Magazine | March 25, 2019, Issue

Robert Alter’s Monumental Translation of the Hebrew Bible

A worker organizes Torah scrolls at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., November 14, 2017. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, by Robert Alter (Norton, 3 vols., 3,500 pp., $125)

In a memorable passage of Virginia Woolf’s novel The Years, a young woman is at her mother’s burial. Although resonant verses from the King James Gospel and Psalms fill her with inward “glory,” the words do not help her concentrate for more than a few moments, let alone overcome her alienation.

In a great contrast, a young man from Greece told me that he’d been shamefully unable to cry over his father’s death — until he was in church and the Bible-based funeral service began. Belief, aesthetics, and attitude toward the deceased didn’t appear to have come into it in any vital connection. The liturgy had rescued him in some other way.

The negations and possibilities these narratives suggest about scripture’s functions and forms in the modern world weigh on me as I consider Robert Alter’s greatest work, a complete, minutely reconsidered English translation of the Hebrew Bible, based on a lifetime of studying, reading, and writing.

I had better pony up right away: This is a great book. Without Alter’s advocacy, the Bible might have, by and large, fallen out of elite bicoastal literature, so that many of those who read Proust or Tolstoy wouldn’t touch the book that did the most to make our world. Moreover, Alter has spent decades developing good ideas about the translator’s craft. His results in practice, the simpler language and the restoration of original cadences (as far as English allows), seem apt to sharpen thinking about our past and our possibilities, to the benefit even of traditional religion in all its varieties.

To give just one example: Alter is right that standard modern translations’ replacements for the King James’s “to go in,” in a sexual sense, are dismal: “to cohabit with,” “to be intimate with,” etc. The King James reproduces faithfully the Hebrew verb for coming, going, or entering, and Alter points out the importance of approach into the woman’s sphere: her private dwelling space, her bed, her body.

But, as often, Alter doesn’t leave well enough alone: “This translation consistently renders the Hebrew expression in question as ‘come to bed with.’” The specificity is otiose, and the imagery wrong: Modern readers are inevitably going to picture a bed like ours — not the pallet arrangements that prevailed in the tents where so many momentous “comings in” occurred. If the simple “come in” or “enter” is confusing, in suggesting sexual penetration alone, then “come to” (a meaning the Hebrew would allow) is a ready substitute.

Like Woolf’s young woman (and unlike my Greek acquaintance), Alter is prone to overthinking. He doesn’t treat literature as the emergency it characteristically is; he doesn’t simply respond — as even a translator can — to a threat that the world will, in some sense, collapse if he doesn’t come to its aid. Instead, he links the King James, along with the Hebrew Bible, not only to Shakespeare but also to Joyce and other recent literary greats. In this fragile vessel of conventional good taste, he navigates between the old ignorance (not too harsh a term: the King James is full of mistakes), current academic pedantry, and the influence of religious doctrine over great stretches of time in making translations timid, stilted, and overly abstract.

The shortcomings of Alter’s methodology are suggested by a vital element in the Bible’s modern development. In point of fact the King James Version (1611) inherits its striking style, and up to 90 percent of its content, from the biblical translator William Tyndale, active almost a hundred years before. This pious martyr-scholar was driven toward and then off the cliff looming over the modern era, when individuals would have to save themselves as best they could with their own reading, thinking, and understanding. But on such a precipice, Tyndale couldn’t afford to overthink anything; that’s why his work is so good. Alter has little to say about him. 

But what about Alter’s own style? This might be harsh, but I put him to the test by listening to how he handles one of the Bible’s most beautiful and complex books, Isaiah. In Isaiah 43:22–24, God speaks to the erring nation. Here is Alter’s version:

But not Me did you invoke, O Jacob, for you are wearied of Me, O Israel.
You have not brought Me sheep for your burnt offerings
and with my sacrifices you have not honored me.
I did not burden you with grain offerings nor weary you with frankincense.
You did not buy for Me cane with silver
nor sate me with the fat of your sacrifices.
But you burdened Me with your offenses, wearied me with your crimes.

The first line is awkward, because the original Hebrew word order is mimicked — according to one of Alter’s guiding principles. I was at first expecting a question, and then irritated by the ping, plonk, plop of oddly placed monosyllables. True, Hebrew word order is expressive; but so is the word order of Greek and Latin, and for centuries aspirants to their translation have been exhorted to find native ways to express the nuances — mere italics for “Me” would do it here.

Another problem with the representation of original word order in this passage is that I started out construing that “cane” and “silver” were two offerings, not that the cane was bought by means of silver. A reader who didn’t know that “silver” means (essentially) “money” in Hebrew would likely be stuck, because no footnote happens to offer help in this instance. “You did not spend silver on cane for Me” would be clear, and not offensively wordy, but this is the kind of adjustment Alter is usually unwilling to make.

And what about that “sate”? Often, Alter uses archaisms more extreme than those of the King James (which here has “filled”). The translator’s learnèd speculation about the registers and development of Hebrew are fascinating, but the insertion of words such as this into otherwise simple passages is merely jarring.

As for the footnotes — which are quite extensive, and helpful in themselves, as a rule — I don’t find it conducive to literary exaltation to need a search down the page in order to understand a word like “cane.” Sugar cane, or a walking cane tipped with silver, will occur to many readers at the first sight of the verse. Why not write “sweet-smelling cane,” a tidy Anglo-Saxon version of the polysyllabic “aromatic cane” in the footnote? “Cane” resonates with the Hebrew word, qaneh — but so what, in the absence of any necessity to reproduce a special sound effect or wordplay?

Repetitions are vital in Hebrew style, but they have a thudding dullness in this translated passage, where they are rendered in such a rote fashion that the wit is lost in obscurity. In the fifth and sixth lines, it sounds as if God is denying that He gave the people tiresome gifts, whereas, in the Hebrew, His sarcasm is subtle and pointed as He goes through the honors, big and small, that his nominal followers have neglected to render. A modern parent might be imagined saying similarly, “You’re not shocking me with your good grades; and, hey, I don’t even shock you with a demand that you load the dishwasher once in a while” — and such a real-life exchange could in fact guide the rendering of the biblical rhetoric. When the linguistic gap is millennia-long, the reader needs flexible, energetic help to cross it, not just the same solutions endlessly reapplied.

I feel like a turd in implying that Alter has not worked hard enough; I feel even more like a turd in noting the kind of deficits no one alive could make good over such an expanse of text. Who today could recreate Tyndale’s passion as a translator? And who would wish for the kind of comprehensive crisis that requires the cultural foundations to be rebuilt, from the rubble, and more solidly than before?

This article appears as “Scripture Reconsidered” in the March 25, 2019, print edition of National Review.

Sarah Ruden’s most recent work is a translation of Augustine’s Confessions.

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