Interview with Jonathan G. Kline about A Proverb a Day in Biblical Hebrew

Jonathan G. Kline’s 2 Minutes a Day Biblical Language Series is well known for its accessible and attractive content and formatting. His latest project is A Proverb a Day in Biblical Hebrew, a book/devotional designed to help readers of all levels of Hebrew competence meditate on and understand the concise and sometimes mysterious sayings found in the book of Proverbs. A Proverb a Day in Biblical Hebrew helps readers who have studied Hebrew access the original text of a fascinating and well-loved portion of the Hebrew Bible. It offers readers a simultaneously academic and spiritual experience, walking them slowly and on a regular basis through difficult and enigmatic sayings that invite contemplative reading and sustained reflection.

Our Academic Sales Manager, Key Account Sales Rep, and Acquisitions Editor Amy Paulsen-Reed had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Kline to discuss some details about this fascinating project.

1. So, this isn’t exactly a question, but I have to congratulate you on the book! It’s beautiful—inside and out—and is such a unique and refreshing language resource. Congratulations!

Thanks so much, Amy! I feel very privileged to have had the chance to create this book, and I’m grateful that Hendrickson puts such a high value on the quality of its books’ contents as well as their production. I do hope that readers will enjoy the time they spend using A Proverb a Day—not only because of what’s in it but also because of its aesthetics.

2. And I love the translations you provide for the individual proverbs. They don’t sound like any translations of the proverbs I’ve ever read! Can you expound a little on your philosophy of translation? Where did you hope to land on the spectrum of literal to dynamic translation?

I’m glad to hear that you like the translations. For every verse in the book, I provide the Hebrew text and precise, straightforward glosses for each word. Then, two pages later, I offer a translation of the verse. (The reason the translation is found two pages later than the Hebrew text and the glosses is so that readers won’t be immediately tempted to rely on my rendering of the text.) Here’s an example:

This format—whereby I provide readers with both a straightforward sense for what everything in the text says (via the glosses) and then put the pieces together (via the translations)—gave me the unique opportunity to be somewhat creative with my translations. Most translators, of course (whether they’re producing a translation, a commentary, etc.), can only provide a single rendering of the text, so (to oversimplify matters a bit) they have to choose whether to be on the “literal” end of the spectrum, on the “dynamically equivalent” end of it, or somewhere in between. By contrast, the structure of A Proverb a Day allows readers to simultaneously view the text from the vantage point of both ends of this spectrum, as it were.

I had two main goals in making my translations, and these goals stood in productive tension with each other. They were: (1) to have my translations reflect as closely as possible the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of the Hebrew, and (2) to make the verses sound good as English poetry (obviously a subjective consideration). The latter mostly involved paying close attention to rhythm, using soundplay, employing vocabulary that belongs to a higher register than what you typically find in most translations, and alternating between Latinate and Anglo-Saxon words for effect (e.g., to create harmony of sound, an intentional contrast in register, or the like).

To be reductionistic, the first of the goals I just mentioned (sticking close to the Hebrew) is similar to what “literal” translations primarily attempt to do, and the second goal (coming up with a translation that sounds good in English) is akin to the main goal of most “dynamically equivalent” translations. The creative nexus generated by the interplay of my two translational goals led me to produce renderings that I hope readers will find defamiliarizing, thought-provoking, memorable, and fun. What I’m effectively trying to say in the way I’ve laid out the book (i.e., with glosses first, then a translation) is: “Here are all the building blocks you need to work out this verse yourself, and here’s one (hopefully) interesting way to render it. Now, have fun playing around with translating the verse on your own!”

3. How was your approach to translation affected by the genre of the proverb specifically?

The genre of the proverb definitely influenced the translation approach I used in this book. Since the proverbs are aphoristic in nature, and since they’re also sometimes ambiguous or polyvalent, they lend themselves very well (perhaps uniquely among the various genres of biblical literature) to multiple translations, and sometimes to multiple interpretations. This doesn’t mean you can make them say whatever you want, of course. It simply means that, in most cases, no one translation can capture all the nuances, ambiguity, polyvalence, or beauty of these sayings.

To illustrate this fact, here are a few verses from Proverbs, first in the NIV and then in my translation from A Proverb a Day (which I’ve labeled “JGK”):

Prov 14:23
“All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.” (NIV)
“There’s profit in all toil, but prattle results only in privation.” (JGK)

Prov 20:10
“Differing weights and differing measures—the LORD detests them both.” (NIV)
“Faulty weights, misleading measures—both are loathsome to YHWH.” (JGK)

Prov 16:18
“Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” (NIV)
“Vanity eventuates in a crash, and pomposity of spirit presages a pratfall.” (JGK)

Prov 12:17
“An honest witness tells the truth, but a false witness tells lies.” (NIV)
“An honest deponent declares the truth, but a weaselly witness, perfidy.” (JGK)

4. What pedagogical factors did you take into account in designing the book?

My main goal in designing the handful of biblical language resources I’ve created over the past few years, including A Proverb a Day, has been to make the biblical text as accessible as possible to readers, whether they’ve had a year of Hebrew (or Greek, for some of the books), have a PhD in biblical studies, or anything in between. For A Proverb a Day, I first tried to think of what impediments typically prevent most of us (whatever our level of Hebrew is) from reading and understanding these proverbs in the original. One reason most of us don’t frequently open up a Hebrew Bible to the book of Proverbs is that doing so results in our staring at a large block of somewhat contextually unrelated verses. Needless to say, this can be daunting. My book’s “one proverb per page” scheme is meant to help readers overcome this impediment by encouraging them to focus on one verse at a time. Of course, you can read ten, twenty, or fifty of the verses in the book in one sitting if you want; but the book gives you permission, as it were, to sit with just one verse at a time and meditate on it, without feeling the need to move on quickly to the next text.

A second reason the proverbs can be difficult to understand is that their syntax is so tightly constructed. As Robert Alter points out, you’ll rarely find more than three or four words in a poetic line (aka stich) of Hebrew in the book of Proverbs, but in English you almost always have to supply a few more words to end up with an intelligible translation. To help readers work through the syntactic difficulties of these sayings, I’ve laid out all the words in each verse in such a way that their (contextually possible) meanings are readily apparent and it’s clear where all the verbs in the verse are located (all verbal forms, including participles, are parsed). This format also elucidates the verses’ syntax to some degree, though not completely. Indeed, one of the main challenges that I want readers to work through on their own (and it’s a rewarding challenge, in my experience) is figuring out how to put the pieces of each verse together into an intelligible whole.

A final pedagogical goal I had was to encourage readers in their gradual mastery of the vocabulary found in these sayings. In order to do this, the 365 verses in the book are arranged not in canonical order but rather according to the descending frequency (specifically, the total combined frequencies) that their words have in Prov 10:1–22:16 (the corpus the book covers). That’s a bit of a mouthful, but basically this means that the verses with words that you’ll see over and over throughout the book appear at the beginning and the verses with rare words occur at the end.

5. In your opinion, what is the hardest proverb to translate?

I’m not sure I’d say there was one “hardest proverb” to translate for this book. That said, I did find a handful of the sayings somewhat hard to understand; indeed, I must admit that I’m still a bit baffled by what at least a few of them mean! The difficulties I experienced in this regard typically didn’t have to do with the Hebrew grammar or with what the individual words denote, but rather with how to understand a phrase or sentence as a whole. Let me give two examples.

Proverbs 11:30 (found on Day 39 of the book) can be translated “The fruit of a righteous person is a tree of life, and one who takes souls/lives is wise.” The image in the first half of this verse is straightforward (though what it refers to in practice might require some imagination). Likewise, the individual words in the second half of the verse aren’t complicated. But what does it mean to “take souls/lives,” and why is this a good thing? Moreover, how does this statement relate to the first half of the verse? Given these questions that I had (even after checking Michael Fox’s commentary on this verse), I wrestled with whether to translate “takes souls/lives” as “receives souls/lives,” or as “acquires souls/lives,” or with some other phrase that, unlike “takes lives,” can’t mean “kill” in English (which I certainly cannot see being the meaning of the Hebrew here, notwithstanding the fact that this phrase can mean that elsewhere in the Bible, e.g., Ps 31:14). Rendering the verb here as “receive” or “acquire” doesn’t actually clarify the meaning of the verse much, but at least these sound more positive than “takes lives” does.

In the end, however, I decided to translate this proverb in an underinterpreted manner: “A virtuous man’s fruit is a tree of life, and one who takes souls is wise.” The rendering “takes souls” allowed me to avoid “takes lives,” but it doesn’t at all answer the question of what the phrase means, of course. The advantage I saw to opting for this translation is that I hope it will cause readers to go through the same process I went through (and am still going through) of wrestling with what the text means. If readers feel stumped and this then prompts them, for example, to discuss the verse with their spouse, a friend, or a teacher, or to look up the verse in a commentary or two, I’ll be glad, since this kind of collaborative thinking and discussion is what leads to real learning and insight.

One other proverb that I had particular difficulty understanding is 20:16, which appears on Day 333 of the book. The verse can be translated literally as “Take his garment, for he has become surety for a stranger; and on behalf of a foreign woman, take it (or: hold him) in pledge.” We’re familiar with loans today, to be sure (student loans, car loans, mortgages, etc.), but unlike in ancient Israel, lenders today (at least in my cultural context) don’t typically take someone’s shirt as collateral. So the background context of this verse can be confusing. In addition, the verse starts with an imperative. Who’s being spoken to—the reader? Or perhaps someone in an imagined court scene? I also found it hard to figure out what is going on at the end of the verse: is the command to take the garment in pledge or to hold the man who has become surety in pledge? And what is “surety,” exactly? (This isn’t a word we use much anymore.) Finally, who is the “foreign woman” here; should the Hebrew word underlying this phrase be rendered “strange woman” (with a sexual meaning, perhaps?) or “unfamiliar woman”? Or is there a text-critical issue here (some scholars suggest that the word be read as a masculine plural, “foreigners”)?

As you can see, this verse raised a lot of questions for me! In the end, I opted for the following translation: “Snatch his shirt, for he’s stood surety for a stranger, and on behalf of an unfamiliar woman, take it as security.” Although the verse’s grammar is not particularly complex, I found it difficult to translate simply because I had to give sustained thought to what is actually being described. I suspect that having gone through this process will help me remember this verse better than I would have if I had simply read it quickly in a standard English translation.

6. Do you have a favorite proverb?

There are so many good ones, of course, that it’s hard to choose one favorite. One kind of proverb that I particularly enjoyed coming across while working on the book were those that make interesting psychological observations (which are no less true today than they were a few thousand years ago). Here are several examples (the translations are mine):

“Calm mind, healthy body—but jealousy is rot to the bones.” (14:30)

“Even when guffawing one’s heart may ache, and gladness can give way to grief.” (14:13)

“The preponderance of people say they’re steadfast, but who can find someone who is, in fact, faithful?” (20:6)

“The deliberation of a man’s mind is deep water, but a discerning person can draw it.” (20:5)

7. And do you have a favorite among your translations of the proverbs? Any proverb translation you’re particularly pleased with or proud of?

Again, it’s hard to choose just one favorite. (You can see that I’m an indecisive person!) Some of my translations that I like the most are the ones that are a bit humorous or are rather different from typical Bible translations (which I hope makes them memorable). For example, I translate 21:14 as “A supercilious and snobbish man—‘mocker’ is his moniker—he acts in arrogant anger.” Given that I’m not a novelist, I don’t usually get the chance to use words like “supercilious” or “moniker” in print (let alone both in the same sentence), so I couldn’t resist! Also, “supercilious,” being a pretentious word, reflects the person being described in the verse, which I think works well. And of course, there’s the serial soundplay in “supercilious / snobbish,” “man / mocker / moniker,” and “acts / arrogant /anger.” Making translations that combined an interplay of elements like these was a lot of fun!

A couple other translations in which form follows content in a nice way, I think, are my renderings of 15:28 (“A righteous mind thinks before replying, but the mouth of the wicked spews smears”) and 14:29 (“A serene man has a great deal of discernment, but a hothead trots out drivel”). And occasionally I was able to work in some even more sophisticated kinds of wordplay than what appears in the aforementioned examples, as in my translation of 14:4, “A barn is immaculate in the absence of cattle, but vast yields come from an ox’s brawn.” One of the instances of soundplay here—the one between “barn” and “brawn”—actually plays on the sounds of several of the Hebrew words in this verse (ones that contain b, r, and n). So I worked in some bilingual soundplay there.

8. What do you hope the reader will gain from using this book?

I’ve mentioned already that my main aim in creating this book was to empower readers to take up the rewarding challenge of puzzling slowly through and meditating on the biblical proverbs. I wasn’t able to include all the sayings from the book of Proverbs in A Proverb a Day, of course, but the volume does contain about 40 percent of the text of the book of Proverbs, so I hope that after using it readers will feel confident in moving on to read the rest of this biblical book in Hebrew if they want to. The book of Proverbs has a lot to teach us about the vital importance of virtue, civility, humility, listening to others, telling the truth, and caring for the poor and needy—in other words, about those character traits and actions that are absolutely essential for us to cultivate, practice, and promote if we want our world to flourish. I trust that readers will benefit from and enjoy using A Proverb a Day as a language tool, but I also hope that by making the proverbs accessible, fresh, and memorable, the book will help those who use it to internalize these sayings and to ponder anew their nuances and multifaceted meanings.

Amy Paulsen-Reed is an Academic Sales Manager, Key Account Sales Rep, and Acquisitions Editor at Hendrickson Publishers. She has a doctorate in Hebrew Bible from Harvard University, where she focused on Jewish biblical interpretation in antiquity. She lives in Gloucester, MA with her husband Michael and her daughter Lillian. She is a self-confessed language and grammar nerd, and enjoys cooking, baking, and napping in her spare time.

For more information about A Proverb a Day or the 2 Minutes a Day Biblical Language Series, visit our website!

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