Robert Alter is a distinguished literary critic who has written extensively on European and American literature. He first emerged on the scene of biblical studies with his groundbreaking book The Art of Biblical Narrative, and then with The Literary Guide to the Bible, edited with Frank Kermode. Since then he has worked steadily on his own translation of the Hebrew Bible, publishing sections over the years. Now, finally, we have his complete translation with an extensive commentary and introductions to all the biblical books, in three massive volumes – one for each of the divisions of the Hebrew Bible: Torah, Prophets, and Writings. As a single-author translation it has no competitors, and it represents a huge and extraordinary achievement.
All translation has to respect both the source and the target language, and the exact balance between the two is what gives a translation of any work its distinctive flavour. In the case of the Bible, the norm – from ancient translations such as the Septuagint and Vulgate down to the King James Version and its precursors – has been to lean in the direction of the source language, producing so-called literal translation, or a diluted form of it. Translators have not asked “How would a modern English writer have made this point?” but, “How can this passage be rendered in a way that allows the Hebrew original to shine through?” In more recent times (as also, incidentally, in the 18th century) some translators have consciously leant towards the target language, aiming at what is sometimes called “dynamic equivalence” translation. This has both milder versions, in which sentences in Hebrew paratactic syntax are recast with subordinate clauses but otherwise the flow of narrative remains essentially the same, or more radical versions where a whole passage is rendered throughout in a modern idiom, producing what a hostile critic would call paraphrase. Versions such as the New English Bible, the Revised English Bible, and the New Jerusalem Bible have taken this second route, though in its milder form. Alter dislikes them, referring to them as committing “the heresy of explanation” – not allowing the Bible to communicate with its own voice. Such translators tend, in his view, to think of readers as needing to be protected from the strangeness of the text by hearing it only as filtered through a modern idiom. His own aim is to let the reader hear the Bible in all its complexity and, sometimes, obscurity, in such a way that the underlying Hebrew is almost visible.
This means that his translation is at times quite reminiscent of the King James Version, but with much more extensive knowledge of Hebrew philology and awareness of critical issues than was available to early modern translators. But he seeks to have the best of both worlds, in that this is a consciously literary translation: faithful to the Hebrew yet written with attention to English style, which, as can be seen from everything he writes, he is much more the master of than most “professional” Bible translators. He could practise dynamic equivalence if he chose, but he prefers to produce a more literal rendering. In the process he forges a new kind of biblical English, indebted to the King James tradition yet recognisably his own. It is imitative of the original, though in a less extreme form than the innovative work of Everett Fox, or the great Buber-Rosenzweig German translation of which Fox is the heir. Even so, there is a deliberate strangeness for a modern English reader, as clauses are strung together with “and”, just as in the Hebrew and in the King James Version, and word order is often inverted:
When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, “Let there be light.”
Happy the man who has not walked in the
nor in the way of offenders has stood,
nor in the session of scoffers has sat.
In both these cases Alter has an ear for assonance – “welter and waste” seems to me brilliant for tohu vavohu – and for the rhythmic pulse of Hebrew verse. It will be seen that he does not opt for “inclusive language”: Job continues to say “Man born of woman”:
Man born of woman,
scant of days and sated with trouble,
like a blossom he comes forth and withers,
and flees like a shadow – he will not stay.
The problem with most dynamic equivalence translation is that it tries to block out the resonances of Hebrew style that, thanks to the King James Version and its predecessors, have contributed so much to the tradition of English prose. As Alter points out, one need look no further than Hemingway for evidence that deliberate parataxis is not alien to an English influenced by the Bible. He himself is happy for the tradition of “biblical English” to continue in his version, though purged of the inaccuracies and incoherences in the King James Version. Arguably the Revised Standard Version, now almost eclipsed, performed this task very well, and Alter’s translation is sometimes reminiscent of it – though (as in Psalm 1 above) he takes more liberties with standard syntax and word order, to produce a far more distinctive rendering in many places.
The introductory sections to each book and to each collection of books represent fairly the wide consensus of what may be called moderate biblical scholars. Alter tends to prefer early rather than late datings of many books: the book of Samuel, for instance, is dated to the later years of the Hebrew monarchy (the eighth or seventh century BCE), not placed in the Second Temple period as is the fashion at present, though like most scholars he thinks that Ecclesiastes (Qohelet) and the Song of Songs are definitely post-exilic in date. At the same time, he is sceptical of many “critical” proposals that split the text into many sources, arguing that biblical narratives in particular are often much more coherent than the critics tend to suppose.
I am deeply convinced that conventional biblical scholarship has been trigger-happy in using the arsenal of text-critical categories, proclaiming contradiction wherever there is the slightest internal tension in the text, seeing every repetition as evidence of a duplication of sources, everywhere uning in to the static of transmission, not to the complex music of the redacted story.
This means paying little – though not no – attention to the now traditional division of the books of Moses into four major sources, and treating the story of Samuel, Saul, and David in the book of Samuel as a continuous and coherent narrative, rather than as the amalgamation of several shorter works. This is of a piece with his argument in The Art of Biblical Narrative. The biblical histories, for Alter, can be compared with Shakespeare’s historical plays, as masterpieces of the re-imagining of tales that are based on real events, but have been recast in a semi-fictional mould.
In accordance with his scepticism about much of what he calls “excavative” scholarship, Alter tends to refer more to the great Jewish commentators, and especially to Abraham ibn Ezra and Rashi, than to contemporary or recent scholars. He sees them as more sensitive than many modern critics not only to nuances of style and story, but also to philological matters. He does not, however, ignore modern critics, and there is naturally no trace of any biblical “fundamentalism” in the Christian sense.
In another way, too, his commentary is distinctively Jewish: it avoids many terms that have acquired a typically Christian meaning. Thus yeshu‘a is seldom rendered “salvation”, because for most modern readers this has overtones of Christian ideas about life after death and entry to heaven, whereas in the Bible it normally means deliverance from earthly enemies or adverse circumstances. So too with terms for “sin”. In place of “ponderous Latinate terms such as ‘iniquity’ and ‘transgression’”, Alter uses “wrongdoing” and “crime”, especially in the prophetic books, where reference is usually to offences against the law, “crimes” in the normal sense of the term, rather than to “sin” in a more ethereal or theological sense. “I do not mean that there is no notion of sin in Psalms, but the fraught theological connotations of the English term are not quite right.” Hence also in Isaiah 10:1–3:
Woe, who inscribe crime’s inscriptions,
and writs of wretchedness write,
to tilt from their cause the poor
and rob justice from my people’s needy,
making widows their booty
and despoiling orphans.
And what will you do for the day of reckoning,
for disaster that comes from afar?
Alter is good at capturing the folktale-like character of some books. Thus Job begins “A man there was in the land of Uz – Job his name. And the man was blameless and upright and feared God and shunned evil” (Job 1:1). Compare the New Revised Standard Version: “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” The NRSV seems to me both flatter and less literal.
No reader will like everything here. I found the translation of Hebrew na‘ar as “lad” sometimes odd (though one must allow for differences between American and British usage), and the insistent assonance and broken or inverted syntax sometimes disconcerting. But both the translation and the commentary show that it is possible for one person to master the whole Hebrew Bible in a coherent and consistent way, and to shed light on both its style and its contents. Unusually for a consciously “literary” translation, Alter’s work would also be usable as a study Bible, because it adheres so closely to the Hebrew, and even for liturgical reading since (unlike so many modern versions) it attends to the rhythms and cadences of the original. No one, whatever their religious tradition, can afford to ignore what will surely become a classic version.