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As the Italians say, traduttori, tradittori: translators are traitors. But the translator who shrugs and—cheerfully or resignedly—agrees that “every translation is an interpretation, after all” has too readily embraced the way of the tradittore. The translator who strives for strict fidelity, even knowing its elusiveness, will be less treacherous. In translation, fidelity is the ultimate imperative and trumps every other virtue: even clarity or readability.

Translators of the Bible seem often to forget this, if indeed they believe it at all. In the introduction to his extraordinary recent translation, The Five Books of Moses, Robert Alter points out that modern translations operate under the (perhaps unconscious) “feeling that the Bible, because of its canonical status, has to be made accessible—indeed, transparent—to all.” Alter is certainly right that modern translators have this feeling, and obey it, but the Bible’s “canonical status” is less to blame than a particular conception of how the Bible functions in the lives of believers.

Almost all modern translations into English—even versions like the recent “Tanakh Translation” of the Jewish Publication Society—owe something to the zeal of such early English Christian translators as John Wycliffe and William Tyndale and their belief that the Bible must be made clear to the common reader. Near the end of the fourteenth century Wycliffe wrote, “No man is so rude a scholar but that he may learn the gospel according to its simplicity.” A century and a half later, Tyndale would utter—or so reports John Foxe, in his Acts and Monuments (1583)—the same thought in more vivid language. Responding to a “divine, reputed for a learned man,” who had criticized Tyndale’s views on Scripture, the great translator declared, “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.”

It is often said that Wycliffe and Tyndale believed in a characteristic Protestant idea called “the perspicuity of Scripture”—an effective denial that the Scriptures are secret or occult, accessible only to those with special training or institutional authority. Rather, in the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith, “those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” Or, as Martin Luther tersely put it—evoking the scene on the road to Emmaus when the risen Christ “opened the Scriptures” to a pair of bewildered disciples—“Christ has opened our understanding to grasp the Scriptures.”

Now, these authors were quick to admit that many particular passages in Scripture are, as Luther has it, “obscure and abstruse.” “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves,” says Westminster, “nor alike clear unto all.” Nevertheless, men like Wycliffe and Tyndale have often been thought to say something more radical—that, thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit, the whole of Scripture is transparent to the humble but earnest interpreter. Whether they believed this or not, many of their followers do; and later translators of Scripture have operated under the (again, often unconscious) assumption that the ideal experience of reading Scripture is one in which clarity manifests itself fully and immediately.

Undergirding this assumption is, I think, a memory of Christ’s disturbing statement: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children.” Does this suggest that any translation that presents more difficulties to the “little children” than to the “wise and understanding” is somehow un-Christian? The idea may seem absurd, but it would be unwise to underrate the pressure of such thoughts in an assertively egalitarian, democratizing, and anti-elitist culture like our own today. Only in such a culture would something like “dynamic equivalence” models of translation be developed, because dynamic equivalence—which encourages translators to ask how we in our time and place might say whatever the Bible is taken to say—allows one to deal with difficult passages in the original text not by translating them but by interpreting their obscurities out of existence. Such passages must be cleared away, whenever possible, in order to make the crooked places straight and the rough places plain. The simple and problem-free translation then offers itself as evidence of the simplicity and problem-freeness of the biblical text itself. The translators thus stand to their readers in loco parentis: The “little children” never have to know what struggles their scholarly fathers undertook in order to protect them from the agonies of interpretive confusion.

It is noteworthy that Tyndale never thought to adopt such a strategy, despite his concern that the boy at the plow know the Bible. He understood perfectly well that many of the English words a faithful translation required him to employ would be unknown to many of his readers; however, his response to this problem was not to use only common words but to append to his translation a glossary of difficult terms. (At a time when real dictionaries were unheard of, this was a brilliant and innovative solution. Alas, Tyndale did not live to implement it.) Otherwise, readers would be in the lamentable situation of being unable to distinguish Tyndale’s words from those of the text; and if he intruded his own words—even if those words were meant only to clarify or explain the Bible’s—he would, by his own lights, have become a traitor rather than a translator.

Likewise, Wycliffe, for all his faith in the power of boys who drive plows to know their Bibles, makes it clear that Scripture exhibits its clarity only to those who undergo the lengthy intellectual discipline of submitting to its authority: “The faithful whom he calls in meekness and humility of heart, whether they be clergy or laity, male or female, bending the neck of their inner man to the logic and style of Scripture will find in it the power to labour and the wisdom hidden from the proud.” God indeed reveals to the “little children” what is hidden from the “wise and understanding,” but transforming oneself into a little child is the arduous work of a lifetime. Christ’s yoke is easy and his burden light, but we don’t like bending our necks to receive it—and no translation, however it accommodates itself to our language and understanding, can change that.

In criticizing the various “dynamic equivalence” models of translation, I lament what Robert Alter calls “the heresy of explanation”—“the use of translation as a vehicle for explaining the Bible rather than representing it in another language, [which] in the most egregious instances . . . amounts to explaining away the Bible.” But for Alter there is no simple, straightforward alternative model of translation that by the application of some supposedly “literal” equation can magically achieve fidelity. The situation is too complicated for that, especially when languages as different as Hebrew and English are involved.

The complexity is fully recognized and acknowledged by Alter, who in a long and distinguished career has written with authority about the history of the novel and about biblical literature. He is professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at Berkeley, and his climb up the sheer face of the pentateuchal mount resembles some of the great monuments of humanistic scholarship more than the work of the rabbis: His interest in Scripture is evidently literary and cultural. (Vladimir Nabokov’s work on Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin is probably the single closest analogue to what Alter achieves in The Five Books of Moses.) In the 1980s he wrote The Art of Biblical Narrative and The Art of Biblical Poetry, and with Frank Kermode edited The Literary Guide to the Bible. More recently he has turned his hand to translation, first of Genesis, then of the vast biblical tale (largely consisting of the two books of Samuel) that he calls The David Story, and now the whole of the Pentateuch. To his scholarly accomplishments he adds an elegant English style, and he seems as prepared as a scholar can be to address the philological, historical, and literary problems that arise when one contemplates representing an ancient Hebrew text in modern English.

What to do, for instance, with waw? No problem is more constant for the translator from the Hebrew. Waw is a particle, attached to the beginning of many clauses, that, if translated as a word, is usually translated as “and.” The preface to the Tanakh translation, however, points out that in biblical Hebrew waw has “the force not only of ‘and’ but also of ‘however,’ ‘but,’ ‘yet,’ ‘when,’ and any number of other such words and particles, or none at all that can be translated into English.”

Therefore, these translators say, “Always to render it as ‘and’ is to misrepresent the Hebrew rather than be faithful to it.” In a sense this is surely true; on the other hand, to use many different words to translate a single particle whose variations in meaning must, in Hebrew, be determined by the context is also a misrepresentation, just of a different kind.

As a case study in such difficulties, Alter cites Genesis 24, which begins with Abraham commissioning a servant to find a wife for Isaac. Alter focuses on verses 16 to 20, in which the servant encounters the extraordinary hospitality of a beautiful young woman named Rebekah, and points out that this passage contains fifteen instances of waw. He points out that the Revised English Version uses only five “ands” in the passage (as does the Tanakh translation). Alter, by contrast, gives us “and” all fifteen times:

And she came down to the spring and filled her jug and came back up. And the servant ran toward her and said, “Pray, let me sip a bit of water from your jug.” And she said, “Drink, my lord,” and she hurried and tipped down her jug on one hand and let him drink, and she let him drink his fill and said, “For your camels, too, I shall draw water until they drink their fill.” And she hurried and emptied her jug into the trough, and she ran again to the well to draw water and drew water for all his camels.

Why does Alter do this? It is not because he is unaware of the many subtle variations of waw. Nor is it because he follows an iron law that a Hebrew word (or particle) must always be translated with the same English word; he does not in fact follow such a law. Rather, he wishes, first, to represent the repetitions that would have been very noticeable to anyone listening to this text being read aloud—which is how almost everyone who knew the story in ancient Israel would have encountered it, since literacy was uncommon and confined largely to the priestly orders. (Thus when, in the reign of King Josiah, the priest Hilkiah discovers the long-lost book of the Law, it is read aloud first to the king and then to the whole people.) Moreover, the repetition gives a certain urgency to the story: In precisely the same way, people telling a breathless tale in English even today will insert after every sentence an identical “and then . . . and then . . . and then.” 

But why does this passage call for such breathlessness? What’s so remarkable about Rebekah’s offering water to the servant and his camels? Alter points out that the text’s early listeners would have known that “a camel after a long desert journey can drink as much as twenty-five gallons of water, and there are ten camels here whom Rebekah offers to water ‘until they drink their fill.’” In an environment in which water was rare and highly prized, Rebekah’s action marks her as a heroine of hospitality: Her generosity is as remarkable as her beauty.

But of course no translation, however faithful, can convey such information, can it? Ah, that’s what commentary is for. In his remarkable book Religious Reading, Paul Griffiths describes the curious genre of writing we call “commentary.” The genre originates in response to sacred writing, but eventually finds its way to other sorts of texts: legal, political, literary, and so on. Alter’s reflections on the Pentateuch are evidently not the product of “religious reading”: It is the artistry of the Scriptures that he is at greatest pains to stress, and both his translation and his commentary are at their best when they illuminate that artistry.

But, says Griffiths, to be a true commentary, a written work must exhibit three features: First, “some other work [must] be overtly present in it”; second, indications of the presence of that other work “should dominate” the commentary, “either quantitatively or qualitatively”; and third, the structure of the commentary, “the order in which material occurs in it, should be given to it by” that other work. Griffiths also makes the helpful suggestion that you can tell that a work is truly a commentary by excising all “direct quotation, paraphrase, and summary” of that other work from it: If the result is something senseless, you’re dealing with a commentary. This point enables us to see why many works of biblical and literary criticism are not commentaries: They possess their own structures, their own arguments, and would not be rendered incomprehensible even by the excision of most of their references to the books they are supposedly about.

There is nothing wrong with such non-commentarial criticism, but it usually does not, and certainly need not, treat the “other work” with reverence: It does not consider the other work as a master work, while commentary does—even when it wants to overthrow the work that is currently, however lamentably, its master. (The passive-aggressive duplicity of much biblical commentary was seen with shocking clarity by Kierkegaard: “Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close . . . . We would be sunk if it were not for Christian scholarship! Praise be to everyone who works to consolidate the reputation of Christian scholarship, which helps to restrain the New Testament, this confounded book which would, one, two, three, run us all down if it got loose.”)

It is a rare thing to find scholars willing not only to treat another text as a master work, but also to devote all their skill to illuminating that master work, revealing it in its best and clearest light. Robert Alter is a masterful scholar and a critic of exemplary sensitivity and tact who, both as translator and as commentator, has placed himself wholly in the service of the artfulness of the Torah. It is because he has been so attentive in his commenting that he can afford to be so daring in his translation, so immune to the “heresy of explanation,” so faithful to the literary details of the text that other translators either see as impediments or do not see at all. Conversely, it is his adherence to this specifically literary model of fidelity in representation that leads him into commentary that far exceeds the demands of mere annotation.

The conventions of modern publishing allow Alter to embrace the biblical text only by introductions—to the whole project and to individual books—and by comments at the foot of the page. There are, thankfully, no note numbers, only italicized phrases in the comments indicating the passage being addressed; the biblical text is unmarked, so it is easy to ignore the notes and pursue the narrative when one wishes. But of course the reader discerns the presence of the notes, and when they are long and detailed, cannot resist them. Nor should they be resisted; they’re wonderful.

Take, for example, the concluding verses of Exodus 25, which describe—rather unclearly, it must be said—the shape of an ornate lamp stand to be placed in the Tabernacle. Here is how the instructions and the chapter conclude: “And you shall make its seven lamps, and its lamps shall be mounted and give light in front of it, and its tongs and its fire-pans—pure gold. With a talent of pure gold shall it be made together with all these furnishings. And see, and make it by their pattern which you are shown on the mountain.”

By preserving the parataxis in a dignified sequence of “ands,” and by maintaining the repeated direct address—“you shall”—Alter clearly indicates both the ceremonial character of the Tabernacle’s construction and the fact that these laws originate in personal communication from the Lord to Moses. The latter point is, of course, emphasized in the specific reference to the revelation on Mount Sinai, but Alter’s translation of all these commandments reveals that the personal dimension never departs from them.

By contrast, the colloquial New Living Translation relates the instructions so laconically and impersonally that you would think Moses had picked up the lampstand at Target: “Make a lampstand of pure, hammered gold . . . . You will need seventy-five pounds of pure gold for the lampstand and its accessories.” In his general introduction to the translation, Alter emphasizes the importance of diction to the translator of the Torah: The language of biblical narrative, and still more of biblical poetry, is elevated in comparison to daily speech. In a society such as ours, where the same informality of speech reigns on television talk shows, on the floors of the Senate, and in the pulpits of churches, the importance of such differentiation may not seem evident. But Alter makes a convincing case that it was important to the biblical authors.

Moreover, in his commentary Alter shrewdly notes that the reference to Moses’ mountaintop vision “reflects an effort to anchor the instructions for the Tabernacle, which look like an independent literary unit, in the narrative context that in effect they disrupt.” That is, we are forcibly reminded here of the overarching story—the story of the Lord’s careful provision for his covenant people—which the numbing detail of instructions may cause us sometimes to forget.

And this is not an isolated example. Just two chapters later the altar is described in similar terms: “And you shall make poles for the altar, poles of acacia wood and overlay them with bronze. And its poles shall be brought through the rings, and the poles shall be on the two sides of the altar when it is carried. Hollow boarded you shall make it, as He showed you on the mountain, thus they shall do.” Here again the reminder of the vision the Lord granted Moses on Sinai—but with an addition, the puzzling shift to the third person: “thus they shall do.” As Alter’s commentary notes, “they” are the Israelites, so that the force of the passage is something like this: “God has so taught Moses how to build the altar, and the people of Israel will carry it accordingly.” The King James Version doesn’t quite get this, and assumes that that last clause means, “so shall they make it.” But most modern translations—even including my favorite one, the recent English Standard Version—simply ignore the clause altogether. (The Tanakh translation renders the clause, “so shall they be made,” which inexplicably makes the altar plural.)

It is true that the clause, with its sudden shift of grammatical person, is difficult to construe. But Alter assumes that it is there for a reason, indeed for a literary reason (though here, as is usual in Scripture, the literary serves the theological): It is a reminder of the force and point of the whole narrative that takes Israel from Egyptian captivity to the Promised Land. “Thus they shall do” reminds us that while it is Moses who receives the instructions, they are given—the Ark and Tabernacle are given—for the spiritual health of the people of Israel. Long after the death of Moses, the people will still carry, by those long poles, the altar, along with the other precious objects the Lord reveals to Moses; and when the Ark of the Covenant is taken from them by their enemies, their hearts will be broken; and when the Ark is restored to them, their King, David, will respond by “whirling with all his might before the LORD girt in a linen ephod, . . . leaping and whirling before the LORD.” (So Alter gives us the scene in his magnificent rendering of The David Story.) So that one clause, so neglected by most translators, opens us to an expanse of covenant history that goes beyond even the great bulk of the Pentateuch. Who are “they”? “They” are, simply, Israel.

It is this Israel—a single nation persisting somehow across all the centuries, personified in the name of its father, the striver-with-God first known as Jacob—to whom Moses speaks in the first chapters of Deuteronomy. Alter rightly stresses the peculiarity of this speech. The generation of Israelites who came into the wilderness were judged faithless by the Lord because they were afraid to claim the land that the Lord had prepared for them. They heeded (so we are told in the book of Numbers) the ten timid spies rather than Joshua and Caleb, the bold ones who were ready to risk all to enter the land of milk and honey. They therefore must continue wandering until they die in the wilderness, so that almost everyone Moses addresses in his great homily is under the age of twenty. Yet, Alter notes,

Moses repeatedly speaks as though they were all direct participants in or observers of the episodes he mentions. There is, I would say, a slide of identification between one generation and another. Most of those listening to Moses’ words could not literally have seen the things of which he speaks, but the people is imagined as a continuous entity, bearing responsibility through historical time as a collective moral agent. It is this assumption that underwrites the hortatory flourish, repeated in several variations, “Not with our fathers did the LORD seal this covenant, but with us—we that are here today, all of us alive.”

This is truly an extraordinary claim by Moses, because in a very obvious sense it was the fathers of his audience with whom God had sealed His covenant. But the obvious sense is not, here, the correct one. Moses is teaching the young people before him that the covenant is renewed in every generation: Every generation is Israel, as fully as Moses is, as fully as Jacob himself was.

Alter, as a reader mindful of artfulness, is constantly alert to the ways the Pentateuch subtly incorporates the grand story of Israel into the details of the text—even (or especially) those details that most translators and commentators ignore. And not just details, but even great swaths of text that interpreters tend to read cynically or condescendingly. The excruciatingly specific instructions that we have been considering—given twice, in full—are treated by many modern commentators as evidence that (as Alter put it in his Art of Biblical Narrative) “the redactors were in the grip of a kind of manic tribal compulsion, driven again and again to include units of traditional material . . . for reasons they themselves could not have explained”; and by other commentators as evidence of a priestly caste determined to make its own responsibilities and obsessions central to Scripture.

Alter considers such assumptions “ungenerous.” He grants that the priestly authors of the Hebrew Bible were doubtless sensitive to “the concerns of their own sacerdotal guild,” but he also doubts that so cynically simplistic an explanation for strange textual features is adequate to the complexity of the biblical text. For the devotee of the documentary hypothesis, every puzzling passage is an opportunity to introduce another capital letter (J, E, D, P) denoting another source or another unnamed redactor. But Alter prefers to “assume that the ancient writers and their audience had different ideas [than ours] about literary unity and about how story related to law.” This leads him consistently to make the charitable presumption that the biblical authors knew what they were doing, which in turn allows him to exert his considerable critical skills to imagine what that might have been.

The result is a translation-and-commentary that indeed shows the unfamiliar and often unexpected literary excellence of the Pentateuch. And because Alter (unlike Kierkegaard’s Christian scholars) has no interest in “protecting” us from the biblical text, his work also, however unwittingly, provides devotional encouragement to one who would read this text “religiously.” Reading the edgy, rhythmical prose of Alter’s translation, and consulting his tactful but richly woven commentary, such a reader comes away with a deepened sense of the providential care of the Lord for his Israel, the minute particularity of the covenantal relationship initiated by this God who allows not a sparrow to fall but by His will and numbers the very hairs of our heads. Has a story ever been at once so comprehensive, so intricate, and so integral as the one Alter gives us here? One is tempted to call it inspired.

Alan Jacobs is a professor of English at Wheaton College. His book The Narnian: the Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis will be published by HarperSanFrancisco in October.