Robert Alter, professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, has finished his masterpiece, The Hebrew Bible. A complete, one-man translation of the Old Testament, twenty years in the making. I picked up the three volume set recently and have thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It is brilliant and beautiful.
Alter’s translation philosophy has been to retain the poetic and literary style of the original Hebrew. He laments the failure of modern translations and decries the “heresy” to which most translators fall prey: explanation under the guise of translation. He writes:
The unacknowledged heresy underlying most modern English versions of the Bible is the use of translation as a vehicle for explaining the Bible instead of representing it in another language, and in the most egregious instances this amounts to explaining away the Bible. 1
In contrast with modern translations, which he claims have almost unequivocally failed on this front, Alter aims to retain the literary effects, namely, style and rhythm, of the Hebraic texts. So much of the Old Testament is presented in a literary form, such as the mixture of prose and poetry in Genesis and (arguably) the greatest Biblical book of poetry, Job. By forcing the Bible into a theological category, modern translator’s have glossed over or “flattened” the rich tapestry that is the Hebrew Bible and its literary achievements. In a brilliant effort to recapture this literary element of the Bible, Alter’s work is an important contribution to English translations. His commentary and introductions to each book offer profound insight into the poetry of the Bible as well as to modern scholarship. As a professor of comparative literature and Hebrew, there is likely no one better suited to this task. And in my estimation, Alter has set a high standard which all future translation efforts will be forced to follow.
The brilliance of Alter’s approach is made clear in the Psalms. Here Alter is careful to note the structure of the Psalms as well as the ways previous translations have done it a disservice. The Hebraic poetry it entails is incredibly concise and imaginative, and Alter attempts to capture the rich lexicon of bodily images that have often been “interpreted” by other translator’s (and thus distorted).
As an example, take a look at Alter’s translation of one of the best-known Psalms, Psalm 23:
A David psalm.
The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
In grass meadows He makes me lie down,
by quiet waters guides me.
My life He brings back.
He leads me on pathways of justice
for His name’s sake.
Though I walk in the vale of death’s shadow,
I fear no harm,
for You are with me.
Your rod and Your staff—
it is they that console me.
You set out a table before me
in the face of my foes.
You moisten my head with oil,
my cup overflows.
Let but goodness and kindness pursue me
all the days of my life.
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
for many long days. 2
There are a few interesting changes in this rendering from tradition translations. One of the most immediate is that the usual “He restores my soul” becomes “My life He brings back.” Alter stresses the fact that the Hebrew Bible has no concept of a soul/body duality, and to imply it does is to fall back into the heresy of interpretation. So he insists on translating all of the many bodily images that the writers implement. So it is not the “soul”—with is borderline Platonic implications—but “My life” that is rescued in this verse.
It is also interesting, on that note, to pay attention to the lack of eternal implications in the final line of the psalm. It is not “forever” but “for many long days” that I shall dwell in the house of the Lord. Alter stresses that the Christian tendency towards eschatologicalizing everything must be resisted when translating the Hebrew Bible. They had in mind a very “here and now” perspective, free from the tendency to think in terms of some far off future.
Overall, this translation retains the Biblical poetry of this Psalm beautifully. While the King James Translation is indeed the closest thing to a poetical Bible, Alter notes that it fails to hold fast to the same cadence and rhythm of the original Hebrew (on top of being plain wrong for many of its translation choices).
I have only begun reading the third book (“The Writings”) but so far I am loving this new translation and look forward to discovering the Bible in a new way thanks to Alter’s tireless efforts.