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The Hebrew Bible: A translation with commentary, by Robert Alter 

31 May 2019

Charles Middleburgh praises a translation with a real difference

THE completion of Robert Alter’s decades-long exercise in translating the entire Hebrew Bible is both a monumental event and achievement. Arguably, this is the most significant Hebrew and Jewish Studies publication of the 20th century, and certainly the 21st.

Several books of this mammoth endeavour have been published over the years, but none prepares the reader for the impact of the full three-volume set. Sumptuously boxed, the covers of each volume are taken from Mordecai Ardon’s vibrant tapestry The Creation. The pages are all cream rather than white, enabling sustained study without too much damage to the eyes.

Alter’s structure is straightforward. Each book of the Tanakh is prefaced by an introduction that summarises the content, besides containing Alter’s opinions and perspectives. The biblical text translation occupies the upper half of the page; the lower has Alter’s explanatory notes, which are highly informative and include text-critical, comparative-cultural, and linguistic points.

The first of the three volumes, divided as in the Tanakh — i.e. the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets, and the Writings — contains an introduction, “The Bible in English and the Heresy of Explanation”. Alter sets out his approach and the reasons for it, set against a reflection on the translations that have gone before. He is not afraid to point up the shortcomings of those previous works, and perhaps his most sustained and trenchant comments are reserved for what he entitles “the heresy of explanation”.

Alter explains: “One of the most salient characteristics of biblical Hebrew is its extraordinary concreteness, manifested especially in a fondness for images rooted in the human body. The general predisposition of modern translators is to convert most of this concrete language into more abstract terms that have the purported advantage of clarity but turn the pungency of the original into stale paraphrase.”

This expresses the kernel of the entire exercise and Alter’s motivation throughout, and his intention is thus to enable “readers to sense why these ancient texts have been so compelling down through the ages”.

He exemplifies it by citing part of Genesis 24, in which Rebecca waters the camels of Abraham’s servant Eliezer, from the middle of verse 16 to the end of verse 20. The biblical Hebrew contains a plethora of the conjunction “and”, which Alter faithfully replicates in his rendition. To compare and contrast, he also cites the Revised English Bible version in what he calls, with heavy irony, “sensible modern English”.

The latter is smooth and makes the meaning of the Hebrew clear enough, but it lacks the energy and action conveyed by the Hebrew and is bland by comparison. All of us who work with and study the Hebrew Bible have a tendency to smooth over the language when we translate, and this is a powerful corrective, and an encouragement to try Alter’s approach.

On Christopher Wren’s tomb is the phrase Si monumentum requiris, circumspice (If you seek his monument look around you). The phrase aptly fits with the massive achievement of Robert Alter’s Hebrew Bible: A translation with commentary. Present and future biblical scholarship will long be in his debt.

Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh is Dean and Director of Jewish Studies at Leo Baeck College.

The Hebrew Bible: A translation with commentary
Robert Alter
W.W. Norton £90
Church Times Bookshop £8

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