“The Art of Bible Translation” by Robert Alter— the Bible as Literature

Alter, Robert. ‘The Art of Bible Translation”, Princeton University Press, 2018.

The Bible as Literature

Amos Lassen

I am a huge fan of Robert Alter and love his biblical translations. We so often take the bible as a book of law and forget the wonderful literature that is there and Alter wants to change that. If you have worked in translation you know that it is more involved than a word for work repetition and that the nuance of a word is as important as its meaning. I believe that I sensed this the most in Alter’s translations of “The Song of Songs”. It is also important to understand that a translation is also a commentary.

What I have always loved about Alter’s translations (and by the way, his complete translation of the Hebrew Bible is now available in three volumes) is not only the literary power but also his passion. He uses that same passion here in explaining what he learned about the art of Bible translation over the twenty years he spent completing his own English version of the Hebrew Bible.

We immediately sense that his translation captures the beauty of the biblical Hebrew in which it was originally written. I am a Hebrew speaker and took courses in biblical Hebrew so I am well aware of the literary style of the Bible as well as how difficult it is to translate and get the true meaning of the original. The average person on the street is not aware of all of the subtleties of the Hebrew language. I truly believe that to give a good translation one must be totally aware of the nuances of two languages— the original and the one he is translating it too. When I lived in Israel I translated two plays by Tennessee Williams from English into Hebrew and I spent a tremendous amount of time working on translating southern English into spoken Hebrew. How do you explain a streetcar to someone who has never seen one before and how do you explain the Bible when much of what happens there happens one time only. I look at translation as a puzzle to be solved and that makes it not only interesting but fun.

It is surely Alter’s literary training that gives him the advantage of seeing that a translation of the Bible can convey the text’s meaning only by trying to capture the powerful and subtle literary style of the biblical Hebrew, something the modern English versions do not do justice to. The Bible’s style is one of beauty and it is the necessary way to relate the biblical vision of God, human nature, history, politics, society, and moral value is conveyed. The translators of the King James Version knew that the authority of the Bible is inseparable from its literary authority. To truly bring the Bible to life today, one must be able to recreate its literary virtuosity, and Alter discusses the principal aspects of style in the Hebrew Bible that any translator should try to reproduce: word choice, syntax, word play and sound play, rhythm, and dialogue. In the process, he provides an illuminating and accessible introduction to biblical style that also offers insights about the art of translation far beyond the Bible.”

Alter has succeeded brilliantly with his translation and now that it is done he shares his “deeply personal account of the pleasures and challenges of translating the Hebrew Bible into modern English”. This is an amazing and entertaining read as well as an intellectual endeavor.

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