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Book review: “Lamentations,” translated by Robert Alter

Muslims, it seems to me, are onto something when they assert that their sacred text, the Qur’an, the Word of God given to Muhammad in Arabic and later written down in that language, is untranslatable.

It is for this reason, notes religion historian Bruce B. Lawrence, that, when the holy book is rendered in another language, it is described in its title or subtitle as “an interpretation of…” or “an explanation of…”  The point is that, when it comes to the Qur’an, the real thing is the real thing, period.

That’s not how the translations of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible are described. 

Indeed, some Christian sects assert that every word of the Old and New Testaments is sacrosanct. They say this, even though they are talking about these texts in English, as if that were the language that the Biblical writers employed.

An emptiness, then words

There are dozens of translations of the Bible — literal ones, early modern ones, Catholic translations, Jewish translations, modern renditions and classic renderings, such as the King James Version. There’s even the Bible Hub website where it’s easy to study the sometimes radically different ways in which a particular Bible verse is translated.  They’re all stacked one after the other down the digital page.

These many translations at Bible Hub are all the result of study by experts of one faith or another who are examining the original sources from the perspective of their own belief system.

Another type of translation is one that approaches the original Biblical text from the perspective of literature.  In essence, these are writers who look at the words and try to tease out what the original writers — not God — had in mind when they created the document.

To some believers, this may seem something of a sacrilege or, at least, wrong-headed. 

Yet, at the heart of this approach is a recognition that the Bible is a work which has had an immense impact on world art and literature and that, even if inspired by God, each book was conceived and produced by one or more human beings who made decisions on what words to put where and how to tell what story. 

Just as I sat down at the computer to write this book review, so did the writer of the book of Genesis and the book of Job and the book of Lamentations.  There was emptiness, and then there were words.

The tiny way

Many of the translations of a particular verse at Bible Hub or Bible Gateway will be very similar, but, as I noted, some will be strikingly different, such as in the story of Elijah in the first book of Kings.

Elijah was hiding in a mountain cave, and God told him to go outside because he would be passing by. But, when Elijah went out there, he didn’t find God in the buffeting wind or in the earthquake that shook the heights or in the fire that followed.

And, then, according to the King James Version of 1 Kings 19:12, God was there in “a still small voice.”

Other translators render it differently:

  • “a low whisper,”
  • “a hissing of thin wind, or breathing softly,”
  • “a gentle whisper,”
  • “a light murmuring sound,”
  • “a gentle blowing,”
  • “a voice of light stillness,”
  • “a whistling of gentle air,”
  • “a gentle breeze,”
  • “a still soft hissing.”

Robert Alter, the literary critic who spent several decades translating the Hebrew Bible, renders it as “a sound of minute stillness.”

All of those phrases convey the tiny way through which God became present to Elijah, but each provides a different coloration to that presence. 

This range of renderings is a reminder that translation is an art, even in so-called “literal” translations.  It’s an interpretation, and, in that way, it is the creation of something new — something that is the result of teamwork between the original author and the translator.

Three renderings

Alter’s translation of the short, idiosyncratic book of Lamentations from his 2019 rendering of the entire Hebrew Bible provides a case in point.

The lament of the title is a grieving for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BC and the Babylonian exile of many thousands of Jews. 

Nonetheless, four of the book’s five short chapters are written as alphabetic acrostics based on the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, a fact that puzzles Alter.  “It is unclear why the alphabetic acrostic form was felt appropriate for these laments.”  After all, an acrostic can be viewed as a version of literary grandstanding.

Perhaps, for that reason, Alter makes no attempt to translate the chapters into acrostics in English.  This decision allows him to highlight the “many powerful images of devastation” and “the arresting images of a once glorious nation reduced to utter wretchedness” that he finds in the book.

To highlight the very different ways that translators can interpret a text, I’ve selected four excerpts from Alter’s version and placed them next to the same section from the King James Version and from the 2001 translation by David R. Slavitt.

Faith and Auschwitz

Alter makes the point in his short introduction to Lamentations that, despite the great desolation and suffering in the book, even to the point twice of cannibalism, the writer does not lose faith in God:

Against the panorama of horror, the elegist, not limiting himself to keening over the destruction, repeatedly affirms his faith in a just God Who has punished Israel for its transgressions but Who in the end will redeem it and exact retribution from its enemies for their cruel excesses.

By contrast, Slavitt sees the destruction of the Temple as one of a series of catastrophes that have afflicted the Jewish people down through the centuries.  In a 58-page meditation on the biblical text, written in the cadences and diction of Lamentations, he writes:

They answer each other somehow, the Temple and Auschwitz, for

     if one was the place where God was present, the other was the

     place from which he was absent….

Our first loss was of Eden, which may be said to have figured all

     other disasters.  The many destructions of Jerusalem were

     confirming catastrophes.  In our grief there was a wisdom we

     acquired — or it acquired us.  It made us what we are, yearning

     for relief but no longer expecting it…

After the ruin of the Temple, we could never again be surprised —

     not even by Auschwitz.

Here are the four excerpts:

Lamentations 1:1

Robert Alter

How she sits alone,

   the city once great with people.

      She has become like a widow. 

Great among nations,

   mistress among provinces,

      reduced to forced labor.


King James Version

How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! how is she become as a widow! she that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary!


David R. Slavitt

Alas, a woman, widowed, alone, the city sits that once was full of

people and great among the nations, a princess among the

provinces, now turned tributary.


Comment: Alter’s choice of ending this verse with the widow, Jerusalem, reduced to “forced labor” carries a greater punch, I suspect, for the modern readers.  For the original writer’s time, perhaps, the princess made into one who pays tribute might have been more powerful.

Lamentations 3:15-16

Robert Alter

He fed me full with bitterness,

   gave me wormwood’s draught.

He made my teeth crunch down on gravel,

   crushed me in the dust.


King James Version

He hath filled me with bitterness, he hath made me drunken with wormwood.  He hath also broken my teeth with gravel stones, he hath covered me with ashes.


David R. Slavitt

Gall and wormwood are all I know, and the bitterness of a soul bowed down. …

   Justification one dreams of when they crush his mouth in the dust.  Just

   wait, he thinks, and he hopes that there yet may be reason to hope.


Comment: Slavitt reproduces the acrostic approach of the original text, and he writes, “Obviously, to reproduce the acrostics requires a translator to rove a little, to reorder, to adjust.”  For that reason, I had to select sentences from different verses of his translation that seemed to me to fit Lamentations 3:15-16.  The three translators provide striking images for the same original words in the text: “made my teeth crunch down on gravel” and “broken my teeth with gravel stones” and “crush his mouth in the dust.”

Lamentations 3:24-26

Robert Alter

“My portion is the Lord,” I said,

   therefore I yet hope for Him.

Good the Lord for those who look to Him,

   for the person who seeks him out.

Good that he hopes in silence

   for rescue from the Lord.


King James Version

The Lord is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in him.

The Lord is good unto them that wait for him, to the soul that seeketh him.

It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the Lord.


David R. Slavitt

Never lose faith but look to examine your ways and your people’s. 

   Now, even now, let us lift up our hands and our hearts to the

   Lord.  Nod in acceptance and know that we have not yet been



Comment: This is the affirmation of faith that Alter mentions in his introduction, and it’s one that is echoed by the King James Version. To my mind, the Slavitt rendering seems less whole-hearted, particularly “Nod in acceptance.”  Still, this may be more a result of fitting the acrostic translation needs than anything else.

Lamentations 4:10

Robert Alter

The hands of compassionate women

   cooked their own children —

they became nourishment for them

   in the shattering of my People’s Daughter.


King James Version

The hands of the pitiful women have sodden their own children: they were their meat in the destruction of the daughter of my people.


David R. Slavitt

Jews, starving and crazed, have boiled their own children.  Thus the

   depths of destruction of the city and people.


Comment:  This verse, echoed by another in Lamentations, is certainly among the most horrific in the Hebrew Bible: “cooked their own children” and “boiled their own children” and “sodden [an archaic English word for boiled] their own children.”  This verse represents perhaps the fullness of the grieving of the Jewish people in the wake of the Temple’s destruction and Babylonian captivity — and, for modern Jews, the grieving for the Holocaust and all else that has happened to them.

Patrick T. Reardon


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