“The beating heart of good prose”: Robert Alter on rhythm and translating the Hebrew Bible


Alter at Berkeley’s Heyday (Photo: Wendy Ruebman)

This week, Berkeley’s Robert Alter honored a lunchtime gathering at Heyday Books with his gentle presence and his scholarly wisdom – just in time for Purim. Alter is the translator of the surprise hit of the year: the new acclaimed 3,500-page Hebrew Bible (Norton). (We’ve written about his work here and here.) He’s also the author of Princeton’s The Art of Bible Translation.

I’ve been a big fan since I read his translation of Genesis more than two decades ago, and so I lugged my big-splurge purchase of 2019, the three-volume set, for his signature. (Gauche, I know, but I couldn’t resist – he only signed one volume before he rushed off to pick up his wife.)

The largely atheist/agnostic/”none” crowd was skeptical of the foundational masterpiece of Western civilization, but in a short hour or so, the amiable, learned Alter had them eating out of his hand. Rhythm, he said, is “the beating heart of good prose” and “not merely decorative.” He spoke about the iambic rhythm of Shakespeare, Milton, and Melville – “it wasn’t just icing on the cake for Melville” – and the intricacies of replicating the rhythm of ancient Hebrew. He decried “the dumbed-down modern versions – and they’re all dumbed-down.” He had to “scrape off the theological veneer” for “the detective work of language.”

I had a chance to chat with him for a few minutes before his talk. I mentioned that René Girard calls the Genesis story of Joseph the first representation of forgiveness, as something more than letting go of a debt or not clubbing an enemy, after all. Alter didn’t disagree, but he pointed out that the Old Testament also shows the first hero who changes over time, i.e., “character development.” To wit: the patriarch Jacob, who begins as a trickster on the make, ends by being tricked himself, and suffers cruel loss and bereavement. On his deathbed – humbled, broken, mourning – he says: “Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained the days of the years of my fathers in their days of sojourning” (in Alter’s translation, of course). Ancient heroes like Ulysses don’t do that – when he gets back home to Ithaca after twenty years  he turns right back and heads for the sea again. (Dante condemned it, though Tennyson rendered it as an act of heroism.)

In his introduction, Heyday publisher Steve Wasserman called Alter “enviably erudite and lovely.” He is, he is.

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