Book review: An uncompromising Bible translation

Robert Altar pushes back against modern translations, which he thinks interpret too much and translate too little.

July 31, 2019 16:41
4 minute read.
Book review: An uncompromising Bible translation

THE KING James Bible.. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Robert Alter, emeritus professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, ventured into the field of Bible translation some 40 years ago by way of a single article about the complexity of fully understanding a few verses in Genesis. The interest aroused by that article led to another, and then another. Drawn further and further into the subject, Alter published two volumes explaining the art of conveying in English a true rendering of biblical narrative and biblical poetry. Finally, his publishers urged him to produce a completely new translation of the Five Books of Moses. This was published in 2004 to such critical acclaim that Alter eventually agreed to undertake something he would never have contemplated at one time – a new translation of the entire Hebrew Bible, together with a commentary.
This towering 3,000-page achievement, published in 2018, has been received by biblical scholars, both Jewish and Christian, as well as the general public, with well-nigh universal approval. Now, in The Art of Bible Translation, Alter explains the principles that underlie his approach, what he finds unacceptable in many English translations of the Bible, and how he attempts to resolve the type of problems which arise for rendering the Hebrew biblical text into English.
Although Alter acknowledges a particular debt to two great medieval Hebrew commentators, Rashi and Abraham ibn Ezra, it should perhaps be noted that he regards the whole Bible, even the Torah – the Five Books of Moses – as having been composed by mortals. He sees Genesis as having been produced by “a priestly writer.” Even so, in discussing the merits and demerits of the King James translation – the gold standard for all subsequent efforts – Alter acknowledges that the scholars involved almost certainly believed that they were dealing with the word of God.
Although noting that the King James translators sometimes betray an imperfect grasp of biblical Hebrew, Alter commends them many times for adhering closely to the original in both words and syntax, where later English versions in looser translations attempt to clarify meaning or render the text more accessible to a modern reader.
“The unacknowledged heresy underlying most modern English versions of the Bible,” writes Alter, “is the use of translation as a vehicle for explaining the Bible instead of representing it in another language.” He provides countless examples of what he characterizes as “a rage to explain the biblical text.”
One such is the biblical account of the Flood. The King James version follows the Hebrew exactly with “The flood was forty days upon the earth” and “The ark went on the face of the waters.” The Revised English Bible runs: “The flood continued on the earth for forty days” and “the ark floated on the surface of the swollen waters.” The New Jerusalem Bible reads: “The flood lasted forty days on earth” and “the ark drifted away over the waters.” The Jewish Publication Society has: “The Flood continued forty days on the earth” and “the ark drifted upon the waters.” 

ALTER’S CRITICISM starts with the fact that all three modern versions, unlike the King James, have done away with the characteristic “parataxis” of the original Hebrew. (Parataxis is the ordering of words in parallel clauses linked by “and.”) Then he condemns the substitution of the word “was” by “continued” or “lasted” in the phrase, “The flood was forty days upon the earth.” He is equally unhappy with changing “went” to “floated” or “drifted” in “The ark went on the face of the waters”.
“Such substitutions,” he writes, “seriously compromise the beautiful dignity of the Hebrew.” Just as serious, he believes, is that the meaning is distorted. To say that the ark floated or drifted, rather than went, implies that it was rudderless. It may have been, writes Alter, but the Hebrew does not say this.
Alter is uncompromising on the absolute necessity of comprehending and conveying both the meaning and any subtle implications of every Hebrew word. He cites an example of where the King James translators got it very wrong. In Job 3:8, those who utter curses are described, rather puzzlingly, as “ready to raise up their mourning.” The Hebrew actually refers to black magicians who “raise up Leviathan.” The King James translators misread livyatan as the rabbinic term for funeral, levayah, muddling biblical and rabbinic Hebrew and ignoring a consequent grammatical error in the process.
In his exposition, Alter deals also with the problems of achieving in English a just and apt interpretation of original Hebrew syntax, of the sound- and word-play that is inherent throughout the Bible, and with the special problems of conveying the nuances inherent in biblical dialogue. When dealing with the need to reflect the rhythm of the ancient Hebrew, Alter again commends the King James translation as exhibiting “a good deal of rhythmic integrity,” though he finds it far from consistent. Most modern English translations he condemns for riding roughshod over the rhythms of the original Hebrew in their headlong dash for ever-more elaborate explanations of the text.
Alter has been moved by two complementary passions: a profound appreciation of the beauty and extraordinarily imaginative use of language in the Hebrew Bible, and a deep-seated desire to disseminate them as faithfully as possible in the English language. He is the first to admit that subtleties in the original Hebrew “do not always lend themselves to adequate representation in another language,” but he makes a very good case of asserting that many translations into English are too far off the mark.
In The Art of Bible Translation, Alter provides an intriguing insight into the complexities he faced in producing, single-handed, his translation of the Hebrew Bible. It makes fascinating reading.

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