Someone once asked me how best to understand the Bible if they were unable to read the original Hebrew. I gave them the advice I’d received years earlier: read two or three different translations and note when they disagree or use a different expression. That signals a problematic word or phrase. However, even multiple translations cannot capture all the nuances of the text. Robert Alter writes about his attempt to overcome these difficulties in his new work “The Art of Bible Translation” (Princeton University Press). In it, he discusses the problems that arise when a translator tries to match the syntax, rhythm, word play and other literary aspects of the Hebrew Bible.
Alter, who recently published a new translation of the Tanach (the complete Hebrew Bible), was previously best-known for two books used in many rabbinical school and Judaic studies classes: “The Art of Biblical Narrative” and “The Art of Biblical Poetry.” Where Alter differs from many who translate the Bible is that his original specialty was comparative literature. In fact, as he notes in his introduction, he never planned to focus on translation. While he did have an interest in the Bible, he believed he would return to the study of comparative literature and publish works in that field. It is this literary background that makes his translation different. Alter notes that “the literary style of the Bible in both prose narrative and 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.” The way the words are used – from the word order to the specific word chosen – makes a difference in how the text should be understood.
Alter believes that the problem with many modern translations is because they are written by scholars in Judaic Studies Departments who, while they may know a great deal about biblical times, have no background in literature. This means they often fail to understand how the nuances of the language can change the meaning of a phrase or sentence. According to Alter, modern translators are looking for clarity – to make a text easy to understand – when the biblical text itself is doing the opposite. For example, Alter notes that “the Hebrew writers reveled in the proliferation of meanings, [and] the cultivation of ambiguities, the playing of one sense of a term against another.” That means the richness of the text is missing in most translations. Alter explains times when even his translation can’t capture the richness of the original text because there is no word in English that can duplicate the meaning of the Hebrew one, or when a short three-word phrase in Hebrew can only be translated into English using eight words, which throws off the rhythm of the text.
One example of this can be found in Alter’s discussion of how the text creates drama by the specific order of words. This occurs when God tells Abraham he is to sacrifice his son Isaac. The Hebrew sequence of the words in Alter’s translation is, “Take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac.” He then quotes three modern translations that reorder the sequence, placing Isaac’s name closer to the beginning of the quote. For Alter, the power of the statement is lost: “It is painfully clear that each [modern version] aims to make the Hebrew sound a lot more like ‘natural’ modern usage and also seeks to make it somehow more compact. The lamentable result is to erase an important effect inscribed in the word order of the Hebrew.” In the original Hebrew text and in Alter’s translation, Abraham does not know which son he is being asked to sacrifice until the end of the sentence.
Biblical poetry presents additional problems. Pronouns are often added to verbs and nouns, although three or more words may be needed in English. In addition, the present tense of the verb “to be” does not exist in Hebrew. This greatly affects how a poem sounds when translated. For example, Alter notes that, in Psalm 23, “the five words of the ‘the Lord is my shepherd’ represent just two in Hebrew, Yahweh ro’i, and there is no way of getting across this particular compactness in Hebrew in English.”
An additional problem can arise when the biblical text contains a literary technique Alter calls fronting. Fronting occurs when the most important word – the main emphasis – is placed at the beginning of a sentence in Hebrew. For example, Alter translates Genesis 18:10 as, “Look, a son shall Sarah your wife have.” Most translations he quotes place Sarah first and move the word son until the end of the sentence. However, Alter suggests that “it is surely important that God’s speech places that impossible, frequently desired thing, a son, at the beginning of the verse.” The text wants to emphasize the word son, not the name Sarah.
Alter notes that no translation is perfect, including his own. However, his comments on different translations and why he chose specific words for his own makes “The Art of Bible Translation” interesting reading. This short work (only 121 pages of text, not including a list of suggested reading and the index) manages to pack a great deal of material into its pages. Although some knowledge of the Bible is helpful, an understanding of Hebrew is not because Alter’s transliterations and explanations are clear and relatively easy to understand. Those interested in literary translation or the meaning of the Bible will enjoy discussing, and arguing about, the choices he made.