September 21, 2019

A Masterful Primer on Bible Translation

By pious tradition, it took 72 sages to complete the Septuagint, the first translation of the Bible into Greek. Robert Alter, by contrast, did it all by himself, although it took him two decades of hard work. Now the Bible according to Robert Alter is finally done.

Alter, professor emeritus of Hebrew and comparative literature at UC Berkeley, embarked on his own translation of the Hebrew Bible in 1999 with “The David Story,” a translation of and commentary on the Book of Samuel. Five years later, he had completed “The Five Books of Moses.” He finally worked his way through the Tanakh, and Alter’s translation of the Bible in its entirety was published last year in a three-volume set as “The Hebrew Bible: A Translation With Commentary” (Norton).

Now Alter has crowned his life’s work with “The Art of Bible Translation” (Princeton University Press), which serves as an essential companion volume to his own translations. And it can be seen as the completion of a trilogy that started with “The Art of Biblical Narrative” (1981) and continued with “The Art of Biblical Poetry” (1985), which contributed importantly to the teaching of “the Bible as literature” as distinguished from its use in religious belief and practice. 

Indeed, Alter is not a rabbi or a theologian, and he draws on his own expertise in language and literature to overcome what he regards as a centuries-old tradition of inaccurate translation that started with the King James Version. His goal is to re-translate the Bible in contemporary language while, at the same time, remaining faithful to what he regards as the genius of its original authors.

 “Biblical Hebrew, in sum, has a distinctive music, a lovely precision of lexical choice, a meaningful concreteness, and a suppleness of expressive syntax that by and large have been given short shrift by translators with their eyes on other goals,” Alter explains in his introduction to “The Hebrew Bible.” “The present translation, whatever its imperfections, seeks to do fuller justice to all these aspects of biblical style in the hope of making the rich literary experience of the Hebrew more accessible to the readers of English.”

Precisely because Alter is more concerned with fidelity to the original meanings of the ancient text itself rather than any religious interpretations of the text, he has dared to make innumerable changes, some great and some small, in the words and phrases that we are accustomed to encountering in other English translations. Consider, for example, the second of two passages in Genesis where the creation of human beings is described, one as appears in the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation (which is strongly influenced by the familiar King James Version) and the other as Alter has rendered it in “The Hebrew Bible.”

“Robert Alter’s goal is to re-translate the Bible in contemporary language while, at the same time, remaining faithful to what he regards as the genius of its original authors.”

JPS (1917 edition): Then the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. 

JPS: Alter: “[T]hen the Lord God fashioned the human, humus from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living creature.” (Genesis 2:7)

Alter explains that he chose “human” for the Hebrew word adam and “humus” (which is defined in as “the organic portion of soil”) for the Hebrew word adamah in an effort to preserve “the Hebrew etymological pun” that appears in the original text of the Bible. Not incidentally, of course, he also avoids the gender of the first human being. Later, as Alter puts it, God “fashions” the first man out of soil, but God “builds” the first woman from his rib because, as Alter explains to us, “the LORD is now working with hard material, not soft clay.”

The aspirations, strategies and fine points of decision-making that entered into Alter’s work as a Bible translator are explained in intimate and often charming detail in “The Art of Bible Translation,” which is an indispensable gloss on “The Hebrew Bible.” 

Alter’s touchstone is not what the various translators before him have made of the Bible but rather what can be found in the original. He points out that “concrete Hebrew terms” often are translated into “theologically fraught ones,” as when the Hebrew word nefesh is rendered in English as “soul” when it actually means “essential self,” “being” or “life-breath.” He focuses on the rhythm, syntax, dialogue, word choice, “sound play” and “word play” that the original biblical authors employed so brilliantly in their own work.

While Alter prefers not to enter into theological debate, he acknowledges that the Bible is not, after all, purely a work of literature. “From the beginning my translation was impelled by a deep conviction that the literary style of the Bible in both the prose narratives and the poetry is not some sort of aesthetic embellishment of the ‘message’ of Scripture but the vital medium through which the biblical vision of God, human nature, history, politics, society, and moral value is conveyed.”

Still, the fact remains that Alter’s version of the Bible is not suitable for the study of Torah as it is conducted in some synagogues and all yeshivot. Alter himself knows it; when he muses on the responses he has received from “unexpected quarters,” he includes a young woman who is enrolled in a Jewish day school. Still, you will find that Alter empowers his readers to decide for themselves which version is most serviceable for the uses each one of us makes of the Bible.

Read More: Author and Scholar Talks About the Importance of Words and Meaning


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.