not too long ago.  I wanted to read some of that with you some time.  I remember what Segal’s translation of the Hebrew Bible and Leonard Baskin’s illustrations made my children and me want to do.)

And yesterday in the mail I received a gently used copy of
Book of Adam to Moses

The Book of Adam to Moses.

Here’s how Segal’s Preface begins, in 1987 some thirteen years left in the twentieth century when she wrote it, and I’m just giving you her first four paragraphs.  Let’s see what it makes you (want to) do next.

There are those for whom the Bible is a God-given Book.  Scholars suppose it to be a collection of oral and written traditions beginning three thousand years ago.  If this archaic work survives into the twentieth century it is because it constitutes a basic strain in our thinking.  That other grand strain, the Greek, has already slipped out of our general education; the Bible is slipping because, for good and sufficient reason, it is not part of the American curriculum.

The Bible is not a book of religion, laws, lessons — of the answers antiquity gave to the ur-questions.  The teachings come to us in the form of incomparable stories with characters who, like ourselves, act both familiarly and incomprehensibly.  On the vast stage of the new-made world they are sometimes faithful and sometimes disobedient; they get hungry, they want children; have friendships; grieve when they are unloved; they work, despair, murder, go mad.  The narrative mode is subtle, devious, and double and triple.  It is funny.  The stories enter your life.  It is no wonder the book’s been two and a half thousand years on the best-seller list.  How can we bear for our children to miss this?

New versions, retranslations for children, for the general reader, for the scholar, continue to proliferate in the bookstores.  Why did we undertake to do yet another [Leonard Baskin illustrating and I writing]?  The excuse is every translator’s inexcusable arrogance:  I can do it better.

We have told the part of the story contained in the first five of the thirty-nine books of the Hebrew Bible, which Christendom calls the Old Testament.  And these are the stories the Koran tells to Islam.  Most of the narrative is found in Genesis and Exodus, but we have had not qualms — or, to speak the truth, had a lot of qualms — helping ourselves to portions of the other Five Books of Moses.  We have been at pains not to retell what tells itself so wonderfully well.  We did not want to introduce the sort of detail we have learned to expect from modern realistic fiction, nor to simplify, nor explain, nor add or alter anything except for the alteration inherent in leaving out.  We have included the Ten Commandments but not the great body of laws that instructs the children of Israel how to build their altars and dress their sacrifices and teach us human conscience and compassion.  And we have sacrificed some of the repetition that constitutes the Bible’s natural mode because it seems to be a roadblock to the modern reader.  We mean the reader to run, afterward, and read the whole Bible.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 10, 2011 11:22 pm

    I wonder why she doesn’t list the book on her “Work” page.

  2. September 11, 2011 6:12 pm

    Good question. Her translation is listed on her bio page of course, but I’d assume it was an editing webmaster who made the decisions for the works page. Hope to give Segal’s translation philosophy in a post here soon. It’s the last several paragraphs of her Preface.


  1. Lore Segal’s Bible translation philosophy and practice « BLT

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