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Arts & Culture Bible Translator Robert Alter Talks About His Massive New Work

April 14, 2005
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Despite the Talmudic injunction that calls upon every Jew to write his own Torah, only a handful of scholars throughout history have attempted the monumental task of translating the entire Chumash, or Five Books of Moses. Yet Robert Alter, 62, who has taught Hebrew and comparative literature for three decades at the University of California at Berkeley, says he didn’t find it daunting to tackle the text at the heart of his people’s 3,000-year-old faith.

“Compelling, yes,” he said. “I was excited about the material.”

Alter spoke to JTA on Sunday after a workshop at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, the day before he received the Koret Foundation’s special book award for translation and commentary for his 1,060-page “Five Books of Moses,” published last fall by Norton.

Representing more than five years of work, the hefty yet highly readable English version of the Torah employs the Biblical translation style Alter has made his own: a painstakingly careful approach to the text that respects the tone, word choice, cadence and rhythm of the original Hebrew, and tries to duplicate all those qualities in modern English.

Just as the Hebrew of the Torah is, in Alter’s words, “simple, with a homespun quality,” yet also “formal,” his renditions into English are fluid yet not colloquial, tinted by a nuance of “archaic coloration” he feels is appropriate to the original.

Steve Zipperstein, a professor of Jewish culture and history at Stanford University and advisory board chair of the Koret Jewish Book Awards, says the committee created a special category this year to honor Alter’s work.

“He has real mastery of the Hebrew language, but also real mastery of English,” Zipperstein says. “He isn’t overwhelmed by the sanctity of this most holy of all texts, and at the same time he is sensitive to its rhythms.”

Alter says he embarked on the project because he felt existing Biblical translations weren’t very good.

The older Catholic and Protestant translators didn’t know Biblical Hebrew well enough, he says. Even the Jewish Publication Society version, begun in the 1960s and today considered the Jewish standard, is marred by “a deficient sense of English literary style,” and it shares the failings of the Christian translations, he says.

The compartmentalization of modern academia only hurts Biblical translation efforts, Alter says.

“Issues of literary style are not part of Biblical studies, take my word for it,” he says.

For example, biblical Hebrew uses a limited vocabulary, and key words often repeat in the same sentence. Modern literary preference is to find synonyms for those repeated words, which destroys the power and cadence of the original.

“If you’re not a literary scholar you may not pay attention to this, but I assure you, your pulse is paying attention,” he notes.

On the other hand, few literary scholars know biblical Hebrew well enough to hear the difference in nuance between the Torah’s prose and its older language of poetry, or its dialogue, which is stylistically different again.

Most critical reviews of Alter’s translation have been glowing. Judith Shulevitz of the New York Times opined that this is the version every English-speaking person should keep by his or her bedside.

That doesn’t mean it’s all smooth reading. Jewish readers used to the JPS translation of “tohu v’bohu” as “unformed and void” may wince at Alter’s “welter and waste.” But those two alliterative, slightly archaic words are in better stylistic synergy with the original Hebrew, Alter insists.

Anyway, his goal isn’t to coddle believers. The author of 16 previous books, including “The Art of Biblical Narrative,” “The Art of Biblical Poetry” and a 1999 translation of Genesis, Alter approaches the Torah as a literary scholar, with little interest in the text’s historical or moral significance, and even less in its preacherly or theological import.

Not that those aspects aren’t interrelated, he notes: The literary form of the text certainly has bearing on its moral or theological intentions.

“My sense is the literary vehicle is the way the writers wished to convey their religious vision, so you can’t distinguish between a literary effect and a moral effect,” he says.

Alter is close-lipped about his own faith, sidestepping questions about what it means for him as a Jew to translate the Torah. But he does say that the intense textual involvement required for translation leads a thinking person to question, not accept.

“When you look very closely, there are all kinds of things going on theologically in the original that don’t quite fit traditional religious positions,” he observes. For example, he points to Exodus 4, where God encounters Moses in a night encampment and tries to kill him.

“It’s very strange and scary. The God that’s operating in that enigmatic story is not at all like the God operating in Genesis,” he says. “If you study the Bible closely, you see that values are more multiple, unstable and ambiguous than later religious authorities would have it.”

Alter’s next book, due in July, is “Imagine Cities,” a look at how European novelists responded to the continent’s newly emerging cities. After that, he’ll do more Bible translations, perhaps a translation of Psalms.

Noting that William Tyndal, the 16th-century scholar who translated the Bible into English, “was strangled and burned at the stake for his troubles,” Alter says, “it’s easier to be a translator of the Bible today.”

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