David Rosenberg, former editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society, has been at work translating the Hebrew Bible for several decades, endeavoring to restore the literary authorship of its diverse books as well as their respective cultures. His efforts have earned him praise from a wide range of poets, critics, and biblical scholars, from Donald Hall to Andrei Codrescu, Anthony Burgess to Walter Bruegemann. His past books include New York Times bestseller The Book of J, with Harold Bloom, The Poet’s Bible, and his biography of Abraham, Abraham: the First Historical Biography.
His most recently published translation, A Literary Bible (Counterpoint, $35), compiles much of the Hebrew Bible in the distinct voices reflected in the original texts, rather than the homogenized versions expected from contemporary translations. His version, while still contemporary in speech, retains the diction of poetry, as in the following passage, from Ecclesiastes:
ECCLESIASTES XIII (6:10)
Anything that has a beginning
was seed in the pot
planted before existence
and named by men
as it flowed into the world
man is also a kind of flower
whose growth is defined
and all that flows from his hands
and with our own little names
we can’t argue with our creator
a name that’s boundless
like death which takes back our names
and gives them to the living
the more words we use
the more bricks for the mausoleum
building castles in the air
that are ancient relics
the moment we exhale
passed on to ignorant children
when we die
they prefer sand castles
and when the tide comes in they will not cry
but watch fascinated
no better or worse
than all preceding men
what the right thing to do is
with a life
that walks across a stage
in a bathing costume of flesh
until night falls like a gown
over a beautiful woman
who sleeps alone
only our shadows remain
on the shore of the life
our blood flowed to
and suddenly they too are gone
as the sun again rises
piercing all wishes and dreams
and romances of the future
with the bones of light
we are stripped awake leaving
a shadow on the shore
that had not seen its own body.
In addition to the literature itself, Rosenberg’s Bible includes his own notes on authorship, cultural context, and the translation process. His next book, a dual biography of Moses and Jesus, An Educated Man (Counterpoint, $26), will be published on 13 January 2010.
We spoke on the phone, while Rosenberg was at his home near the Florida Everglades, and he graciously conversed beyond our scheduled appointment time. His enthusiasm for the subject was contagious. In later correspondence, he directed me to a recent review by Frank Kermode, from the New York Times, which declares his effort a success, comparing it to a wrestling match from which he “emerges with honor.” From our conversation below, I agree with Kermode that Rosenberg is a competent wrestler, brave to invite others to engage and struggle with the texts as he has.
Thank you so much for agreeing to speak with me.
With all of the current English translations of the Bible available, what do you think is the need for a literary translation, and what does your version have to offer that others don’t?
Okay. Let me first ask you, what is your name? Sydney?
Wow, that’s neat. Well, what do your friends call you for short?
Let me call you Syd.
Let me answer your first question. It’s hard to answer that in one word, isn’t it?
Yeah, it definitely is. I have some more specific questions.
I can answer in one word though. Yes.
You know what, it really is an important thing to answer but it might be easier to do in the context of what else you have to ask me. Let’s table this one and go on to the next question.
Okay. The next few are similar but I’ll go ahead and ask them and you can answer as you like. If the Bible has always been a literary book, how and when did its readers begin to consider it a non-literary text, and do you see your translation as more or less true to the original text and the authors’ intentions?
Imagine that an editor 500 years from now, from today, puts together three canonical English masterpieces of our time. Not just of our time, but of the English language. Say Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Prelude by Wordsworth, and Joyce’s Ulysses. And he puts them together to create a single text about the subject of human character. Now the editor doesn’t know who the authors were because this is 500 years later and a war has wiped out half the British Isles. So he assumes it’s all one text just like the Bible.
So when people read the Bible now, which is 3000 years after the first parts were written, they don’t recognize the differences in the authors’ styles. Just like they can’t tell Joyce from Shakespeare 500 years from now. So then the question is, So what’s the big deal? What’s the loss? If you can’t tell Joyce from Shakespeare, you have lost the magic of Shakespeare and you’ve lost the genius of Joyce. It’s all homogenized, as if the whole text was written by primitives. Because 500 years from now, we’ll probably seem rather primitive. Now that’s the way most translations of the Bible are done today, as if it’s a primitive text. It’s all homogenized. All the authors are erased. You can’t tell Shakespeare from Joyce or anybody else. That is why it was so important for me.
Starting 40 years ago, when I was really young, I realized that you have to get back to the authors who have been erased and you have to ask yourself, Why? Why were they erased? And that answers your second question, When were they erased? When religion became so strong that it forgot how texts were written. It forgot the original Hebrew culture and the authors’ names who created them. This was only three or four centuries later, way back in BCE. But that’s what happened, and I’m just giving you an example of how it happens. It’s just as if Britain were to disappear 500 years from now—that’s what happened to Israel because it was overrun by the Assyrians 200 years after the early Bible was written.
So, did I answer your question?
Yes, you did.
It seems like a lot of translators today, because the Bible is read on a wide scale, are more concerned with accessibility than the true intention of the text.
Right. And I’m talking about even the latest translations. Let me address this like this. I checked your website and I saw you had an exchange with Robert Crumb on his cartoon version of Genesis. Have you seen it?
Well, let me just deal with it that way. Because I’m the same age as Crumb—actually he’s just a year older than I am. So we come from the same generation. And although I think his drawing is excellent, it’s sad to me to see that he couldn’t take just a little time out to research the authorship of the text. He really doesn’t know anything about it. He accepts it as if it is primitive and simple minded. That’s the way he describes the biblical text, as primitive. He uses a very poor translation and that’s part of the problem. The translation that he uses is by a guy named Robert Alter, who translates it as a primitive text. Just the way I answered you in the beginning, his rhetoric is hi-falutin, yet his poetry is low-falutin. But in fact, the Bible is a complex and sophisticated text of layered poetry and poetic echoings. If you read it like it’s primitive, it is the exact same way a fundamentalist, who’s ignorant of history, reads it. You see what I mean?
I mean fundamentalists read it just the way it’s written, as if it’s a primitive text, and that’s just what R. Crumb did. It’s not all his fault because that’s the way Robert Alter translated it. And most translators translate it nowadays as if it is a primitive text.
I felt the same way about Crumb’s work. Actually you started to answer my next question about Robert Alter.
What were you going to ask?
I was going to ask you about this because Eliot Weinberger has written about Robert Alter’s version of the Psalms. He says that the King James Version has so influenced our poetic tradition that he doesn’t think it could be improved on. What do you think about that?
Very good you asked me that. Not only do I know of Eliot but I read his review of the Alter Psalms in the London Review of Books. So I know what we’re talking about. Actually, do you have a copy of my book, A Literary Bible?
Yes, I have it right next to me.
All right. In the section on Psalms there’s a little intro that is three pages long, and all you need to do is read that, because I give an example of Alter’s translations in it. I give an example of his translation and what I consider is the problem with it.
Here’s my answer to Weinberger. Everything can be improved upon, everything. Everything in the world can be improved upon, but it all depends on what your concept of improvement is. Many times people think things are improved. Someone might think they have improved on Shakespeare, but you and I would disagree, right? That’s the way it is. Improvement is absolutely an interpretive work. It really depends on your point of view. Now, I’m a lover of the King James Bible. I agree with Eliot. He wasn’t talking just about the King James, he was talking about many early English poets who also translated the Bible, like Sir Phillip Sidney, who you are half named after. He also translated some Psalms, and so did his sister, The Countess of Pembroke. In any case, I agree with Eliot Weinberger, I just don’t think he went far enough. He says in his review that he himself hasn’t had much experience in scholarship of the Bible. So that’s fair enough, but I would take it a little further. I would say this, The Psalms, like other parts of the Bible, are used by people in religious contexts in different ways. Sometimes they’re used in prayer, sometimes they’re used as liturgy, and sometimes they’re used in sermons. Follow me?
But that is not how they were written. In other words, let’s say a new religion comes about in the next century and 500 years from now they’re using Shakespeare as prayer. Actually, I think that would be rather neat. Wouldn’t you? But the point is that Shakespeare was not written to be prayer, was he?
Let’s say they took a few lines from Hamlet or took a few lines from Shakespeare’s sonnets and used them to pray with 500 years from now. I think that that could easily be the way it happened. And they forget who Shakespeare was. And the fact is, they forget who the poets were who actually wrote Psalms. Hundreds of poets wrote Psalms over many centuries.
They put it together in a book later. They erased all the names. Actually in the original books, they did keep some of the names, and then later the Jewish religion used them as a form of prayer. Then even later, the Christian religion quotes from the Psalms in the prayer book. And that’s how it happened. By that time, the Psalms don’t any longer have the feeling of real poetry, and unfortunately that’s the way Robert Alter translated it. He translates it just like the King James does, as if it’s prayer and not poetry. But there’s just one big difference between the King James and most other translations like Robert Alter’s, and that is that some poets were involved with the King James translation. The King James translation was made by a committee who went over it many times and several of the translators involved were pretty good poets in the Elizabethan times. You follow me?
It’s quite a difference from an academic like Alter, who is pretty deaf to what real poetry is.
So I hope that answers your question. I hope you don’t mind my analogy. I think people need them. They need to hear what it’s like to imagine something 500 years from now. Because the Bible is really old. I mean, 3000 years ago is a long time.
No, I think the analogies are really important. I came out of a religious tradition where it was very difficult to explain what you’re explaining right now to people who have grown up with the Bible, believing that it’s theirs and that they have a full understanding of it as it just as it is in their hands. So I think the analogies are very important.
Right. Exactly, I’m with you. I think it’s fine they use it as prayer. Like I said, I think it would be fine if they use Shakespeare as prayer. The problem is they shouldn’t forget who Shakespeare was.
Right. All right, well can we move now in a slightly different direction and just talk a little bit about your translating process?
Yeah, I think I could do that. I think I can take it from where we were. Because we were saying that the Bible is still a primitive text for most people, I want to explain what is wrong with that because that’s how I got really hooked into having to do something about it. Most of the Bible, the Hebrew Bible, was written before Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Homer is also very ancient. When you read Homer, does Homer the author believe in the gods or miracles that he describes happened to Odysseus? No, you don’t think he really believes in it. If he really believed in it, he couldn’t have written so dramatically. Understand what I’m saying?
Now it’s the same with Shakespeare. Let’s say you’re just a high school kid and you don’t know any better. You think, Does Shakespeare really believe in the ghost that is Hamlet’s father? Because he wrote a whole part for Hamlet’s father’s ghost and it’s not a joke, it’s a real character in the play. Right?
So did Shakespeare really believe in ghosts? And the answer is, I don’t think so. I think it’s fairly clear from all of his writings that he does not believe in ghosts. You can believe in the ghost while you read it. And the authors of the Bible believe in God and the creator of the universe that they represent while they’re writing it, but they don’t necessarily believe that literally. They are not literal minded because you can’t be a great writer if you’re literal minded. At least that’s what I suggest. I had to figure out for myself, in my life, what does this mean? If I don’t believe in God, how can I really get into the Bible? Or vice-versa. If I do believe in it, how can I ever translate the authors as dynamically as they need to be? See my problem?
It’s a problem that I had that I couldn’t talk to anybody about because everyone I knew either was a believer, or they weren’t believers and poo pooed all the rest of it. But it wasn’t for them to know whether I do or do not believe in Israel’s God. I wanted them to risk belief in their own reading, to risk how belief might stick to them after they put the book aside. That would be their problem, if they’re honest.
I was wondering if you think the differences in English and Hebrew—their actual structures and natures—may have contributed to the creation of many of the very “literal” English translations?
That’s a very astute question. Let me tell you why. The Hebrew is very different than the English. It’s very hard to approximate it because it is so much older. But let’s say you are a college student at an Israeli university today and you are perfectly fluent in Hebrew, and you read the Bible in Hebrew, even then you can still miss the richness of the dynamic history of the text. You can walk up to a person on the street who knows English, and you can give them Finnegan’s Wake to read. They can read it because it’s in English, but they won’t understand it. There’s no way they will understand it unless they’re one out of a thousand people who’s really with it.
It’s not just a language problem. It’s an interpretive problem. It’s understanding that the work is not literal and that it has many layers, that it has many levels, that it’s a work of art. A lot of people have a real problem imagining that the Bible is a work of art, but that’s what it is. And it’s a very complicated work of art because it was written by many different authors in different periods and it got all smushed together in later years.
Right. Well did you have anything specific in the actual translation process that caused you a lot of trouble? How did you deal with making your decisions?
Another good question that I have another provocative answer for. The fact is, the thing that always frustrated me was just how bad the translations are.
Even the King James is not very good. It’s homogenized. The difference is that it’s tremendously poetic. That’s why it’s our best. That’s what frustrated me. I wasn’t worried about certain words like scholars are. Scholars get all upset because they come across words that don’t seem to make sense—they can’t be sure whether there is a juxtaposition here, or what—those kinds of things. The problem is that most scholars just don’t understand poetry, except maybe in an academic textbook way.
Because if someone is reading Emily Dickinson and they don’t understand poetry, they’re going to say, Hey, the punctuation here is all wrong. Because Emily hardly ever used punctuation. When she did, it was often in a different way. So they are going to say, Oh, the punctuation’s all wrong. Or, The syntax is wrong. She doesn’t have a period here. And maybe Emily didn’t really write it, maybe her father wrote it. This is how ridiculous things can get when scholars get a hold of them if they don’t understand what poetry is really like.
So, I’ve always advocated that scholars should also study poetry—that they should try to be poets. But I’ve never met one. And neither has Elliot Weinberger.
That’s unfortunate. Did you go to any specific commentators or other translators for insight in your work?
Yes, of course. I spent years and years studying biblical literature in terms of modern scholarship. It’s called Higher Biblical Criticism. When I first discovered Higher Biblical Criticism, I thought that it was really neat. I imagined them all smoking joints and getting high, but then as soon as you start to read them it really brings you down.
It really brings you down fast because unfortunately they really should have been smoking something. The fact is that I did discover some who are really terrific and really great and really rare. The first one that I discovered, which changed my life, was a scholar by the name of Speiser. He translated Genesis and he wrote a commentary on Genesis that became the first book of a series called The Anchor Bible. The Anchor Bible consists of 79 books, one for each book of the Bible, and Speiser’s Genesis was the first one back in the 1960s. When I read his book it really blew me away. Speiser was this rare thing; he wasn’t a poet. He was a rabbi and he was a professor of philosophy at an Ivy League school, Penn. He was also an Assyriologist—that is someone who knew the ancient languages of Assyria and Sumer—and I have never come across a biblical scholar proficient in Sumerian, from thousands of years before the Bible was written. In his commentary, he’s constantly making these connections between Sumerian poets, Sumerian texts, and biblical ones. That’s the first time I really knew for sure that we had to get back to the original poets, the original authors of the Bible. Speiser starts to do it but he’s no poet himself and it’s hard for him to really describe it that way. But he really points in that direction. So I would tell anybody who wants to start studying the Bible as literature, get The Anchor Bible. It’s still in print.
The Anchor Bible Genesis by Speiser, it will blow you away because it is so much smarter than Robert Alter. That’s why Robert Alter never mentions Speiser. They try to pretend he never existed.
Oh my God.
Well, you know, look at any field of criticism and there’s always going to be competition. It’s no different in English literature or in American literature. If I start talking about how Gertrude Stein is great, a bunch of critics are going to come out and say I’m an idiot. Or if I said Gertrude Stein was a total idiot, there are also going to be some Stein critics who will come out and say I’m an idiot.
There’s got to be controversy when it comes to real interpretive power.
Yeah, I think it’s part of the process.
The trouble is—I think you reflected it—people don’t like to think that there should be controversy among biblical scholars. They think they should all be semi-religious. But they’re not. They’re just human beings.
You chose to do something really interesting, I thought, when you included the book of Judith in your translation. Could you tell me a little about the tradition behind the book, and what motivated you to make the decision to include it?
Yes. First of all the book of Judith was one of the books that was available to be included in the final canon of the Hebrew Bible, and it was rejected. I studied the history and I know the reasons why it was rejected. I think it wasn’t a bad decision. I understand why they didn’t include it in the final edition of the Hebrew Bible or what Christianity calls the Old Testament. But when I read the book of Judith myself I found that there was something really powerful in it that really had to be restored. The trouble is that throughout the history of Western art and literature, Judith has always been portrayed as a really gorgeous woman. Almost every great artist has a portrait of Judith, some of them with her holding the head of Holofernes, which she has cut off with a saber.
Everyone knows these pictures and they know this brief little story, that she cut off the head of an Assyrian general, put it in a sack and took it with her, but no one knows the book itself. And when I read the book itself, I realized it’s so different. It portrays Judith as such an incredibly dynamic woman on so many levels that I don’t think the rabbis could deal with it at that time. Even the Christian priests and whoever was involved with the New Testament, they couldn’t deal with it either. So you very rarely hear of the book of Judith in a Christian context.
But I’m telling you now, Syd, the reason for this is because she’s such an incredibly dynamic woman. Here’s what I mean. Number one, she has a religious spirituality. Number two, she also is a woman of action. She’s not a stay-in-the-kitchen person. Number three, she’s gorgeous and she’s not afraid to sexually entice men, at the same time keeping her own sense of integrity. All of these things are dramatized in the book. It’s a shame, especially for women, that they don’t know the actual Judith. So that’s why I had to translate it.
I think that’s great. I would have liked to have read that story growing up in my tradition.
It would’ve shocked you.
Yes, it would’ve shocked me.
It’s very violent, but you know life can be very violent.
From what I understand you began translating the Bible around age 30. I was wondering how your goals and processes have changed over time.
I try to address that in the afterword, in the epilogue to the book. So I get a little autobiographical there. It changed as I changed. I was a child of the 60s. I used to believe that love was the answer—the kind of love that could tolerate everything, and in which everything should be tolerated. The 60s generation ended fast, by the 70s it was all over. What was left was the music, a little bit of the art, and a little bit of the popular philosophy. Even the long hair was pretty much gone by the mid-70s as a general thing. Everything changed in 1969 at the Altamont Concert in California, where the Rolling Stones appeared and a spectator was knifed in the front row and killed. Suddenly people realized that it all wasn’t going to be like Woodstock.
There actually are some criminal minds out there, and it doesn’t matter how much dope they smoke, they’re still going to be criminals. You still need laws. I had to go through that myself. It wasn’t easy for any of us. My generation used to call the police pigs. We used to hate the police. When you get into your 40s and 50s and you’ve got children growing up, you start needing the police. You want the police to look after your kids. You suddenly feel bad that you call them pigs.
What does that mean? That you’ve gone through a change of consciousness, and that’s just a small example of the kind of changes that I went through. This changed the way I looked at the text.
The biblical text is written by people of different ages too. I get that feeling very much when I’m reading and translating biblical authors, how old the authors are. Sometimes it’s a very old author in his 60s or 70s, so that he or she has a lot of experience behind them. And then sometimes—like the beginning of the Psalms—you feel like it’s a more youthful author, someone in their 30s maybe, who’s just full of vim and vinegar and hasn’t reached the point where they are into rethinking everything.
Here’s the last thing I think that’s important I should say to you. There is one very big problem in the way that the Bible is read today, and it’s my major motivation. It’s not just that the authors are erased, but that the entire culture that produced the author is erased. One of the nicest things that St. Augustine said about the Jewish people was that they had a genius for religion. He was saying this about the Old Testament. He meant that as a compliment, but I don’t take it as a compliment because I don’t think that the Bible is just about religion. I think that a culture of writers produced it. You don’t get writers just existing all by themselves. They’ve got to have friends and colleagues and associates who are artists. There were translators, there were scholars, there were all kinds of people back there in the ninth and 10th century BCE when the first parts of the Bible were being written. They were part of a really dynamic culture. And to me, when I discovered this, it was like Elizabethan England. It was like, Shakespeare doesn’t exist all by himself, he exists in a context where there are lots of other really terrific artists around.
Now this culture has been suppressed. It’s been deeply suppressed by religion—even when motives were good, like Saint Augustine’s. I want to bring it back. Because it’s the lost culture that’s fundamental to Western art, and we ought to know about it. So that’s my project.
You said before that you “survived” a few poetry schools, movements, and writing programs. What group has influenced you the most?
Well, I hope you know I was being ironic.
I did. Yeah.
That’s good. I’m sure there’s going to be some readers who don’t think I’m ironic.
When I was in those writing programs they were just starting. Now they’re everywhere. When I was a writing fellow at Syracuse they were only six writing programs in the whole country. The main one was at Iowa, and now there’s like 600. It’s quite a different thing. So someone in their 20s or 30s today might not realize how different it was. But the point is, I think they will understand the irony.
In order to break out, in order to find yourself as a writer, you pretty much have to go through the motions of doing what everyone else is doing.
And you can do that in writing programs. At some point you have to find out what you have to offer that nobody else can. Because if you don’t get back to what only you can do, then how can you build a life on that? It’s really hard being a writer as a lifetime activity. It’s really hard to make a living. Sometimes you’ll make some money, sometimes you won’t, but it’s really hard to stick with it. So what I’m saying in answering you is that most of the writers in the writing programs that I went to, they pretty much stopped writing by the time they got to their 30s. Most of them became something else. It’s hard to stick with it. It requires sacrifice.
I’m telling you it’s a sacrifice not worth making unless you’ve got that inner feeling, that inner sense that you have something to say, that if you don’t say it, no one else will.
I don’t mean a message, I mean a point of view. And sometimes you are not sure. Sometimes you wake up and think, What a bunch of garbage I just wrote, but you’ve got to stick with it. If you stick with it you find ways to support your art—you can’t always do it by writing.
You might do it by journalism. You may do it by part-time teaching. I did it by translating. I got paid here and there for some of my translations but not enough to really survive on. I had to do all kinds of thing to survive. I had to do some editing. But if I had just decided to be a teacher, I could’ve taught creative writing. And I could’ve written academic poems my whole life, and I would have had a really good salary. By now I could retire. But teaching is a dangerous threat to inspiration. The academy wants everything explained, so your writing tends to get over-complicated, because the more complicated the more it loves explanation. And the more explaining, the more you sink into the mud of creative-writing tenure.
You sound so much like my husband, though he is an earlier stage of writing. He went through a master’s program then he started translating.
Sometimes you have to do other things that keep you going but as long as you know that whatever else you’re doing is just a day job. Everything is just a day job compared to the fact that you really got to, at some point, get out there what it is that you can see that no one else can. And sometimes you can’t see it until you’re actually writing. I think most writers who stick with it through their life—I consider them saints. But I don’t feel that way about teachers of writing in writing schools. They’re not only getting paid well but they’re also getting three months summer vacation.
Definitely. My husband doesn’t want to teach either.
Are you working on any original poetry right now? Does it engage with your translating?
The answer is yes. I’m always in some ways working on it. I’m currently close to finishing something I’ve been working on for about 10 years, a sequel to a book-length poem called The Lost Book of Paradise. It was published in New York in ’93. It’s a book-length poem in which I imagine the original source for the Garden of Eden story. Because we don’t have the original source that the poets who wrote the Garden of Eden story had. They just didn’t make this up out of the blue you know. It’s lost and there’s no way we’re going to find it, so I imagined it with the scholarly context I got from other ancient sources of the time.
After that, I found that most people who reviewed it took it as a book of scholarship and most poets didn’t realize that it was an original poem.
So I decided I had to write a sequel and I’ve been working on the sequel ever since. It’s much longer. It’ll probably be a big fat book, if I can finish it. And in the sequel, I go much farther to imagine exactly what the mind of a biblical poet was like. So it’s hard to tell you more than that.
No, that sounds good. You’re also working on—if I’m not mistaken—a dual biography of Jesus and Moses? Not poetry?
It’s actually finished and it’s coming out in January.
It’s called An Educated Man and I’m glad you asked me about it because An Educated Man raises the question, Just what does it mean to actually be educated today?
The main thing I’m concerned with is, Can a person today who is ignorant of religious history be considered educated? Because most people who graduate from college today, even graduate school, really don’t take many courses in religious history. We’d have to say that they’re fairly ignorant of the history of how the Bible was written, or anything like that.
Up until the 20th century, people who got degrees from colleges had to study religion. Yale was originally a religious school and most Ivy League schools were originally religious colleges. And all that’s lost now. Back in the 19th century if you asked who was an educated man, it was someone who really knew the Bible. Emily Dickinson knew the Bible almost by heart. Try to think of a great woman poet in the 20th century who knows the Bible. It’s very hard.
It’s hard to think of any who even care. I mean not just to know it, but they couldn’t care less. And I addressed this question in An Educated Man by going back and asking these questions: What education did Moses have? and, What education did Jesus have? Both of these were Jewish guys. Moses was brought up in an Egyptian palace and so he would’ve had an Egyptian education, which was really profound in those days. And that’s what I discuss. I discussed what his Egyptian education was, because the image of him as a humble man of faith is all wrong.
Now Jesus was the same. Jesus was a rabbi as most people know, historically. Well, you don’t become a rabbi by just calling yourself that. He obviously studied for many, many years. I looked back and studied the history of what was called Judea, which was Israel at the time back in the first century when Jesus lived. I know what Jesus studied. I know what he would have read. I know how intelligent he would have been. Then you look at the New Testament and you see that 90% of the time he is quoting, and sometimes transforming the quote. The things that are attributed to him are not just things he made up. It’s stuff he knows by heart from the Hebrew Bible, and other Jewish sources like what became the Talmud. And this is what I discuss in the book. I’m saying Jesus was really a pretty educated guy. He actually quotes from Greek sources, so he had to know Greek too. So most people just think he’s this humble guy being touched by inspiration or something, or he really is the Son of God. But you have to realize that historically, as a man who lived and died, he was deeply educated. So that’s my point.
I had to do all of this research into historical stuff and that’s a thing I love to do. When you go to writing school, they rarely teach anything about history. In fact most writers—including myself, when I graduated with an MFA—have never taken a single history course. No one asked me to and I didn’t have time. I was too busy writing. I would have rather taken a course in rock art cinema—which I did—than take a course in history. It’s only once you get into your later years that you start to realize how much history you don’t know.
It’s very exciting. I think it’s more exciting to discover history on your own, if you know how to read books, than to get it from the classroom.
Yes. Well, in my opinion, and especially in the United States, I think many of us have very short memories and we don’t really know exactly where we came from.
As we used to say, Right on.
Well, just sort of to close out, you’ve made some really interesting—I was going to call them changes—but I guess I could say that you translated in some very insightful ways, passages that are quite familiar to me. For instance you translated, “The lion will eat straw with the ox.” Are there any other passages in your new translation that particularly resonate with you as a poet or a reader, perhaps in a way that they didn’t before?
Yeah, tons of them. Tons, T-O-N-S.
Okay, what’s your favorite?
I don’t know if it’s my favorite, but it is the easiest one to explain. It used to be in my generation, the 60s generation, everyone knew the 23rd Psalms because we grew up on Western movies of the 50s, and there were always people getting killed. They were always reciting the 23rd Psalm over at the graveyard, at the tombstone. So we always heard the 23rd Psalm. Have you seen the movie High Noon?
I haven’t. No.
You will one day because it’s a classic. Anyway, you tell me. How does it begin again?
The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.
Okay, what does that mean, I shall not want?
I do not know. It could mean a variety of things in the way that I said right there, I shall not want. It could mean you’re not going to need anything or it could mean you shouldn’t want anything.
You’re very astute. The fact is that most people haven’t a clue what it means when they recite it. In the 17th century, when that was translated, “want” had a different meaning. It meant something like “go without,” and it was used in a way that is obsolete now. And even then, it wasn’t an accurate translation of the Hebrew. So I translated it—you can find it really easily in the book under Psalm 23. You see how I translated it. I said, “The Lord is my shepherd/ who keeps me from wanting/ what I can’t have.” Now there’s two crucial things about that translation. One, if you say the Lord is my shepherd, that means the person who’s speaking is a sheep right?
You’ve got to get to the feeling of really being a sheep. The original poet had it. The original poet keeps the feeling of being a sheep all the way through that poem but all other translations lose it. People don’t really realize that they’re supposed to actually think and feel like a sheep, the animal, while reading that poem. So when I translate it, I try to keep that. So when I say, “The Lord is my shepherd/ who keeps me from wanting/ what I can’t have,” I’m thinking like an animal. An animal is only thinking that it wants whatever it can get, Hey and if there’s some good green grass over there, I think I’ll go get it. The shepherd in relation to the sheep is a kind of ambiguous figure because a shepherd is someone who keeps his sheep from getting what it wants. But at the same time the sheep knows that it’s good for him. Or if it’s a woman sheep, her.
I think that’s really important because I’ve heard that verse translated many times as, I shouldn’t want or, I won’t ever need anything, or something like that. Rather than from the real perspective of a sheep.
Yeah. Even if you interpreted it like, The Lord is going to take care of me. Animals aren’t that dumb. They don’t want someone to just take care of them. They still want to have their own lives if they can. They don’t know they’re going to be slaughtered.
No they don’t. No.
So you can look at it, it’s in the section of Psalms there. You’ll see what I mean.
Alright. Well, it sounds like our interview is going to take up the whole issue.
I don’t know. I guess we’ll see once we get it all typed out.
Well the one neat thing about being online is it really doesn’t matter how much space you use. It’s not like on paper where you have to print extra pages or anything.
Right. It gives you a lot of freedom.
Well, thank you so much for talking with me.
It’s been a pleasure talking with you.