ROBERT ALTER’S NEW TRANSLATION of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, is a beautiful example of not only why translation matters but also of how translation matters.
Translations of the Bible into English proliferated in the 20th century, with each translator (or group of translators) usually having one denominational audience in mind, yet also sharing a common goal: to provide a rendering sensitive to the changes English had undergone since the time of King James. The eminent literary critic and translator Robert Alter has recently completed, after more than two decades of solo work, a new English translation of the Hebrew Bible that comprises three volumes (totaling 3,500 pages) and includes a crucial commentary. Alter’s new English Bible is marked and affected by the weighty presence of its predecessors, in particular by the King James Version of 1611, but also all by more modern translations he repeatedly criticizes. These recent renditions are what he really set out to resist and confront. In doing so, he has established a new direction for Bible translation as a whole.
The translation of the Bible raises many questions — huge ones, about the relationship between translation and faith, but also more specific ones, about the translators’ contexts and immediate motivations. In the many interviews Alter has given on his monumental project, the first question asked is almost inevitably why. In fact, Alter himself opens his introduction by asking why, after so many English versions, a new translation of the Hebrew Bible is necessary. What exactly is the problem with the hundreds of other English translations that already exist?
In The Art of Bible Translation (2019), an illuminating book Alter wrote on his experience, he writes: “I have tried to do in my English version of the Bible what other translators by and large have not seen the need to do because they have had at best only a patchy sense of the literary aspects of the Hebrew.” In other words, translations emerge in response to different needs, and the specific need at the heart of Alter’s new translation is to render the rich, nuanced literary style of the Hebrew Bible, which, if not altogether ignored in previous English translations, was never done full justice. Alter’s approaches the Bible as great literature first and foremost — an approach almost inconceivable before the mid-20th century. The various chapters in The Art of Bible Translation illustrate with precision Alter’s guiding conviction that the literary style of the Bible in both the poetry and the prose is not a mere “embellishment of the ‘message’ of Scripture,” an elegant and dispensable bijou, but actually “the vital medium through which the biblical vision of God, human nature, history, politics, society and moral value is conveyed.” And this idea that puns, rhythm, and syntax are vital elements in the forging of the moral and religious outlook of the Hebrew Bible turns out to be rather subversive.
Let me illustrate by examining a well-known passage, Genesis 7:17–18, in which the flood comes and Noah’s ark is lifted up above the earth. The example involves the Hebrew syntactic tendency to open each sentence in narrative with “and,” to order the words in parallel clauses by coordination (“and” + “and” + “and”), rather than by subordination (“because,” “so,” or “although”). This biblical syntactic feature, known as parataxis, affects the text’s rhythm, its temporal interpretation, its layers of cohesion and ambiguity. Here is Alter’s rendering of this passage: “And the Flood was forty days over the earth, and the waters multiplied and bore the ark upward and it rose above the earth. And the waters surged and multiplied mightily over the earth, and the ark went on the surface of the water.”
By foregrounding the additive conjunctions, Alter allows the rhythm of the coordinated clauses to move time forward in discrete scenes. This effect is reinforced by the simplicity of “the flood was” (in contrast to the “kept coming,” “lasted,” or “continued” we find in other versions) and “the ark went on” (in contrast to “drifted away/upon” or “floated”). Alter also strategically inserts the verb “multiply,” so as to echo the “be fruitful and multiply,” thereby interweaving the Flood story with the Creation story and evoking the binary of proliferation/destruction. Sound, rhythm, syntax, and diction, working together, shape a distinctive literary texture. Other modern English translations have more often than not erased the conjunctions, avoided lexical repetitions, transformed simple verbs into more complex verbs, and simplified the syntax in order to clarify or ennoble the text in English. Alter, for his part, has faith in the original, and the result is both refreshing and beautiful.
Word choice, of course, can have major theological implications. Take “soul” in the KJV’s Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd […] He restoreth my soul.” Alter, who has by now become famous for taking the soul out of the Hebrew Bible, gives us: “The Lord is my shepherd […] My life He brings back.” Where has the soul gone? The answer is that the Hebrew didn’t really provide it in the first place. The word “nefesh” is more concrete, meaning “breath,” “life-breath,” “essential self,” and also “throat.” It suggests the material, the bodily, or, as the biblical scholar James Barr put it, “is not a separate essence and is more like the principle of life animating the person, acting in his actions, and touched by that which touches him.”
As the example of Psalm 23 above shows, despite the plethora of English Bible translations currently available, it is the language of the King James Version that most English speakers identify as “biblical English.” New translations are less likely to be compared with the original languages than with this majestic predecessor. Alter’s rendering is no exception — see John Updike’s early review of The Five Books of Moses, in which he finds fault with Alter’s “massive accompanying commentary,” “odd English,” “annoying punctuation,” and syntax that “goes off the rails,” almost always in contrast to the KJV.
But the relationship between Alter’s translation and the KJV is more complicated and fruitful than Updike’s reading suggests. Alter’s version not only contrasts and competes with its most formidable predecessor, it also consciously echoes it, absorbing its rhythm and assimilating its syntax. Alter’s keen grasp of that rhythm and syntax is evidenced by his playful 10 commandments for Bible translators:
1.Thou shalt not make translation an explanation of the original, for the Hebrew writer abhorreth all explanation.
2. Thou shalt not mangle the eloquent syntax of the original by seeking to modernize it.
3. Though shalt not shamefully mingle linguistic registers.
4. Thou shalt not multiply for thyself synonyms where the Hebrew wisely and pointedly uses repeated terms.
5. Thou shalt not replace the expressive simplicity of the Hebrew prose with purportedly elegant language.
6. Thou shalt not betray the fine compactness of biblical poetry.
7. Thou shalt not make the Bible sound as though it were written just yesterday, for this, too, is an abomination.
8. Thou shalt diligently seek English counterparts for the word-play and sound-play of the Hebrew.
9. Thou shalt show to readers the liveliness and subtlety of the dialogues.
10. Thou shalt continually set before thee the precision and purposefulness of the word-choices in Hebrew.
Keep close to the source, these commandments seem to say, and thereby make the translation new. Stick to the structure, style, and vocabulary of the original Hebrew. Don’t lose the alien character of the source, and allow the introduction of alien forms of speech into the target language. Recreate.
Several biblical translations into other languages in the 20th and 21st centuries have followed some kind of version of these translation norms, albeit with different goals and within different contexts. The German translation by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, whose first volume appeared in 1925, for instance, aimed to reflect the linguistic features of the original Hebrew. The central precept of Henri Meschonnic’s French translation, which came out in 1970, is “more than what a text says, it is what a text does that must be translated.” Haroldo de Campos’s translation of individual biblical books into Brazilian Portuguese in the 1990s were meant to “Hebraicize the Portuguese.”
Closeness to the original can take different forms in different translations. In Alter’s case, closeness means the meticulous and bold rendition of the Bible’s literary dimension, the attempt to recreate in English the rich literary experience of the Hebrew, to show rather than tell. Ironically and rewardingly, by keeping close to the source text, Alter brings home the enormous and fascinating cultural distance between ourselves and the authors of the Bible.
Tal Goldfajn is assistant professor of Spanish and Portuguese Studies at the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at UMass Amherst. She is the author of, among other works, Word Order and Time in Biblical Hebrew Narrative (Oxford University Press), and is a practicing translator (Spanish, English, Portuguese, French, Hebrew).