Archive for March 13th, 2016

Robert Alter on translating the Old Testament, Hebrew, and “the greatest poetry in the whole ancient world”

Sunday, March 13th, 2016

Translator extraordinaire

I’ve long been a fan of Robert Alter’s Old Testament translations, ever since the 1990s. Frank Kermode is another apparently. He concluded in the New York Review of Books: “I cannot say that this is the best translation since 1611, only because I have not read the great mass of those that intervened; but I can say that in my opinion it is certainly a great translation, to be honorably compared with the admired Homeric translations of recent years.” John Updike waxed lyrical in The New Yorker:  “The ferocity of this tribal God measures the ferocity of tribal existence. … The miracle of the Pentateuch is that, unlike the numerous other tribes and gods that vitally figure in it, the Jews and their God have survived three millennia. The Israelites’ effort to claim and maintain their Promised Land fuels a contemporary crisis and occupies today’s painful headlines.” 

I was pleased that the Chicago Manual of Style blog “Shop Talk” recently interviewed the Berkeley translator. A few excerpts:

 You have now translated a large portion of the Hebrew Bible into English. What motivated you to take on such an enormous, high-profile, high-stakes project?

RA: I have to say that it really sneaked up on me. That is, I was dissatisfied with the existing translations, and I thought, well, I’ll give a whirl at translating Genesis and see if I can do something about the English that would make it exhibit more of the stylistic power of the Hebrew. I was rather unsure that this was going to work, but I figured it was worth a try. And it turned out to work better than I thought it would. Not that I ever think that my translations are perfect, but it got some very good responses: a rave review in the New York Times and that kind of thing. So I thought I’d do one other book that I like, and I translated Samuel, basically the David story, and that also got a nice response, and then I was kind of talked into doing the Five Books of Moses by my editor at Norton. And then because it was perceived as a fundamental building block of the whole Bible, it got reviewed all over in places I’d never been reviewed before like the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. So there I was. Up until a certain point I wasn’t thinking of doing the whole Bible, but then I looked back and said, “Hey, I’ve done about two-thirds of it, so I might as well go on and do the whole.”

songofsongsCMOS: Are there passages in your translations that you’re particularly proud of?

RA: I’m quite happy with my translation of Job, which I think is among the greatest poetry in the whole ancient world. I’m really happy with the way Job’s death-wish poem turned out, and I feel good about my rendering of the Voice from the Whirlwind. The very beginning of Genesis—which is the grand, stately prose of the writer identified by scholars as the “priestly writer”—I think that I’ve gotten something of the rhythms of that writer. And I think Jonathan Lear mentioned in his introduction the sound-play of the Hebrew phrase for chaos: Tohu Wabohu. And I’m happy with the alliteration of welter and waste.

CMOS: Are there any other translators whom you particularly admire? Do you ever find yourself emulating aspects of their work?

israelRA: The only English translation I honestly admire is the King James Version. You can’t directly adopt it, because the language is four hundred years old and there are lots of errors in understanding the Hebrew in the King James Version. Sometimes the seventeenth-century translators did wonderful things with the Hebrew because they had a great sense of the English language, but there are lots of lines that are clunky, where they seem not to have paid attention to how the Hebrew sounds. So there’s my qualified admiration of the King James Version. The various modern English versions I really don’t like at all. I think they have a very shaky sense of English style, and they don’t pay attention to things they ought to in the Hebrew. My one exception to this sweeping objection is that sometimes on the level of a single word, if I’m struggling to find a good English equivalent, I’ll look at a couple of other translations and say—oh, that word works better than the word I had come up with. (I never look at the other translations until I finish a draft of a section.) But that’s not exactly emulation.

Read the whole thing here.