February 21, 2020

Author and Scholar Talks About the Importance of Words and Meaning

Robert Alter

Robert Alter, professor emeritus of Hebrew and comparative literature at UC Berkeley and author of “The David Story” and “The Five Books of Moses,” spoke with Jewish Journal book editor Jonathan Kirsch by phone about Alter’s new books, “The Hebrew Bible” and “The Art of Bible Translation.”

Jewish Journal: Bible scholars sometimes refer to the “place in life” of a particular biblical text as it existed before the Bible itself was canonized. What do you regard as the “place in life” of your translation?

Robert Alter: What I want to do is to make the literary greatness of the Bible available to modern readers. The Hebrew Bible has very few abstractions, and the human situation was imagined through the body and the physical world. A lot of that gets obscured in existing translations. I try to give readers a better sense of the concrete world view of the biblical writers by hewing to the physicality of the original text.

JJ: What has been the response to your translation?

RA: In the age of email, readers are much more ready to write authors than when they had to put a stamp on an envelope. What has surprised me, really astounded me, is that I’ve gotten an outpouring of mail from religious people — some religious Jews and many religious Christians, including clergy. I assumed that literary people, including entirely secular people, would be keen to get a translation that does more justice to the literary art of the Bible, but it seems that there is a hunger among many believing people for a translation that takes us closer to the world view of the original Hebrew. 

JJ: I suspect that many of your readers first encountered your early writing on the Bible in the context of a “Bible as literature” class. Do you feel comfortable with that category?

RA: Yes and no. In many colleges, there are no specialists in the Religion Department, and the Bible is represented in the curriculum in the English Department. I’m OK with that. But it’s a slightly odd label because it is like saying “Dante as literature.” Dante’s writings are works of literature, but he is also a deeply religious writer.

JJ: Do you feel that any of the word choices in your translation have an impact on the theology that traditional rabbis and sages have extracted from the biblical text?

RA: Yes, I do. For example, the word “salvation” as equivalent of the Hebrew word “yeshua” still has a terrific amount of currency in modern translations of the Bible, both Jewish and Christian. In the Bible, however, the Hebrew doesn’t mean anything like salvation. Salvation suggests the sky opening up and the soul gloriously redeemed. The biblical word is a here-and-now word, and it means something like “getting out of a tight fix.” That’s why I translate it as “God is my rescue.” 

JJ: Much effort has been expended to blur the gender of the deity in Jewish liturgy in the more progressive movements in Judaism. Did you make any word choices in your new translation to address the feminist critique of the Bible as a patriarchal document?

RA: Not really. Grammatically, God is unmistakably masculine in the Bible. I don’t think we can honestly translate the Bible to fit our own 21st-century values. Some of the values in the Bible we may find objectionable, but there is no question that it was a patriarchal society and they thought of God as male.

Excerpt From “The Art of Bible Translation”
The practice of translation, as I have learned from experience, entails an endless series of compromises, some of them happy, some painful and not quite right because the translator has been unable to find an adequate English equivalent for what is happening — often brilliantly — in the original language. The reflections in this book, then, on translating the Bible are offered in the spirit of humility, not triumphalism, with the underlying point that I have tried to do in my English version of the Bible what others translators by and large have not seen the need to do because they had at best only a patchy sense of the literary aspects of the Bible.

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.

I did not initially have a very clear sense of the audience to which my work was directed. My only thought was that I wanted to make the Bible available for English readers in language that might at least intimate something of the power, the subtlety, and the beauty of the Hebrew. 

The actual readership was broader and more varied than I would have imagined. As it turned out, I received enheartening words from Orthodox Jews, from a Methodist minister, from a Presbyterian organist, even from an Episcopalian nun who said that my translation of Psalms had changed her spiritual practice. Responses repeatedly came from unexpected quarters, such as the fourteen-year-old girl at a Jewish day school who told me in impressively literate English that she had come to trust my commentary more than any other.

Both the narrative and the poetry of the Bible deploy an extraordinary imaginative use of language that has very few equals in the whole ancient world and none among the geographical neighbors of ancient Israel. These formidable literary resources were of course usually marshaled for what we must call, lacking a better term, religious ends, but the full breadth of nuanced perspective on the interactions between the human and divine realms will not be visible in translation if the stylistic subtleties of the original are ignored. Translations are inevitably approximations of the original, but all of us engaged in the enterprise need to aspire to closer approximations. That is what I have sought to do in my own translation of the Bible.

Excerpted from “The Art of Bible Translation” by Robert Alter. Copyright © 2019 by Robert Alter. Reprinted by permission.

Read More: A Masterful Primer on Bible Translation

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