Robert Alter: "Modern Bible translators have done a wretched job"

Robert Alter's new translation of the Hebrew Bible draws out the literariness of the text. He speaks to Prospect about why he decided to do a new edition, the act of translation, and what the Bible has to say about character

December 17, 2018
The covers of Alter's new translation are taken by tapestries by Israeli artist Mordecai Ardon. Photo: W.W. Norton
The covers of Alter's new translation are taken by tapestries by Israeli artist Mordecai Ardon. Photo: W.W. Norton
Robert Alter, who was born in New York City in 1935, has had a distinguished career as a translator and literary critic. He is the author of the 1981 The Art of Biblical Narrative and in 1987 with Frank Kermode the edited The Literary Guide to the Bible, key early works in the study of religious texts as imaginative works. 

Over the last 20 years he has been working on the mammoth task of translating the whole Hebrew Bible (also known as the Old Testament) into English, alongside a detailed commentary. His translation, which has won the PEN Center Literary Award for Translation, has just been published in full by Norton in three hardback volumes (£90). Prospect’s Sameer Rahim spoke to Alter down the line from his home in the United States.

Sameer Rahim: Let me take you to the beginning of this project. When Tyndale translated the Bible it was out of religious fervour. The Authorised Version, which drew on Tyndale, was commissioned by King James. How did your Bible translation begin?

Robert Alter: I had been interested in the literary aspects of the Bible for quite a few years and had written books on Biblical narratives and Biblical poetry. And then one day back in 1993 or so an editor at WW Norton in New York proposed that I do a Norton critical edition. He said, “Perhaps something from Kafka or something from the Bible?” So I said, “Well, one could do a very nice Norton critical edition of the Book of Genesis. But the problem is”—and I’m a person who doesn’t always watch what he’s saying—“there’s something wrong with all the existing translations so were I to do this, I would have to do my own translation.”

I was very committed to trying to get as much of the stylistic value of the Hebrew into English. But I thought it might not work at all because there’s such a gap between the two languages in structure and the semantic range of terms.

SR: What did you feel you could bring that current translations lack?

RA: The modern translators, English and American, have done a wretched job. They just don’t see the literary aspects of the Bible at all. I’m a literary type: I’ve devoted many, many pages to Fielding and Nabokov and Flaubert and Faulkner and so forth. I try to write lucidly and with a certain amount of flair, so together with sensitivity to the Hebrew, I also think that I have a certain resourcefulness about what you can do with literary English.

SR: When did you start learning Hebrew?

RA: When I was in my mid-teens really. I grew up in Albany, New York, and there they formed a small class for a handful of teenage boys and we got very good instruction from a young man who had just finished a doctorate at the University of London in Semitic languages. He taught us all the fine points of classical Hebrew grammar and it absolutely fascinated me.

When I did my undergraduate degree at Columbia, I continued my Hebrew studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary, which is a conservative Judaism fountainhead. Now I was not at all interested in anything theological but they offered courses in the Bible, medieval Hebrew poetry, modern Hebrew literature and so forth. I studied with an eminent scholar named HL Ginsberg.

SR: Your translation is very much a literary one. The characters have motivations, for example. Do you feel that’s true to the intentions of the original authors?

RA: The ancient Hebrew writers were certainly motivated by what we would call religious purposes—they had this new monotheistic vision of the world and they wanted to convey what God wanted of humankind and the people of Israel. But for reasons that I don’t think we can understand these writers happened to be brilliant literary artists and they chose to convey their religious vision in extremely artful narrative and sometimes very brilliant poetry.

It’s a great mystery why they were this good. Ancient Israel was this little sliver of land sandwiched in between these large, powerful and sophisticated cultures—the Syrians, and then the Babylonians to the east and the Egyptians to the south. But the Biblical writers developed literary skills that totally eclipsed their neighbours. My contention is that if you want to see what the Bible has to say about humankind, morality, human nature, God and Israel, history—if you want to see that in all its fine nuances, you have to attend to the literary workings of these texts.

Let me add something about character. The patriarchal stories are intended to explain national origins and the configuration of the 12 tribes. You might say they’re virtually ideological tales and that character as we think about it in fiction wouldn’t come into play—but it does. Jacob is very complicated and fascinating above and beyond any explanation of origins that the stories would be meant to convey. My inference is that these writers revelled in the invention of character: Jacob Israel as somebody who is devious, who bargains not only with other human beings but even with God, and is morally dubious in stealing his brother’s blessing and so forth.

SR: The first five books, traditionally speaking, were regarded as being written by Moses. Putting that aside for a moment, presumably, they had multiple authors. Do we know anything about who they were? And how does that then affect our idea of consistent characters in the texts?

RA: There are three principal sources for the first four of the five books of Moses: the E source, the J source and the P source. Deuteronomy is clearly an author distinct from the other three. And not only that but there are all kinds of bits and pieces that seem to be inserted in the text that may not be from any of the sources I’ve just reviewed. But all this has been assembled by a person or group of people called the redactor or the redactors.

Now the redactor I would not claim to be a master craftsman. At times, the splicing together of sources is a bit clumsy and there are unresolved contradictions between two different sources that have been brought together. But there is also some purposefulness in the redaction so let’s say manifestation of character in the patriarchal tales could cross over or be combined by two different sources. And by the way, these guys definitely did not work together. The J source, the so-called Yahwist source, is the oldest one. And E would come maybe as much as a century afterward, after J, and P still later.

SR: One of the great pleasures of the translation is the commentary. I want to take one example. In Geneses 3:6, the King James Bible says: “When the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was pleasant to the eyes.” You translate the same passage: “And the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and that it was lust to the eyes.” The word ta’awah­—“pleasant” in the KJV, could actually mean “intensely desired,” “appetite,” or “lust.” Of course, it seems wonderfully appropriate to the Genesis story.

RA: I thought that I owed readers an explanation that I’m not just being fanciful or arbitrary but there is something in the Hebrew here that previously translators have missed or obfuscated. But just as I didn’t initially intend to translate the Bible, I also didn’t initially intend to do a commentary. But I got about halfway through the first chapter of Genesis and I said, “So there’s really all kinds of interesting things here, especially from a literary angle that previous commentators have not dealt with.”

SR: The passage we just quoted raises the parataxis question—all those “ands.” Unlike many modern translators, you retain them from the Hebrew, as the KVJ translators did.

RA: I would guess that the KJV translators reproduced Hebrew parataxis because they thought, “Well, if God put the words in this order, that’s the order we have to follow.” But it was a happy decision because then they made parataxis a much more usable, stylistic form for English writers. Melville is full of parataxis. Hemingway is strongly influenced by the KJV, and even Joyce—think of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses. Modern translators repackage the syntax to make it sound a lot like modern English. And that destroys all kinds of stylistic effect of the original.

"David’s rather inscrutable"

SR: In your introduction, you describe David as one of the most unfathomable figures in ancient literature. Could you explain?

RA: Through the first half of his story, David’s rather inscrutable. He’s a beautiful young man, gifted in playing the lyre or whatever musical instrument he’s playing, and a military hero. But we don’t know much about what he’s thinking. An example would be when Saul offers him the hand of one of his daughters and he says, “Who am I and who are my kin, my father’s clan in Israel, that I should be the king’s son-in-law?”

Now this is a public statement; it’s a political statement. Is it just court etiquette that if the king offers you his daughter you say, “Oh, I’m not worthy, sire,” or is it does he really feel that he’s unworthy? Or does he above all want to hide his interest in marrying into the royal family because that would strengthen his claim for the throne for which he’s been clandestinely anointed? There are all these mystifications about what really makes David kick.

And the Bathsheba story is the great pivot. David has been fasting and putting on sackcloths and imploring God to save the child he has had, adulterously, with Bathsheba. And it doesn’t work. And then all of the sudden he comes out, he bathes and he puts on fresh clothing and he orders a sumptuous meal. His courtiers ask why. And he makes this amazing statement: “And now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I am going to him and he will not come back to me.”

This is the first statement in the entire story that he makes that couldn’t possibly be politically motivated. It is David in his human nakedness confronting his own mortality. And then we see him in all kinds of conflicted and contradictory situations with his sons with the powerbrokers in his court and so forth. And then at the very end you have this brilliant young man after six decades or more shivering in bed, reduced to the lowest denominator before his death. It’s quite remarkable. I don’t think there’s anything like this in Homer.

SR: I think it’s generally agreed now that David was a real person. But is the story contemporaneous, or are later generations remembering back, like Shakespeare’s history plays?

RA: What the minimalists say is that David is a kind of fantasy figure like King Arthur but that makes no sense because he’s not idolised: we see David collaborating with the Philistines, Israel’s arch-enemies; David committing adultery and murder. My inference is that these stories received literary formulation within a few generations after David actually lived; it’s conceivable that some of the stories were based on eyewitnesses and that the writer is only a generation or two removed from David, but there’s no way to prove that.

The writer gave literary articulation to the facts reported to him or perhaps even documented for him. But he allowed himself leeway. There are dialogues where nobody else is present, just David and Saul or David and Jonathan. Obviously, he had to invent them. And then there are interior monologues which clearly are his inventions. But I don’t think these are the meant to fictionalise or reinvent history—they’re used as a means to try to understand what happened in history.

SR: One book that was apparently written by someone in the Davidian line was Ecclesiastes. Or as you call it, The Book of Qohelet. The second line in the KJV is, famously, “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” You translate it as: “Merest breath, said Qohelet, merest breath. All is mere breath.” How did you come up with that?

RA: In certain instances, the King James translators were decisively influenced by the Vulgate, the old Latin translation. And Latin and then English has a certain fondness for abstractions. By vanity, of course, they clearly intended it to imply a kind of emptiness or pointlessness, which is roughly the intent of the Hebrew idiom. But Biblical Hebrew often uses metaphors in place of abstractions, especially in Qohelet. The puff of breath that comes out of your mouth on a cold day and just dissipates is a wonderful representation of futility.

SR: At the end of that book, after this deeply philosophical account of existence and its pain, there’s an epilogue which says fear God and keep his commands etc. And it seems in some ways to contradict what has gone before.

RA: This is an editorial addition to more or less make this radical book kosher so it could be included in the Bible. You could ask: “Well, why do they want to include it at all?” And my response would be that this is such a profound and moving book, it’s such an unblinking vision of human existence that Hebrew readers didn’t want to give it up.

SR: We haven’t talked about God yet. He’s obviously known by different names in the Hebrew Bible—would you say it’s the same God all the way through?

RA: There’s certainly an evolution of the idea of God and the concept of monotheism through the books of the Bible. That is, if you look at Genesis, God is unabashedly anthropomorphic. He goes for a walk in the cool of the evening breeze in the garden. And when he shows up with two sidekicks at Abraham’s tent, he looks like just another person. And in fact, Abraham sends one of his household people to prepare a sumptuous meal which God and his two companions evidently consume. By the time we get to the burning bush in Exodus, you can’t see God and just his voice speaks out.

Now, there’s also the question of God’s relation to these other figures that are called gods. And in the Song of the Sea, Exodus 15, you have this refrain: “Who is like You among the gods, O Lord.” Most biblical scholars conclude that there’s no denial of the existence of other gods but they have no serious power. Now by the time we get to Isaiah, especially second Isaiah which would be the sixth century before the common era, all that is gone. You have one God that dwells on high and the other gods are mere delusions.

SR: What gave you most pleasure to work on?

RA: I think that what gave me most pleasure and satisfaction in the narrative prose was Genesis, especially the patriarchal narratives and the really great Jacob-Joseph story—and of course the David story.

With poetry, I’ll give you two candidates. One is The Song of Songs, a kind of gorgeous love poetry that manages at the same time to be ripely sensual and refined. The pinnacle of Biblical poetry, and certainly one of the greatest poems composed in the ancient world, is Job. I tried to be faithful to Job’s extraordinary inventiveness and figurative language. But to also get some of the compactness and the rhythmic power of the Hebrew. And to avoid as much as possible polysyllabic words, which means by and large to favour the Anglo-Saxon component of English vocabulary over the Greek and Latin.

In Psalms 30 the speaker in the poem wants to say to God, “What’s the point of letting me die when I could hang around and praise you?” So there’s a line in the KJV that reads, “What profit is there in my blood?” Now that doesn’t have much of a rhythm. And so I dropped the “is there” and I translated it as: “What profit in my blood?”, which pretty much replicates the Hebrew cadence. And I tried to do that sort of thing as much as possible in translating the poetry.