I spent some time staring at the Hebrew in synagogue this week, particularly vivid, but lost in translation. Earth being the active subject of Genesis 1:11-12 requires peculiar linguistic convolutions.
11…T’dashe ha’aretz deshe esev mazriah zerah etz pri osheh pri l’mino asher zar’o-bo al ha’aretz vayehi ken. 12. Va’toze ha’aretz deshe esev mazriah zera l’mino v’etz oseh-pri ashe zar’o-bo…
The English translations (the King James, Jewish Publication Society and Robert Alter) use different terms like “sprout,” “brought forth” or “put forth,” and “yielding.” All of these are lovely enough in their own way in terms of ordinary English language usage. They evoke the creation out of the earth of grasses, herb yielding seeds (or plant yielding seed), and fruit trees on the third day.
But the translations come nowhere close to capturing the extraordinarily energetic, self-generating and fecund action caught by and created by the word repetition of the original Hebrew: earth grassing grass (t’dashe deshe), seeding seed (mazriah zerah), and the fruit tree making fruit (etz pri oshe pri). The English translations require too many words, too many plants, as it were, foreign to the native Hebrew. In the process, the translations occlude the compression of these terms all together in Hebrew, one word pressed up close to the one before, and the deliberate inflection between verbs and nouns, first in verse 11 and then approximated in verse 12: “…tedashe…deshe esev mazriah zerah etz pri osheh pri…” Earth, not God is the active subject. In the opening chapter of Genesis, the plant being is its own action.
The sad translation in the Jewish Publication Society is: “11. …Let the earth sprout vegetation (King James and Alter: grass) seed bearing plants, fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it” And it was so. 12. The earth brought forth vegetation: seed bearing plants of ever kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good.”
In contrast to the English translators, Buber and Rosenzweig were sensitive to the Hebrew word repetition, in particular the inflection of nouns and verbs, which they translated faithfully into German: 11…Sprießen lasse die Erde Gesproß, Kraut, das Samen samt, Fruchtbaum, der nach seiner Art Frucht macht darin sein Same ist, auf der Erde! Es ward so. 12 Die Erde trieb Gesproß, Kraut, das nach seiner Art Samen samt, Baum, der nach seiner Art Frucht macht darin sein Same ist. Gott sah, daß es gut ist.
On a side note, Rashi’s interpretation of the verse is extraordinarily beautiful. The King James translates deshe as grass, whereas the Jewish exegete from France, himself sensitive to beauty, identifies deshe not as a grass, but as a more diffuse ground covering with herbage. His interpretation of God’s animating word in v.11 is “Let it [the earth] be filled and covered with a garment of different grasses.” Both words by him are in the reflexive and intensive hitpael form.