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The Hebrew Bible:
A Translation with Commentary

by robert alter
norton, 3500 pages, $125

In 1582, Catholic scholars in exile at Rheims published an English version of the New Testament prefaced by a lengthy explanation and defense of their rendering, which, they said, accorded with the rule of St Jerome “that in other writings it is enough to give in translation sense for sense,” while insisting that “in Scripture, lest we misse the sense, we must keep the very words.” They were taking sides in a controversy already old by the fourth century and still ablaze in the twenty-­first: ­whether formal or dynamic ­equivalence should prevail in translating the Bible.

In the English-speaking world, the fashion of the past seventy years has favored the school of dynamic equivalence, bolstered by the elegant and muscular reasoning of Msgr. Ronald Knox in the essays that accompanied his single-handed translation of the Old and New Testaments, completed in 1950. Trained as a classicist and philosopher, himself a writer of exceptional grace, Knox had little patience for the scruples of the Rheims scholars:

Words are not coins, dead things whose value can be mathematically computed. You cannot quote an exact English equivalent for a French word, as you might quote an exact English equivalent for a French coin. Words are living things, full of shades of meaning, full of associations; and, what is more, they are apt to change their significance from one generation to the next. The translator who understands his job feels, constantly, like Alice in Wonderland trying to play ­croquet with flamingoes for mallets and hedgehogs for balls; words are forever eluding his grasp. . . . [Hebrew] tsedeq or [Greek] dikaiosune can mean, when used of a man, innocence, or honesty, or uprightness, or charitableness, or dutifulness, or (very commonly) the fact of being in God’s good books. Used of God, it can mean the justice which punishes the sinner, or, quite as often, the faithfulness which protects the good; it can mean, also, the approval with which God looks upon those who are in his good books. Only a meaningless token-word, like righteousness, can pretend to cover all these meanings. To use such a token-word is to abrogate your duty as a translator. Your duty as a translator is to think up the right expression, though it may have to be a paraphrase, which will give the reader the exact shade of meaning here and here and here.

These are very strong arguments, and if the Bible were a composition on the order of the Aeneid—from the fist of one man, completed on a single afternoon, self-standing and self-ratifying—I think they would be unanswerable. But in fact the Holy Scriptures are a collection of books, composed in three languages by numerous human authors over the course of a millennium and more, not connected by any intrinsic design but related by a shared tradition of belief and assembled, ultimately, on dogmatic grounds by the Church. That means the Bible translator has a different set of obligations from the man envisaged by Knox. Consider two graduate students: one studying classics, given a poem of Pindar to translate; the second studying Hebrew, given fifty lines from Isaiah. Both would accomplish their jobs by following Knox’s precepts. But if the passage given the Hebrew student were destined for a biblical translation, the task and its attendant responsibilities would be markedly changed. Many words and expressions in Isaiah have a prehistory (in earlier parts of the Old Testament), and others have a life of their own in later books of the Old Testament as well as the New. Translating in the Knox manner according to passage context would obliterate these intertextual connections, whereas a token translation would illuminate them.

Further, a biblical text is not so much read as heard, and not so much heard as re-heard, often hundreds of times in a single lifetime. It doesn’t need to make us catch our breath, and the translator doesn’t necessarily botch his job by failing to rivet our attention on first hearing. Again, the Bible is a liturgical book, and its use in the liturgy means the translator has aids to understanding that the translator of Pindar or Virgil does not, while he also has responsibilities toward the meanings or imagery bestowed by the liturgy in its own history of scriptural interpretation. In sum, though Knox was right to point to the substantial gains in intelligibility made by the sense-for-sense or dynamic equivalence approach, there are significant losses as well, and the battle ­continues—for the most part between sincere and ­worthy disputants.

The case for formal equivalence—on linguistic rather than theological grounds—is given a substantial boost by Robert Alter in his newly completed three-volume translation of the Hebrew Bible. (By modern conventions, the “Hebrew Bible” includes those books of Jewish scriptures composed and preserved in Hebrew or Aramaic, largely but not entirely overlapping those of the Old Testament.) Since the mid-1990s, Alter, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at UC Berkeley, has been engaged in the work of biblical translation while doing battle as an essayist against what he calls “the heresy of explanation,” expounded at length in his introduction:

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.

The kind of clarifications that the authors of the King James or Douay-Rheims Bibles would have consigned to marginal scholia or pulpit exegesis we often find today woven into the biblical text itself. So, for example, at Amos 7:12, the literal King James Version reads “Amaziah said unto Amos, O thou seer, go, flee thee away into the land of Judah, and there eat bread, and prophesy there.” The Hebrew ­idiom by which “to eat bread” is “to receive a stipend” is whited-out in many modern renderings, and the meaning behind the metaphor paid to the reader in cash: “Amaziah told me, ‘Amos, take your visions and get out! Go back to Judah and earn your living there as a prophet’” (thus the Contemporary English Version). Though “earn your living” succeeds in decoding one important sense of the Hebrew idiom, it misses the specific thrust of the priest Amaziah’s scorn: gluttony, greed, the image of teeth sinking into bread given the seer in payment for suborned perjury. More than a literary delight in vividness of presentation is at stake; the heresy of explanation puts at risk the ­deeper moral meanings of the original texts. Alter contends that such ­explanations are often needless where not actually mischievous, and he is especially alert to the language that concerns parts and functions of the body:

One of the most salient characteristics of Biblical Hebrew is its extraordinary concreteness, manifested especially in a fondness for images rooted in the human body. The general predisposition of modern translators is to convert most of this concrete language into more abstract terms that have the purported advantage of clarity but turn the pungency of the original into stale paraphrase. . . . The most metaphorically extended body part in biblical Hebrew is the hand, though head and foot are also abundantly represented in figurative senses. Now it is obvious enough, given the equivalent usages in modern Western languages, that “hand” can be employed figuratively to express such notions as power, control, responsibility, and trust. . . . But most modern translators substitute one or another of these abstract terms, introducing supposed clarity where things were perfectly clear to begin with and subverting the literary integrity of the story.

English readers are at a paradoxical disadvantage in this respect, as they are beneficiaries of the triumphs of the sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century translators—not only the King James team, but Coverdale and others—who were so successful at rendering the ancient languages into melodious English that many of the transposed idioms had become (and remained in the speech of our grandparents) naturalized to the point of triteness. To turn once more to Ronald Knox:

When a public speaker urges that we should give Chiang Kai-shek the right hand of fellowship, he means “give him the right hand of fellowship, as the dear old Bible would say.” And when you are translating the Bible, you must not describe the apostles “giving Paul and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, as the dear old Bible would say.”

Or again:

We should have thought it odd if we had read in The Times, “General Montgomery’s right hand has smitten Rommel in the hinder parts”; but if we get that sort of thing in the Bible we take it, unlike Rommel, sitting down.

Seven decades later, is our cultural awareness of the diction of the Authorized Version firm enough to make his point still valid? Dorothy Parker famously named her parakeet Onan, “because he was always spilling his seed.” It’s disputable how many of today’s Manhattanites would get the joke, and it’s entirely certain they wouldn’t retrieve it from the New English Translation’s rendering of Genesis: “So whenever [Onan] had sexual relations with his brother’s wife, he withdrew prematurely so as not to give his brother a descendant” (38:9). Discussing this same verse, Alter makes the point that Hebrew zeraʿ, seed, does double duty, referring not only to Onan’s emission but to the putative offspring denied his dead brother Er; as he translates: “When he would come to bed with his brother’s wife, he would waste his seed on the ground, so to give no seed to his brother.” The Hebrew sets the enormity of Onan’s crime before the mind of the reader by using explicit repetition to emphasize the connection between seed unsown and seed never-to-be-produced. By replacing the second occurrence with a term such as progeny, offspring, or descendants, the translator elucidates the semantics at the price of enfeebling the biblical imagery. “Lest we misse the sense, we must keep the very words.”

Alter is equally concerned to preserve in translation the sequential structure of Hebrew prose, which is often called ­paratactic—laid side-by-side like bricks in a course, joined by a uniform connective—in contrast with the hypotactic joinery characteristic of ancient Greek and Latin, by which conjunctions and other syntactical tools connect and subordinate ­clauses according to temporal, causal, concessive, final, and conditional relationships. Although Greek and Latin were incomparably superior in their refinements of syntax, biblical Hebrew had a considerable narrative power of its own. Says Alter:

[T]he characteristic biblical syntax is additive, working with parallel clauses linked by “and”. . . . The assumption of most modern translators has been that this sort of syntax will be either unintelligible or at least alienating to modern readers, and so should be entirely rearranged as modern English. . . . Parataxis is the essential literary vehicle of biblical narrative: it is the way the ancient Hebrew writers saw the world, linked events to it, artfully ordered it, and narrated it, and one gets a very different world if their syntax is jettisoned.

See it at work in an episode from Numbers 22:13–16, where Balaam is dealing with the emissaries of Balak. Preserving the Hebrew connectives, the KJV gives:

And Balaam rose up in the morning, and said unto the princes of Balak, Get you into your land: for the LORD refuseth to give me leave to go with you. And the princes of Moab rose up, and they went unto Balak, and said, Balaam refuseth to come with us. And Balak sent yet again princes, more, and more honourable than they. And they came to Balaam, and said to him . . .

This is how it appears in the New American Bible Revised Edition:

The next morning Balaam arose and told the princes of Balak, “Go back to your own country, for the LORD has refused to let me go with you.” So the princes of Moab went back to Balak with the report, “Balaam refused to come with us.” Balak yet again sent princes, who were more numerous and more distinguished than the others. On coming to Balaam they told him . . .

Almost every sentence-­conjunctive “and” in the Hebrew is replaced in the RNAB with a phrase expressing a temporal or causal relationship (e.g., “went unto Balak, and said” becomes “went back to Balak with the report”), and the result, at first glance, is greater lucidity and coherence. But the rudimentary syntax of the Hebrew has cumulative effects of its own, including reinforcement of the mounting vexation of Balak as his repeated efforts are stymied, with concomitant increase in narrative tension. What Alter says of a passage in Genesis 24 applies ­equally well to Numbers: “The reiterated ‘and,’ then, plays an important role in creating the rhythm of the story, in phonetically ­punctuating the forward-driving movement of the prose.” He is right to point out that efforts to eliminate “and” can produce “an abrupt, awkward effect in the sound pattern of the language, or to put it more strictly, a kind of narrative arrhythmia.”

Alter’s own translation exhibits throughout a close attention to the tempo and phrasing of the biblical text, in poetry as well as in prose. I find it on display in his fine rendering of the Oracles against the Nations in Amos, whose ­formulaic repetition of dooms-delivered, as ­Alter notes, “generates a kind of hypnotic drumbeat”—mimicking, perhaps, the advance of infantry on the march. Here, too, one can see how an “arrhythmia” ­introduced by the translator to diminish ­monotony may have the secondary ­effect of distancing the reader from the ­impact—and not merely the ­literary impact—­intended by the sacred ­author.

My own disappointments with ­Alter stem from the wish that he were bolder in following his own canons. Buoyed by his rejection of abstract paraphrasis for human body parts, I hoped, for example, he’d give us kidneys and livers for their Hebrew originals. Instead we get “that my conscience would lash me” (Ps. 16:7, kilyôay), and “their assembly my presence shun” (Gen. 49:6, kəḇēḏî). Wyclif and I were disheartened. And given his emphatic concern for preserving the levels of formality of biblical diction (not merely the lexical values), the same goes for the translation of hāʾāḏām in Genesis 1–2: “the man” in the KJV; “the human” in Alter. No rendering, true, can stand without extensive linguistic and theological justification. But English “man,” like Hebrew ʾāḏām, is part of the elementary vocabulary of every speaker of any level of education and is for that reason an eminently biblical word. “The human,” on the other hand, belongs to the diction of the sci-fi film and the divinity school. It jars.

Alter’s work is not only a translation, but a translation with commentary; roughly half the page is devoted each to text and to annotations, arranged by verse number. Alter’s notes, in keeping with his project, provide the explanations that other translators have pasted into the text itself, along with much information as to place names, historical background, textual obscurities, puns and double entendres, compositional layering, ancient religious practice, and occasionally exegetic disputes; he strikes a happy balance in addressing problems likely to puzzle the non-­specialist reader and those of concern to scholars or clergymen. Alter does not betray any personal religious or theological commitments (or antipathies) that I could find, and an agnostic scholar or pious Catholic alike would need to burrow deep to find cause for offense in his prefaces or commentary.

A final word of commendation, which treats of Alter’s modesty and as well his methodology. There is a beneficent humility, too seldom recognized, in letting the reader make direct contact with the idiom of the original text without interference from the pedant. We find an instructive example at Exodus 6:12, where Moses attempts to recuse himself from the task of pleading with Pharaoh and protests (in Alter’s literal version), “I am uncircumcised of lips.” The meaning of the idiom is not immediately obvious, whence several versions give an interpretation in place of a translation:

• I’m not a persuasive speaker. (ISV)
• since I speak with difficulty (NET)
• since I speak with faltering lips (NIV)
• poor speaker that I am (NABRE)
• for I am unskilled in speech (NASB)

None of these interpretations is unreasonable in context, but all are puzzling in view of the language of Exodus 4:10, where Moses already tried to disqualify himself on the grounds that “I am heavy-mouthed and heavy-tongued”—pointing explicitly, and in commonplace language, to his inarticulateness. This points to the possibility that the image “uncircumcised of lips” means more than simple awkwardness. Alter compares the prophet Isaiah’s protest that he is “a man of impure lips” (6:5) and perceptively remarks that the Exodus image may suggest “not merely incapacity of speech but a kind of ritual lack of fitness for the sacred task.”

But there is a deeper point to be made. As long as our knowledge of the Bible is imperfect, much of our translation and exegesis must remain conjectural. Yet where the original phrasing is preserved in translation, the reader or homilist is at liberty to follow his own lights in recapturing its meaning, whereas the explanatory translations cut him off from other possibilities. That’s to say, “uncircumcised of lips” permits the reading “poor speaker,” but not the other way around. The explanatory translator interposes himself between the reader and the idiom; the literalist keeps himself out of the way. Thus Alter, even where he has a strong opinion about the correct interpretation of the Hebrew, modestly restricts it to a footnote. This shows a scholarly respect for the reader; it may show a more-than-scholarly regard for the Author. The Rheims translators insisted their reluctance to smooth out difficult patches in the sacred text proceeded not from timidity but from reverence: “We presume not in hard places to mollifie the speaches or phrases, but religiously keep them word for word and point for point, for feare of missing or restraining the sense of the holy Ghost to our phantasie.” What is the advantage, we may ask, of a gain in intelligibility, if our translations make the murky readings more ­intelligible than the original text permits? Alter deserves our gratitude for his revindication of formal equivalence in translation and for the labor by which he has rescued vast tracts of English biblical narrative, not from obscurity, but from specious and arbitrary lucidity. 

Paul V. Mankowski, S.J., writes from Chicago.

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