After 22 years of work, Robert Alter is the first person to single-handedly produce a translation of the complete Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew and comparative literature scholar will release “The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary” through high-profile publisher W.W. Norton in December.
Alter, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told The Times of Israel that he saw the need for a translation that tried to convey the Bible’s original literary style — something that he said has been neglected by other translators.
“My fundamental assumption is that the Hebrew Bible comprises a set of finely wrought literary texts, even if the ‘content’ of the literary vehicle is religious, and that in order to see what is going on you have to pay attention to the fine articulations of the Hebrew,” he wrote in an email interview. “None of the modern translators have seen the need to do this in any way.”
The King James Version — one of the best-known literary translations of the Bible — “does it to some extent,” Alter said, “but with far more lapses than people remember.”
Drawing upon a knowledge of Hebrew that began with a post-bar mitzvah class in Albany and continued with study at Jewish Theological Seminary, Alter devoted himself to the biblical nuances of Hebrew over a period of more than two decades. He began with what he described as an accidental yet acclaimed “straight translation” of the Book of Genesis in 1996.
Alter recalled telling his editor at W.W. Norton that there was something wrong with all the existing translations of Genesis and that he would have to do a translation from scratch.
“I wanted to try to get something of the stylistic power and beauty of the Hebrew into English, which was something previous translators hadn’t done,” he said.
“I was initially skeptical it could work, given the disparities between the two languages. In the event, it was a better approximation of what I had in mind than I thought I could manage. The critical reception was enthusiastic, and so I was encouraged to continue translating,” said Alter.
Beginning in the late 1990s and continuing to the present decade, Alter translated multiple books of the Hebrew Bible, including the Five Books of Moses in 2004 and the Book of Psalms in 2007.
“At first, I didn’t dream of doing the entire Hebrew Bible, but as I did one biblical book and then another, it dawned on me four or five years ago that I could actually manage to complete the whole,” he said.
Balancing the project with his separate career as a literary critic, he would work on translation in the morning, with his reference point being a critical edition of the 1960s Stuttgart-published Biblia Hebraica — which he calls the standard work for biblical scholars.
He worked alone, eschewing the traditional team-focused approach to biblical translation. “I’ve never been one to collaborate on books, with the single exception of a critical biography of Stendhal I did years ago with my wife,” he said, referring to the 1986 “A Lion for Love.”
“Doing all the work on my own assured that the translation would have a unified stylistic stamp and reflect the same assumptions about Bible translation throughout,” he argued.
He appreciates the literary beauty of the King James Version (KJV) — so much so that he left some phrases as they were, such as “Am I my brother’s keeper?” in Genesis.
But, he said, “I did swerve from the KJV when it was clearly wrong,” using as an example the famous opening line from Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities.”
“I rendered it, following the Hebrew metaphor, as ‘Mere breath, merest breath,’” he said.
The work had its joys and difficulties. Alter said he “loved doing the great narratives of Genesis and of the Book of Samuel,” and that “[the] astounding poetry of Job was both a great challenge and a joy to translate.” And then there is “[a] very different kind of poetry, the luscious love poetry of the Song of Songs, was also a keen pleasure to convey in English.”
However, he said, “The really difficult thing to do was to translate the very many passages — in Job, in the Prophets, and elsewhere — where the text has been clearly mangled in scribal transmission and is not intelligible.”
He describes his translation as an attempt to return to the original intent of the writers — an intent that was sometimes ambiguous.
“The moderns tend to think their task is to ‘clarify’ everything, whereas the Hebrew writers reveled in ambiguities and sometimes were deliberately obscure,” Alter noted. “The moderns imagine that every important Hebrew term has to be translated differently according to context, whereas the Hebrew writers made artful use of repetition of the same terms. The moderns think the Hebrew syntax has to be repackaged as contemporary English, thus repeatedly violating the stylistic integrity of the Hebrew.”
Alter admits that he originally had no clear idea of who the readers would be. From abundant e-mail correspondence over the years, he discovered that the audience is actually quite varied. He said he’s received fan letters from religious Protestants and Catholics, from Orthodox Jews, and from secular people who want to enjoy the literature of the Bible.
“To all of these I aim my completed translation,” he said.
And, Alter said, he hopes readers will come away with a renewed sense of the literary beauty of the original work that inspired it.
“I would add that the beautiful cadences, the elegant and pointed choice of words, the expressive use of syntax, the vividness of the language of the dialogues, are all essential elements of the reading experience of the Bible, and I’ve done my best to preserve them in English,” he said.