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Lore Segal’s Bible translation philosophy and practice

September 12, 2011

“A shining gift…. Mr. Baskin’s mysterious and brooding illustrations are a wonderful addition to Ms. Segal’s text.” — New York Times

“As close to the tone and cadences of the original Hebrew as English will ever come.” — Cynthia Ozick


It’s no surprise, given her Bible translation philosophy and practice, that Lore Segal teamed up with illustrator Leonard Baskin for The Book of Adam to Moses.  His illustrations for the work are not just mysterious and brooding and wonderful, as the New York Times reviewer observed; but they are also for the most part drawings of faces, human and sometimes divine, and are always untitled.  Segal makes no effort to give captions for the illustrations either.  (As you can see, below, the book sections at the top of the pages give the only clue as to what the drawing might be some sort of specified reference for.)

There’s an expectation from Segal as translator that the Bible reader, the one also gazing on Baskin’s representations, will do some of the work too.  Segal and Baskin mean for their readers really to do things.  Not everything is always spelled out or explained.  As already noted in another blog post here, Segal has said, “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.”  When you read her translation, nonetheless, as Cynthia Ozick does, then you see how it’s just “some of the repetition,” only just some of the tone and cadences of the original Hebrew Bible, that Segal sacrifices.  Her effect of just sacrificing some is that you and I, readers, work for more, for the whole.

Below, I’ll provide a few passages of Segal’s English for your enjoyment.  First, here’s the rest of how she shares her translation method, from the book’s Preface.

In the third century B.C.E the Torah was translated into the Greek version called the Septuagint, meaning seventy.  Legend says that seventy-two scholars sat in seventy-two cells and came out on the seventy-second day with seventy-two identical translations of the sacred text.

We are not so blessed.  My method was to compare old and new English and German versions, taking advantage of the sophisticated modern scholarship of The Torah, A Modern Commentary, as well as the poetry of the seventeenth-century King James Bible, translated by a convocation of scholars who had the language of Shakespeare at their service.  One of my two German sources was Luther’s magnificent sixteenth-century translation; it is said to have changed the German language.  The other was the beautiful translations Marin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig began in the first decades of our century by returning to the original Hebrew.

Howard Nemerov has defined poetry as “getting something right in language.”  Translation wants to take something that is right in one language and get it right in another.  This translator wanted to perfectly render the ancient texts into perfect current English that feels inevitable, sans antique or antique vocabulary, without forced or fancy-dress syntax.  Translators are like children on New Year’s Day:  This time we will be perfect.  But before we reach the end of the second sentence we remember — there are no synonyms; no word precisely overlaps any other.  And edge of meaning has got lost, a shade not in the original has accrued.  Or if the meaning is exact, there’s a missing resonance or an unwanted pun, a smidgen too much or too little weight, the wallop of slang the original doesn’t recognize.  Or we’ve got one syllable too many!  The rhyme is ruined!

What is more, our Bible speaks out of a world of which we are mainly ignorant.  When childless Sarah offers her slave girl as surrogate mother to bear Abraham a child, might we sneak it into the text that it was the custom?  No.  We may not sneak.  And we have made a covenant with ourselves to leave the mysteries alone:  Do two or three men or angels visit Abraham in his tent?

And there are words that denote experience we do not have.  When Rebekah “enquired of the Lord” why the twins struggled in her womb, she engaged in a dialogue of a sort the heavens no longer vouchsafe us.  She can’t be translated to be praying to the Lord not asking nor consulting, questioning, interrogating, pumping, or sounding Him our.  No thesaurus will bind us the right verb for an activity of which we have no exact concept.  Why not just put that she “enquired”?  Because Modern English does not let us say so.

Or, how do we translate the word the King James text renders as “behold,” Luther as siehe?  Some moderns translate “look.”  “Look” will do — thought we are more likely to say “listen” when one human wants another to pay attention.  But “look” does not feel right when it occurs in a dialogue between God and man, in either direction.  Why not leave it out, then, since it adds nothing to content?  Because we would lose a looseness in the rhythm, the sense of presence, of connectedness between the divine and the human having a conversation.

And so one broods over each recurrence of each problem and keeps trying it this way and that, unable, ever, entirely, to abandon hope of, sooner or later, getting it exactly right.

And finally, I have retained the “and . . . and” construction though it may irritate the modern ear, which expects to hear “when . . . then.”  A footnote in Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative explains to me my own instinct in this matter: statements connected by “and” have equal value, whereas clauses beginning with “whereas,” “when,” “because,” “although” not only subordinate one to another but specify their logical relationship in a way the Bible generally does not.  Why should we be wiser?

Lore Segal

Here are some excerpts (and I myself am interested in these particular passages given Baskin’s untitled and uncaptioned face drawings and Segal’s emphasis on how the Bible illustrates by and through “the rhythm, the sense of presence, of connectedness between the divine and the human having a conversation”):

And God said, Let Us make man in Our image, in Our own likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the heavens, and over the cattle on the earth and over the wild animals and over every thing that creeps on the ground.

So God created man in His own image, in the likeness of God He created him, male and female he created them.


And the Lord God made all the beasts on the earth and all the birds in the heavens and He brought them to Adam to see what he would call them, and whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name.  But for Adam there was no companion to be with him.

And the Lord God let a deep sleep fall upon Adam.  Adam slept, and God took one of his ribs and closed up the place with his flesh, and out of the rib the Lord God formed a woman, and brought her to the man.

Adam said, This is she who is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.  She shall be called wo-man becuase she was taken out of man.  That is why a man leaves his father and his mother and becomes one flesh with his wife.

And Adam named the woman Eve, meaning Life Giver, and she because the mother of all who are alive.

And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.


And Adam lay with his wife and she bore a son and called his name Seth, meaning God has given me another child instead of Abel, whom Cain slew.


And Jacob called the place Peniel, meaning I have seen God face to face, and yet my life was saved!

And the sun rose above Jacob as he passed Peniel, limping because of his hip.  


Jacob said, No, indeed!  Show me your favor and accept these presents from my hands, because I have looked at your face as if it were the face of the Lord and you have been gracious to me.  Accept these presents God has been so gracious as to give me!  I have more than enough. 


And Moses took up his tent and pitched it at a distance from the camp and called it the Tent of the Congregation.  Whoever wanted to ask the Lord’s counsel went out to the tent.  Whenever Moses left the camp, the people came and stood at the doors of their tents and watched him until he entered the tent and the pillar of cloud came down and stood at the door, and the Lord spoke with Moses, face to face, like a man speaking with his friend.

Moses said to the Lord, Look, Lord, You have told me to lead this people, but You don’t say whom You will send to go with me.

The Lord said, It is My Presence that will go before you.  It will lighten your burden.

Moses said, Never let us leave this place unless Your Presence goes before us.  What distinguishes us from every other people on the face of the earth is only Your Presence in our midst!

The Lord said, I will do what you ask Me to do, because you have found favor in My eyes, and I call you by your name.

Moses said, Lord, let me look upon the glory of Your Presence!

And He answered:  I will let My goodness pass before your eyes and I will proclaim to you the name of the Lord.  I show My favor to whom I show My favor, and My mercy to whom I show My mercy.  And He said, You may not see My face.  No man may see Me and live.  And He said, Look!  Here is a place, by Me.  Stand on this rock and when My glory passes by you, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand till I have passed.  And I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back, but My face may not be seen.


And Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there, in the land of Moab.  He was one hundred and twenty years old, yet his eyes had not failed and his strength had not failed.  Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days.  And no one to this day knows where he is buried.  Never has there risen another prophet in Israel like Moses, with whom the Lord spoke mouth to mouth, like a man speaking to his friend.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 12, 2011 8:40 pm

    Thanks so much for this post. To be honest, after reading your excerpts, I’m not so certain that I am enthusiastic about Segal’s translation. However, your photos got me excited — the Leonard Baskin illustrations look quite exceptional. So I ordered the book.

    I also enjoyed reading Mary Gordon’s review in the New York Times of this book. One of Gordon’s comments upset me considerably, though: “Certain of the crueler stories have been mercifully excised. Ms. Segal has, for example, kindly blipped out the incident of Zipporah’s circumcising her son and spreading his blood onto Moses, his father, so that the Lord might not kill Moses.”

    I cannot support bowdlerization of the text — if there were some scholarly reason for omitting a story (e.g., a translator believed it was a later addition), I could understand it, but simply omitting a story because it is too violent strikes me as betraying the text. (And really, this passage is hardly worse than the bawdy humor of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, or the violent passages in Alexandre Dumas, or any of a variety of other literature which is commonly thought of being acceptable for young people.)

    Incidentally, one of the books that Segal claims she relied on is the first edition of this Bamberger/Hallo/Plaut volume. I remember reading this volume when it came out, and it having a profound effect on me. This became one of two major Chumashim of the Union for Reform Judaism (formerly Union of American Hebrew Congregations), the other being the Eskanazi/Weiss The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary. Maybe someday I’ll post something about these volumes.

  2. September 13, 2011 7:35 am

    Yes, you’re right that the bowdlerization of the Bible in the name of scholarship or even to hide from young and innocent eyes the terrors of the text must be questioned. I’m not sure, however, these are reasons that guided Ms. Segal’s choices for selecting the passages she did for children. “When childless Sarah offers her slave girl as surrogate mother to bear Abraham a child, might we sneak it into the text that it was the custom? No. We may not sneak.”

    What she does include, of course, as part and parcel of the Bible (especially the part she chooses to include in The Book of Adam to Moses) is how it reads to all especially children. She agonizes over having to sacrifice but claims her motivation is arrogance in the hope that she can render English as if ancient Hebrew and yet modern. She does know children’s language and good storytelling and knows that children do and must read the Hebrew Bible. As Mary Gordon points out, it seems, Segal is not acquiescing to Allan Bloom’s pushy wet nose; there’s no pressure or anxiety about getting children to read for the sake of slipping and sliding cultural literacy. Segal in her preface acknowledges how the Greek strain has been lost from the schools in America; so does Gordon in her review. So it’s something much more that she’s up to, very likely. Her project, like the Genesis of Everett Fox which he had only just begun when she was translating, and like Willis Barnstone’s Restored New Testament which began much later and book at a time in fragments, has the goal of Nemerov’s poetry: getting something right in language.

    Segal’s attempt is much different from the similar and early children’s bible by Pearl S. Buck, much more comprehensive in scope and yet still quite selective. I guess I may too much judge the one against the other and like Buck’s The Story Bible less for its lack of poetry. Her aim seems to be to recreate a volume that was her introduction to and way into the bible, as the child of American Christian evangelical missionaries in China:

    “The Bible . . . may be read in many ways. For some it constitutes divine teaching, and it does contain that element. For others it is the purest literature we have in the English language. For still others it is a compendium of information on suffering, struggling, rejoicing human nature. For children, it is a story book. May they read it as I read it long ago in a Chinese house on a Chinese hillside!”

  3. September 13, 2011 8:11 am

    I have not read Pearl Buck’s Bible. But I am a huge fan of 水滸傳 (Water Margin); I own reproductions of Hokusai’s woodblock prints illustrating the story and I own several original copies of Kuniyoshi’s woodblock prints of the heroes of the stories.

    I have read the Chinese original, a Japanese translation, a manga adaption, and four four English translations of 水滸傳 (and several movie adaptions to boot!) Of the four English translations, Pearl Buck’s (All Men Are Brother’s) is by far the worst — departing the most from the original spirit and text. While I appreciate Pearl Buck’s role in history, and her remarkable personal story, I just don’t think she is a very good translator — she injects too much of herself into that translation.

  4. September 19, 2011 6:26 pm

    My copy of Segal’s book arrived today. I had not realized how abridged it was from the reviews — it is really more of a “great stories from the Torah” than a translation of the Torah.

    I wonder who her intended audience was. On the one hand, she uses some complex grammar and vocabulary, so it seems to be addressed to more of an adult audience — although in other ways, it looks like a children’s book. (Not that it matters — arguably the best children’s books are adult books, and sometimes vice versa. I still read my copies of Alice in Wonderland and Flatland — both Victorian “children’s books” on at least an annual basis.)

  5. September 19, 2011 6:34 pm

    Well, I probably should have said in the post how I’ve always read it as a children’s book, comparing it with something not too different in intention from what Pearl S. Buck produced. Nonetheless, Segal’s Preface makes some sophisticated observations about translation. And her introduction serves almost as an apology for having to make selective choices when tracing the biblical narrative. When reading Segal’s and Baskin’s book to and then with my children, I did and we all did gain from it that expressed intention “to run, afterward, and read the whole Bible.”

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