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Nathan Englander’s and Jonathan Safran Foer’s “hyper-literal” Haggadah translation?

February 18, 2012

Fiction authors Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer are publishing a new translation of the traditional Passover liturgy, the Haggadah, entitled the New American Haggadah.  

(There are certainly hundreds, if not thousands of Haggados in print.  I hesitate to recommend one since there are so many good ones; but one Haggadah with interesting historical commentary is the Schechter Haggadah.)

I have not seen the new Englander-Foer Haggadah yet (Amazon reports it will be published March 5th) but Nathan Englander is on the radio talk-show circuit describing the translation as “hyper-literal.”  Here is a portion of what he said on one radio talk-show last week:

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, back with Nathan Englander. His collection of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, draws on his experiences growing up in an Orthodox Jewish family neighborhood and school in Long Island.

As a young man, he moved to Israel, where he quickly gave up on organized religion. So it’s kind of surprising that he spent the past two years doing a new translation of the traditional Jewish text, the Haggadah. His translation called the New American Haggadah, was edited by his friend, the writer Jonathan Safran Foer, and will be published next month.

I’ll let Nathan Englander describe what the Haggadah is.

ENGLANDER: It’s the story of Exodus. And every year on Passover, when the, you know, we all know the Red Sea getting split and the 10 plagues and all that stuff, as Jonathan Foer, who is the editor of it keeps saying, it’s, you know, probably the most popular story around. But yes, so it’s a way to commemorate the Jews, you know, freedom from slavery.

GROSS: And it’s basically a, you know, a book that is read during the Passover Seder, the dinner or it’s right before the dinner.


GROSS: Dinner’s very late.

ENGLANDER: Yeah. I was going to say, it’s the Jews like to eat – if your audience doesn’t know that – and it is the dinner with the biggest buildup of the year, I have to say. But…

GROSS: And it’s also – so you have a new translation and the book is called the New American Haggadah. It’s about to be published.


GROSS: The editor is Jonathan Safran Foer, who I think initiated the project.


GROSS: You did the translation. And I’m sure our listeners, who heard the beginning of this interview, are thinking why did they choose this guy? This guy used to be Orthodox then he became really secular. He rebelled against religion. So who is he to be translating a very important religious text? So why you?

ENGLANDER: I have to say that I was going to say and Jonathan’s, you know, I’ve been working on the translation for three years. I think Jonathan has been working on this project for six. But I think it’s just, I don’t think anybody else could’ve talked me into it. He really sort of knows how my synapses fire, he’s got a good read on my brain, but it was I thought it was a really bad choice on his part as well. You know, my point is, I’ve never translated before, I’ve left religion, everything you’ve said and, you know, he just made it clear – he just had a vision for this book and he really wanted me to translate it. And he just made it clear that it would be something that we’d really be proud of at the end. He was really adamant about that. And I have to say, it’s informed my writing. It’s changed the way I think. And I am having the book here, I’m really thankful for it. And it ended up being, I thought it would be, I was going, you know, I thought it would be this hipster Haggadah and take me six weeks; I have been working on it for three years.

GROSS: What language did you translate from?

ENGLANDER: Oh, well, this is the point I thought also, you know, I speak Hebrew and I’m very familiar with this text. And I, you know, so that’s it. I had the religious education and then I lived in Israel for all those years, so I’ve got old Hebrew and I’ve got old Hebrew and new Hebrew. So, yeah, it’s translated from the Hebrew and Aramaic. It’s translated from primary sources.

GROSS: And what was your ambition? What did you think needed changing? I mean why do we need a new Haggadah?

ENGLANDER: We need new Haggados and they’ll be endless. It’s sort of I think out all the traditional Jewish documents, it’s the one that’s most living. People – there’s, you know, there’s an Armed Forces Haggadah and an Alcoholics Anonymous Haggadah and an LGBT Haggadah. There are Haggadahs for everything. Some families make them new every year. People, it’s a really wonderful living document. And, you know, even Jonathan’s choice of the New American Haggadah, they’re always have a place. A very legendary one is the Sarajevo Haggadah. They’re just constantly made throughout time and he felt it was time for a new one.

But about what made the decision for me to translate it? It was really clear when I went back to think about it and look at texts, you know I’ve always used the Hebrew side of the Maxwell House, which is a really great liturgy, that is a very traditional great liturgy. The point is, I had never really looked at the English and, you know, what committed me to it is that back to loving texts, which is, the Haggadah, you should literally read it and weep. It is so beautiful. It is just such a moving document to me. And I looked at – I guess I’m always a naive, you know, back to living in Israel it’s when I think I understood that governments were run by actual people. I thought presidents and prime ministers knew more. There were these great moments and I just didn’t understand, oh my God, translators are people too, they’re human beings. I just didn’t understand that, even as someone who writes books but about religious texts. You know, that people were making decisions, you’re always making decision. And the line that I can tell you is that really clinched it for me is in Hebrew, it says, you know, “HaMavdil Bein Kodesh l’Kodesh.”  And in English it was translated, which is what it means, :to differentiate between the Sabbath and the holiday.” But in Hebrew what it says is, you know, “to differentiate between holy and holy.”

And I was like someone made this decision to for clarity and understanding. It means between these two days. But to me the poetry, the metaphysical space, the space between “holy” and “holy,” for that to not be there in the English was just, it made me understand that I wanted to do, you know, it turned it from this what I thought would be a six-week project into me working with a study partner head-to-head. It’s called Havrusa style, face-to-face, we studied. You know, I don’t even want, my girlfriend says we can’t have a Mezuzah on the door but I have to come home to you with the Talmuds and haggados piled to the ceiling arguing. You know, it was like living in a study hall for her. But, yeah.

GROSS: So I’d like you to choose a passage from the New American Haggadah, which you translated. That you’re, a passage that you think is particularly beautiful.

ENGLANDER: Oh sure. My pleasure.

GROSS: And after you read it, maybe you could tell us what you changed and why you changed it from the translations that you were familiar with.

ENGLANDER: Super. This is actually – this is not just – this is from Nishmas kol chai, which is not just in the Haggadah, but it’s considered a very beautiful Hebrew passage. And so give all credit to the original.

Were our mouths were filled with a singing like the sea, and our tongues awash with song, as waves-countless, and our lips to lauding, as the skies are wide, and our eyes illumined like the sun and the moon, and our hands spread out like the eagles of heaven, and our feet as fleet as fawns. Still, we would not suffice in thanking you, lord God of us and God of our fathers, in blessing your name for even one of a thousand, thousand, from the thousands of thousands and the ten thousandss of ten thousands of times you did good turns for our fathers and for us.

GROSS: So in your translation, how different is that from ones that you knew?

ENGLANDER: I was going to say that, you know, there’s maybe – first of all, I didn’t know any and that’s the point. I literally, you know, it’s just from the Hebrew. That’s it. I have no familiarity with translation except for, you know, during the project, you know, after it’s finished, may be looking to see it, you know, other stuff. So, but yeah, so yeah, it is – sorry, I know I’m stuttering through, it seems a strange thing to say, but yes, the English is simply unfamiliar to me.

GROSS: […] Now you use the term in your translation in referring to God to “king of the cosmos.” Now I can’t say that I remember hearing the word cosmos in any services or prayers…


GROSS: …and or in the Bible. I mean not that I’d necessarily know.


GROSS: But it seems to me an interesting choice. I think I’ve heard like “king of the universe” but “cosmos”? So tell us about choosing the word “cosmos.”

ENGLANDER: You are such a generous reader, as I know both as a listener, but here I am. But, thank you. You know what? It’s been so long it just becomes part of you, these projects, but I guess I hadn’t thought about it. Those choices were the most wrestled over. You know, it’s maybe that one and also God of us for “Elokeinu.”

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

ENGLANDER: You know, it’s just, it’s always “our God.” So it’s always this idea, I think back to language, the things we don’t hear anymore. You know, it’s something like “friendly fire” or something, these things that are very loaded and they have meaning and you know the meaning, that’s how we get through life in a speedy fashion. You know, words have meanings and we already have them at the ready and we move through them. And I thought people say these things in English and I think they’re forgetting what they’re saying and it, you know, it means the world to me that you asked that question because that’s the point. You know, because you say, you read past it. But that’s what it’s saying, you know, “of the cosmos” and it makes you think and that’s it. And that was really it.

I think maybe the most dangerous choice in the whole book was “God of us” instead of “our God” because we say “our God, our God.” It’s not our God that we own like our God, our TiVo, or our lunchbox. You know what I’m saying? God, it’s, you know, it’s “our God” means “the God over us” and I really thought about that a ton, and I think that’s, you know, I’ll see how people respond. But to me, I wanted people to be thinking about what they’re saying.

If you are, you know, a lot of people – that’s the weirdest – again, this choice of me doing it. But I could not take it seriously. And Jon, I thought we were going to be ironical and sassy, you know, sassy guys. But the point is we ended up taking it so deeply seriously and I, you know, and I just felt people are going to be – because I speak the Hebrew I just always assumed have people the same knowledge base as me. I suddenly thought my God, people are going to be praying from this sincerely and I owe, you know, I owe them a debt. I better think.

GROSS: So why “cosmos” and not “universe” or “all”?

ENGLANDER: It’s – I was going to say we need a whiteboard or something. These, I can’t even tell you how many hours of arguing for things like that. But again, I think because it did make you think, A. And I think because to me, you know, just really looking at the Hebrew and thinking about what that word means and just thinking it encompassed the cosmos. And also even that, the biggest point of translation is choice. Every word you’re choosing rhythm, clarity, communication, meaning, intent. And I think maybe, you know, even that one can be feel of king of the cosmos does it justice.

GROSS: Now one of the times you used “king of the cosmos.” I’m going to do the larger reading there. Like “you are blessed, lord God of us, king of the cosmos, God, our father, our kind, our majesty, our creator, our redeemer, our shepherd, shepherd of Israel, the good king who makes good for all.”

You know, when you read something like that – when I read something like that, part of me wonders does God need to be praised that much? Like, why is there so much praise for God? Is it just a kind of thanksgiving for life, thanksgiving for, you know, whatever it is, that animating force that we call God?


GROSS: Or is God like this egotist and we need to say, hey, man, you’re number one. You are great. You are the God of all – do you know what I mean?

ENGLANDER: Yes. I was going to say I am going to answer that question for you now but I’m sure you’ll get a bunch of emails answering it for you. But I guess this is the point of also, you know, of doing a translation of what you hear in Hebrew, exactly that it’s not cloying – that’s the point of wanting to make it sound the way it sounds in my head which to me is very beautiful.

Right? There can be over-cloying thanks. You know, that’s what we—right? Nobody wants that. Nobody even enjoys it when they get it. It’s often just acknowledging a power structure. I know what you’re saying where, like, you know, someone gives you a job. Oh, thank you. You saved my life. This is the best. You know, it’s over the top and trust me, I’m an over the top thanker.

So I know what you’re saying. But I guess I find this – you know what? This is about freedom from slavery. This is about being redeemed. This is about getting your homeland that was, you know, promised to you. This is about return. It’s actually – it is a deeply sincere text. I think it is truly thanking God for the food that we are eating, for the freedom that we have, for the, you know, for the family around us.

You know what I can tell you? This is so personal and will, you know, probably make my family cry but, you know, I remember – my brother-in-law – as I said, I’m like fourth or fifth generation and sitting there with my sister’s husband, you know, his father is an Auschwitz survivor. And, you know, he – and sitting there with him, I remember one Seder with his family.

I don’t know if they’ll remember it but this is when we all became one family. But sitting there – this is also probably, you know, fifteen years ago or more. You know, fifteen or twenty years ago. But all of us sitting together and just seeing this guy. That’s what makes it a living document. He sat there and he looked at the table and he started to cry.

And he said I have been a slave. And I thought about it. I said this man was in Auschwitz. I don’t know if I’ve ever met – he literally had been a slave and that freedom, there’s a lot of thanks for survival and freedom that goes into that.

GROSS: […] The Haggadah tells the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, a story that if you don’t know the Bible, maybe you know from the movie The Ten Commandments.

ENGLANDER: Which is awesome.

GROSS: Do you like that movie?

ENGLANDER: Who does not love that movie? That and The Wizard of Oz, you know, for those of us, you know, before TiVo and all that stuff and on demand. Those were big watches for the year, were Ten Commandments and Wizard of Oz.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Which I don’t know if they still do it, but they used to show it, like, every year on either Easter or Passover.


GROSS: Yeah. So one of the most famous parts of that story is when God inflicts the ten plagues on the Egyptians who have enslaved the Jews. So I would like to have you read some of that from your new translation. And then we’ll talk about it.

ENGLANDER: With pleasure. Here are the ten plagues. Everybody dip your fingers at home. “Blood, frogs, lice, a maelstrom of beasts, pestilence, boils, and hail full of fire, locusts, a clotted darkness too thick to pass, a killing of the firstborn.”

GROSS: That’s some scary stuff. “Hail full of fire”? Not just “darkness” but “a clotted darkness” – that’s C-L-O-T-T-E-D. So have you gone back to English translations? I should’ve brought one so I can compare it.

ENGLANDER: Oh. This? I was going to say, you would make an excellent rabbinical student. You sort of picked out – as I said, it’s a hyper-literal translation. There are a few chances I took in this translation and that was one of them because I thought about this section is for – it’s for adults but it’s also really for children.

I think that’s, you know, aside from, you know, hunting for the Afikomen, I think this is a huge, huge part of the Seder for children and as orthodox children we were taught – we were not, you know, yes, you’re saying them at the Seder but you’re taught this stuff in school and at shul and the ideas – we were always told, yes, the hail came but it wasn’t just hail, it was a ball of ice with…

It was fire and ice living together. There was a fiery center. Or when God made it dark it wasn’t dark, it was so thick that you couldn’t even move. Everybody was – if you were walking in the street you were frozen. And I thought when I heard those words, back to translation, if you’re asking me to be translator when I hear hail that’s what I see. When I hear darkness that’s what it means. And I decided to commit to that for the translation.

GROSS: So you’re saying this wasn’t a literal translation; this was your understanding of it?

ENGLANDER: The whole translation is hyper-literal and this one instance is what it literally means to me.

GROSS: You are no longer an observant Jew. Will you have a Seder and use your own Haggadah this year?

ENGLANDER: I was – Jonathan and I were joking about this. We’re like if we don’t find our Haggados at the Seder people are going to be in trouble. But, you know, at least our families can use them. But, yeah, I have to say of all the holidays, I really don’t do anything. I really do go to – if I can get to my family I get there or I’ve been going to a friend’s the last few years.

But, yeah, I do do the Seder every year. I really – I was going to say I don’t know if I’m softening or finding comfort or some different – my point is, it’s OK to live in conflict with yourself. That’s a nice thing that I’ve discovered. It’s OK for me to be really secular. That’s the idea, you know, people can just, you know, I’m trying to calm down.

The point is I really enjoy that holiday and, yes, I go to a Seder every year and I, you know, drive there and a keep a house full of bread and all that stuff. But I really do enjoy that meal and this book.

GROSS: What were your Seders like as a child?

ENGLANDER: As you say that, actually, it’s really rare for me to have a brain that only records – I can never remember. I only retain negative memories. It helps with my worldview.

But I can literally be like – you know, my girlfriend Becky, you were never happy in childhood? I’m like not that I recall. You know, when I see a picture of me smiling or my mother – I sort of can’t remember being happy but it’s – my grandparent’s house was happy to me. And I think, yeah, I do remember the Seders.

It’s also the idea of the work behind – you know what? What I remember more it’s the switching of dishes. You have to switch your dishes, and this idea, you know, the Old Country stuff that comes over, the dishes that survive. But it’s getting, you know, these boxes of China. You know, we ate on Corningware like everybody else did then. Good white plates that you could drop down the stairs and they’d bounce back up.

You know, but this idea, suddenly delicate plates would come up from the basement and these big sort of 1920s spoons. And really remember the stuff of it and the switching of the house. I mean, it is such a huge deal getting the house ready. I mean, it’s really obsessive, the hunt for, you know, bread.

GROSS: Well, Nathan Englander, thank you so much for talking with us.

ENGLANDER: This has been a great pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 18, 2012 11:23 pm

    You know, my point is, I’ve never translated before, I’ve left religion, everything you’ve said and, you know, he [Foer] just made it clear – he just had a vision for this book and he really wanted me to translate it. And he just made it clear that it would be something that we’d really be proud of at the end. He was really adamant about that. And I have to say, it’s informed my writing. It’s changed the way I think.

    Given Englander’s inability to articulate what he is doing, and what he thinks he means by “literal” and then by “hyper-literal,” I find him somewhat to be a real-life version of Foer’s character Alexander “Alex” Perchov in Everything is Illuminated. And I find Foer’s own explanation of this Haggadah translation project to be much clearer. (In that way, the real-life Foer becomes like his fictional character, the protagonist “Jonathan Safran Foer,” of Everything is Illuminated.)

    Here’s what Foer is asked and how he answers:

    Do we need another postmodern version of the Haggadah? And if we do, why is Foer—a fiction writer who is not observant, who does not go to synagogue and who describes himself “as skeptical as most New York Jews of organized religion” — the man for the job?

    Because according to him, most Haggadot out there lack the imaginative punch to achieve what Passover ideally should: to inspire people toward a greater commitment for social change.

    “We talk about slavery every year,” Foer said. “We talk about the movement toward freedom every year. But when was the last time a Seder made you really feel those things in a deep way — when you said, ‘I want to become more active, say, in stopping what’s going on in Darfur’? Because if that’s not an example of a situation that needs this movement toward freedom, nothing is. Or, ‘I need to work harder to make mylife more energy independent,’ because we are slaves to energy right now.”

    “Passover is the jewel in the crown” of Judaism, Foer said, arguing that we don’t hold “capital J” Jewish books like the Haggadah to the same literary standards as “lowercase j” books, like a Philip Roth novel, when we should.

    “There’s no reason we can’t make this book as good,” he said. “The themes are so important, so relevant, so exciting. The stories — everybody knows the stories, [from] the 10 plagues to the parting of the Red Sea. They have so much resonance, and this is an opportunity for artists to do something with them. The Haggadah begs us to make it new.”

    What will “new” mean? After all, 60% of the book is composed of codified rites and prayers that cannot be changed. That leaves 40% for Foer — and the 20 or so artists, photographers, designers and commentators who are collaborating with him — to produce not only a more challenging text but also a physically “beautiful book with awesome artwork, not little kitschy scribbles like so many Haggadahs.” Poverty and violence in Africa, environment and our impact on climate change at home: These are a few themes that Foer intends to discuss, giving bulk to the margins of the book. “You do a Seder at your house, it is family, it is conversation,” he said, “so the best Haggadah would be the one that stimulates the best conversation.”

    I’m not doing this as a quest to get closer to my identity. I’m doing it because I think it’s an incredible piece of art and [because] of all the issues in our world that can be seen through the lens of slavery and this movement toward freedom. The holiday is unimportant unless people end it thinking, ‘I need to bring the story into my life.’”

    “Why would he harden his heart, especially when all the Egyptians are going to have to suffer for what the Pharaoh decides?” Foer asked. “Or, that we have a God that is so vengeful he kills all the firstborn Egyptians. All of the firstborn? Were there no good Egyptians? And do we really want to kill babies? You’re constantly coming up against these things that challenge your sense of what’s right and what’s wrong — but that’s good, having to talk about them, having to make sense of them.”

    “If nothing else, my family will use it,” he said, laughing. “They’d better.”

    Michael Levitin heard Foer speak and published the above March 23, 2007.

  2. February 19, 2012 12:35 pm

    Yes, the similarity between Englander and Perchov is somewhat startling. In Englander’s defense, this was a transcript of an oral interview, and most often those end up looking like dialogue from David Mamet. Englander reminds me, in his choice of being a writer despite being inarticulate, of David Foster Wallace or Jack Kerouac.

    Nonetheless, despite Englander’s inability to speak clearly, I think that his description of his translation philosophy is more interesting than Foer’s quotation describing his vision of a liberal hagaddah. There are at least dozens of liberal haggados (same with mystical haggados) and it is unclear to me from Foer’s description what he thinks the New American Hagaddah will bring that is “new” to the table.

    But I’m going to reserve judgment, favorable or unfavorable, until I have a chance to read this book. I want to see if it is any good or not.


  1. Nathan Englander’s and Jonathan Safran Foer’s “hyper-literal” Haggadah translation? « BLT | Gaudete Theology
  2. Nathan Englander’s Haggadah redux « BLT

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