Opinion

In Robert Alter’s majestic Bible translation, the achievement is in the details

Robert Alter and his translation of the Hebrew Bible. Alter photo courtesy of UC Berkeley

(RNS) — As others have said, translating from one language to another is like kissing through a handkerchief: It’s close, but not the real thing. 

This is especially true when it involves translating the sacred Hebrew Bible, a text that millions of people believe is the literal word of God and whose “newest” additions to the canon are at least 1,900 years old.

How difficult is such a task?

Imagine that 1,900 years from now, in 3919, a future translator came across a sentence about politics that someone might write today: “Many ardent supporters are dancing in the end zone because they believe the senator hit it out of the park with yesterday’s speech.  As a result, they happily assert, the ball is now in someone else’s court.”

To understand this mix of metaphors demands a familiarity with contemporary football, baseball and basketball terminology. They’d need to know that “the park” in this case does not mean a public area set aside for relaxation, flowers and trees, but rather a sports stadium. The translator of the distant future would also need to know that the word “court” in this context denotes an athletic arena, and not a place to adjudicate legal issues, nor does it mean an ingratiating description of gaining the favor of someone. Only then could an authentic translation even begin.

Though not the first, the most famous translation of the Bible into English is the revered and still widely used King James Version that 47 members of the Anglican Church completed in 1611. Since then, there have been a myriad of translations for specific groups of readers, including young children, teenagers, Catholics, Protestants and Jews.

When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered near Jerusalem in 1947, some scholars believed the ancient Hebrew language parchments would provide the world with new, previously unknown texts of the Bible. That did not happen, and the continuing cascade of both good and bad biblical translations has continued, but none has displaced the soaring language of the KJV.

Robert Alter, professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley. Photo courtesy of UC Berkeley

Now that may change. Robert Alter, professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, has recently published his monumental, three-volume English translation  of the entire Hebrew Bible as well as provided a robust running commentary.

Alter was born in New York City in 1935 and grew up in a Conservative synagogue in Albany, N.Y., where he fell in love with the Hebrew language. As a youngster, Alter memorized every word in the Hebrew dictionary, and over the course of his sterling academic career, he developed a finely tuned appreciation for such authors as Henry Fielding, Franz Kafka and Marie-Henri Beyle, aka Stendhal. Alter has published nearly 25 books on both the Bible and world literature.

With his new work, Alter joins those literary giants with an accurate, understandable translation that also captures the unique sentence structure, style and syntax of the ancient language. He has set the new gold standard in biblical scholarship; his is a literary translation that will be widely read and studied for decades to come. It is an amazing personal achievement; the most consequential English biblical translation since the KJV.

The difficulty of translating the Hebrew Bible starts with the first words of Genesis: The English-speaking world loves the KJV’s majestic but linguistically inaccurate “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”

Even a person with limited knowledge of Hebrew is aware the Bible’s opening Hebrew word, brereshit, is a conjunction, and the accompanying phrase tohu v’vohu is an onomatopoeia description of chaos and void. Alter’s translation: “When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep … ”

I’ll let theologians debate the significant question raised by the difference in the two translations: Was the “beginning” the very first form of creation, or was there prior existence at the time “when God began to create”? What is more important than theological speculation is that Alter’s translation gets the Hebrew cadence and phrasing right.

His elegant translation of the Bible’s 150 Psalms reveals a love for Hebrew poetry, a gift for verbal splendor and a quest for fidelity to the text.

Alter’s rendering of the beloved 23rd Psalm retains the KJV’s opening words — “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” — but verse four is quite different from what many people have recited for centuries: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” Alter’s translation: “Though I walk in the vale of death’s shadow, I fear no harm, for You are with me.” His intent is not to “avoid” the 1611 language, but “rather to cut through the proliferation of syllables of the KJV… and better approximate the compactness of the Hebrew,” he writes in the commentary.

At the famous psalm’s closing verse, Alter’s translation reads, “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for many long days.” Alter explains that though the original Hebrew “does mean forever, the viewpoint of the poem is in and of the here and now and is no way eschatological” — that is, concerned with eternity and “end of days.”

A final example of his carefully crafted work is the melancholy Book of Ecclesiastes, which in the KJV contains the famous lament: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Alter notes the Hebrew word hevel does not describe false pride, conceit, narcissism or arrogance. Instead, it means, “Merest breath … all is mere breath.”

That translation catches the true meaning of the text: All human life is but a quickly dissolving breath … fleeting, fragile and frail.

For all of us who treasure and love the Hebrew Bible, we can only say Mazel Tov, a congratulatory phrase that Robert Alter surely does not need to translate.

(Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser and the author of “Pillar of Fire: A Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise.” He can be reached at jamesrudin.com. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.

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