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 characterby Sameer Rahim / December 17, 2018 / Leave a comment
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…