Book Review: “The Art of Bible Translation” by Robert Alter

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Book Review: “The Art of Bible Translation” by Robert Alter

Many readers are likely to dismiss Robert Alter’s The Art of Bible Translation as inside-baseball for Bible scholars.  After all, the Bible is the Bible, right?

Well, not really.  The Bible means different things to different faiths.  For Jews, it’s the Hebrew Bible. This, with some adjustments, is included in the Christian Bible as the Old Testament along with the Gospels and other books of the New Testament.

Over the past two centuries, Bible experts from both religions, operating separately and together, have worked to better understand the language, culture and times of the writers who produced these works.  The goal: create translations that get closer to what those writers were saying — to the meaning of their words.  For both faiths, the books of the Bible were divinely or spiritually inspired, and it’s extremely important to get right the lessons they transmit about God and humanity.

A proliferation of Bible translations

There has been a proliferation in Bible translations since the middle of the 20th century, each striving to be as accurate as possible in taking the words from the ancient languages and putting them into English.  Of course, scholars being scholars, there are endless debates on the best approach to achieving this accuracy as well as endless disputes over particular words and phrases.

Then, Alter, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley, took to the field with a new argument — that the books of the Bible need to be translated as works of high literary merit. He argued his case in The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981), The Art of Biblical Poetry (1985) and now in his new book. As he writes in this new book, his work

“is impelled by a deep conviction that the literary style of the Bible in both the prose narratives and the poetry is not some sort of aesthetic embellishment of the ‘message’ of Scripture but the vital medium through which the biblical vision of God, human nature, history, politics, society, and moral value is conveyed.”

Think of it:  Would Romeo and Juliet have as much impact — as much meaning — if it were translated into another language without regard to Shakespeare’s style?

Great works of literature

Alter contends that the books of the Bible are works of literature — some, such as “Job,” among the greatest in human history — but modern translators don’t pay enough attention to the artistry that make them great.  Alter himself has done so over the past 20 years in his own translations of the entire Hebrew Bible.

In his indictment of modern translations, Alter’s not focusing on paraphrases of the Bible, such as Eugene Peterson’s hugely popular The Message, but singles out, for comparison, three painstaking scholarly efforts — the Jewish Publication Society version; the Revised English Bible, done by Protestant experts, and The New Jerusalem Bible by Catholic experts.  Also woven into his narrative is the King James Version which, although published in 1611 with many faulty word translations, is much more attuned to the style of the original writers than later translations.

Alter offers chapters on five subjects — syntax, word choice, sound and word play, rhythm and dialogue — looking in detail about how the Protestant, Catholic and Jewish books translate a line or a verse and how he finds them wanting.

“And” and “and” and “and”

For instance, he notes that the original writers extensively used parataxis which is the linking of parallel clauses with “ands,” such as in these lines from Genesis in the King James Version:  “And the flood was forty days upon the earth; and the waters increased, and bare up the ark, and it was lift up above the earth….”  Some of the words here are archaic, writes Alters, but the parataxis of the original is retained.

The three modern translations, however, do away with this, employing instead subordinate clauses, such as the Jewish Publication Society: “The Flood continued forty days on the earth and raised the ark to that it rose above the earth.”  Alter complains,

In this fashion, the grand rhythm of parallel utterances is turned into something commonplace….There is a sense that the modern biblical scholars who produced these versions drew on a literary experience limited to middlebrow magazine fiction.”

Not written for present-day readers

At bottom, Alter’s contention is that attempts to render the Bible into clear modern English are in error since its books weren’t written for present-day readers.  He writes,

“The Bible itself does not generally exhibit the clarity to which modern translators aspire: the Hebrew writers reveled in the proliferation of meanings, the cultivation of ambiguities, the playing of one sense of a term against another, and this richness is erased in the deceptive antiseptic clarity of the modern versions.” 

The counter-argument is sure to be made that the Bible needs to be made easy for people to read so they’ll read it.  But, if they read the Bible without its art, do they miss much of it?  As they would to read Romeo and Juliet without the art?

Patrick T. Reardon

7.15.19

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