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The Art of Bible Translation, by Robert Alter 

31 May 2019

John Barton considers Robert Alter’s book explaining his method

THE distinguished American literary critic Robert Alter has been working for some two decades on a translation of the entire Hebrew Bible. Individual sections have been published as he has progressed, but now he has produced the complete version in three enormous and sumptuous volumes; and this slim accompanying volume gives an account of his approach to translating the Bible and provides a flavour of the new version.

Unsurprisingly, much of what Alter writes is critical of other translations, particularly the committee-produced ones that tend to dominate the market, such as the Jerusalem Bibles, the New English and Revised English Bibles, and the Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh. (Oddly, he does not comment on the New Revised Standard Version.)

He does not doubt that these versions rest in general on sound scholarship, but deplores the fact that the scholars involved seldom seem to have any feel for literary translation. In his view, they mostly have a tin ear when it comes to rhythm, vocabulary choices, style, and register — as though knowing the biblical languages were all that was needed. This is a serious accusation, and Alter’s arguments should be taken seriously by scholars working on biblical translation, and either accepted and acted upon or properly rebutted.

The book’s chapter titles give the flavour of the work: “The Eclipse of Biblical Translation” laments the present state of the art, and the five chapters that follow deal in turn with “Syntax”, “Word Choice”, “Sound Play and Word Play”, “Rhythm”, and “The Language of Dialogue”.

Alter’s main complaints against modern translators are their excessive leaning towards the target language, English (there is little about translation in other languages); their insistent tendency to explain the laconic Hebrew text by making explicit what the Hebrew sometimes leaves unstated; and their practice of “elegant variation” where the Hebrew simply repeats the same word. All the time, they are afraid that readers may not get the point, or may be bored by repetition, or may be struck by the paucity of the vocabulary used.

Alter argues strongly that Hebrew prose, at least, operates with a deliberately restricted vocabulary (like French classical drama), so that drawing on the full range of the vast English word-stock gives a false impression of the original.

He also defends parataxis (all those sentences beginning with “And” in the King James Bible), and encourages the use of short “Anglo-Saxon” words rather than Latinate formations to imitate the terseness of the Hebrew. The result is that he often champions (and in his own translation imitates) the King James translators.

This is a useful, brief, and often polemical introduction to some of the issues in translating the Bible, but really needs to be read alongside Alter’s own version.

John Barton is Emeritus Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford, a Senior Research Fellow of Campion Hall, Oxford, and an Anglican priest.

The Art of Bible Translation
Robert Alter
Princeton University Press £20

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