Robert Alter talks about translating the Hebrew Bible


Robert Alter is Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. He has written widely on the European novel from the eighteenth century to the present, on contemporary American fiction, on modern Hebrew literature, and on literary aspects of the Bible.

CMOS: You have now translated a large portion of the Hebrew Bible into English. What motivated you to take on such an enormous, high-profile, high-stakes project?

RA: I have to say that it really sneaked up on me. That is, I was dissatisfied with the existing translations, and I thought, well, I’ll give a whirl at translating Genesis and see if I can do something about the English that would make it exhibit more of the stylistic power of the Hebrew. I was rather unsure that this was going to work, but I figured it was worth a try. And it turned out to work better than I thought it would. Not that I ever think that my translations are perfect, but it got some very good responses: a rave review in the New York Times and that kind of thing. So I thought I’d do one other book that I like, and I translated Samuel, basically the David story, and that also got a nice response, and then I was kind of talked into doing the Five Books of Moses by my editor at Norton. And then because it was perceived as a fundamental building block of the whole Bible, it got reviewed all over in places I’d never been reviewed before like the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. So there I was. Up until a certain point I wasn’t thinking of doing the whole Bible, but then I looked back and said, “Hey, I’ve done about two-thirds of it, so I might as well go on and do the whole.”

CMOS: What was wrong with the translations we already had?

RA: I’m a literary person who happens to have the skill set of a Bible scholar, and as a literary person I read the Hebrew and see that much of it is fantastic, stylistically—wonderfully subtle prose, powerful, resonant poetry—and I think that the existing translations don’t do justice to it because the modern translators don’t look at the stylistic aspects of the Hebrew.

CMOS: Are there passages in your translations that you’re particularly proud of?

RA: I’m quite happy with my translation of Job, which I think is among the greatest poetry in the whole ancient world. I’m really happy with the way Job’s death-wish poem turned out, and I feel good about my rendering of the Voice from the Whirlwind. The very beginning of Genesis—which is the grand, stately prose of the writer identified by scholars as the “priestly writer”—I think that I’ve gotten something of the rhythms of that writer. And I think Jonathan Lear mentioned in his introduction the sound-play of the Hebrew phrase for chaos: Tohu Wabohu. And I’m happy with the alliteration of welter and waste.

CMOS: There must be words or passages in Hebrew that cannot possibly be translated into English in such a way as to capture their full meaning or their sound or their mood. How do you deal with that?

RA: Of course there are. To begin with, there is some wordplay that you just can’t do at all. That is, the original writer is leaning on a similarity between two very different words that have a phonetic kinship, and there’s just no equivalent in English. The other thing is that lines of biblical poetry in the Hebrew are very compact. And that partly has to do with the structure of the language, which I can explain very simply: First, there are not a lot of polysyllabic words in biblical Hebrew; typical words have just one or two syllables. And second, biblical Hebrew is one of those languages in which you can get rid of all kinds of auxiliary words around verbs. For example, there are no compound verbal conjugations like “he has done”—that’s one word in the Hebrew. Often a translator finds that a line of Hebrew poetry will have, say, three words in each half, and maybe just six syllables, and it’s very hard to get an equivalent. I reach for it, but I don’t always get it.

CMOS: Does the experience of translating the Bible differ quite a lot from translating modern secular poetry?

RA: I think it does. I just finished editing a large volume by the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. I did about 115 translations of my own for that book, and I used many translations by others as well. It’s much different. First, I would say modern Hebrew doesn’t have quite the same kind of compactness that biblical Hebrew does, which makes it easier, and modern poets often use a colloquial register, so that makes it easier too. The flip side of that is that the modern poets, Amichai especially, are very aware of the biblical background and often use allusions to the Bible, and if you don’t pick them up in the translation, you lose a lot of what’s going on.

CMOS: What is your translation process like? Does it depend on what you translate?

RA: It’s a little bit different for modern poems and ancient texts. In the modern poem—and I know modern Hebrew very well; I can speak it with near native fluency—you have to be able to pick up all the little colloquial nuances and plays on meaning and so forth. Now with the ancient texts, I think translating the Bible is not all that different from translating Homer, because the language is removed from us by anywhere from twenty-five hundred to three thousand years. To begin with, there are problems with whether we really know what a particular word means, its nuances and connotations. Do we know what it means at all if it happens to be a word that only occurs once or twice in the biblical corpus? That’s the kind of thing that biblical scholars spend lots of time trying to figure out. Then there’s the problem of textual transmission. These ancient texts are all copied by generations upon generations of scribes, and the scribes, being human, make mistakes, and sometimes you come across something that’s not very intelligible, maybe because it’s an ancient usage that we’re not familiar with, or maybe because the scribe has scrambled it, and you have to make decisions about what it might mean.

CMOS: Are there any other translators whom you particularly admire? Do you ever find yourself emulating aspects of their work?

RA: The only English translation I honestly admire is the King James Version. You can’t directly adopt it, because the language is four hundred years old and there are lots of errors in understanding the Hebrew in the King James Version. Sometimes the seventeenth-century translators did wonderful things with the Hebrew because they had a great sense of the English language, but there are lots of lines that are clunky, where they seem not to have paid attention to how the Hebrew sounds. So there’s my qualified admiration of the King James Version. The various modern English versions I really don’t like at all. I think they have a very shaky sense of English style, and they don’t pay attention to things they ought to in the Hebrew. My one exception to this sweeping objection is that sometimes on the level of a single word, if I’m struggling to find a good English equivalent, I’ll look at a couple of other translations and say—oh, that word works better than the word I had come up with. (I never look at the other translations until I finish a draft of a section.) But that’s not exactly emulation.

CMOS: Do you use any particular tools while translating?

RA: I am going to say something that will shock biblical scholars. There’s one big dictionary of biblical Hebrew that everybody uses, put together by a team of British scholars many years ago called Brown-Driver-Briggs (BDB), and I do not use it. They make certain conclusions about what words mean that I often do not agree with. I would like to draw my own conclusions. So the reference book that I most depend on is the Concordance to the Hebrew Bible.1 If I want to get the nuance of a particular Hebrew word, the Concordance shows me all the places where that word is used. And then, from that, I can build up by inference what I think the connotations of the word were in the ancient language, maybe what its linguistic register was—whether it’s high diction or middle diction, for example.

CMOS: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

RA: I would just add that translating the Bible is a terrific challenge, and especially when you wrestle with these technical problems, it can be somewhat exasperating, but it’s also a great joy. When you feel that you have more or less nailed it, or nailed it within a reasonable range of expectations, there’s a terrific sense of satisfaction. I’ve been doing this for over twenty years—I started in the nineties. I’ve been doing other things too, which keeps me sane: I’m a scholar of comparative literature and I’ve written books on the city, on the novel, on the literary canon, and so forth. So I haven’t been doing Bible translation nonstop. But it’s been satisfying all these years.

1. Professor Alter uses the concordance edited by Solomon Mandelkern.

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