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Conversation with… Dr. Robert Alter

Hebrew language scholar reignites the beauty of the Bible

By Cindy Mindell

Robert AlterAward-winning author and scholar Dr. Robert Alter has been translating the Hebrew Bible since 1999. His latest work, Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets – Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, has unleashed a torrent of critical acclaim. Malcolm Jones wrote in Newsweek, “You think you know these texts, or you do until you read Alter, who reignites their beauty in bracing and unexpected ways.” And Cynthia Ozick wrote, “The poets will rejoice. Alter’s language ascends to a rare purity through a plainness that equals the plainness of the Hebrew.”

Alter will discuss his work in Greenwich on Thursday, July 11.

Robert Alter is a professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley, where he has taught since 1967. He has written widely on the European novel from the eighteenth century to the present, on contemporary American fiction, and on modern Hebrew literature. He has also written extensively on literary aspects of the Bible. His books include two prize-winning volumes on biblical narrative and poetry and award-winning translations of Genesis and of the Five Books of Moses. In 2009, he received the Robert Kirsch Award from the Los Angeles Times for lifetime contribution to American letters.

Alter has translated more than two-thirds of the Hebrew Bible since 1999, when he published The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel (W.W. Norton), followed over the next decade by the publication (all by W.W. Norton) of the Five Books of Moses, the Book of Psalms, and the Wisdom Books (Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes). His translation of Genesis was illustrated by Robert Crumb in a 2010 publication.

Alter spoke with the Ledger about the tools and passion that fuel his translation work.

Q: How did you begin your translation work involving the Hebrew Bible, and how is a translator born?

A:  It was by accident. There’s somebody at W.W. Norton who then became my editor who suggested a certain project to me that might have involved the book of Genesis and supplemental material. I said that I could do the project but only if I did my own translation because there’s something wrong with all the translations that existed at the time. So I ended up becoming a translator of the Bible.

To do translation, you have to have an intimate relationship with each of the two languages, the language of the source and the language into which you’re translating, and you have to have a kind of love affair with both of them.  I really got a serious handle on Hebrew after my bar mitzvah. I grew up in Albany and by good luck, a small class was formed for a handful of boys post-bar mitzvah. The teachers began instructing us in a different way than they had, immersing us seriously in the language; the teacher spoke Hebrew to us and we learned Hebrew grammar. I went to Camp Ramah, which in those years was a totally Hebrew-speaking environment and I became quite fluent in speaking. When I was an undergraduate at Columbia, I took courses in the evening at Jewish Theological Seminary, not in the rabbinical school but in a kind of college of Jewish studies, and everything there was conducted in Hebrew – Talmud, Bible, literature, Jewish history. At that point, I developed this crazy idea to master Hebrew.

Q: You mentioned in a 2012 lecture at Rutgers,  “Anybody who translates a great work and thinks that he or she ‘has it’ is suffering from serious delusions. You have to accept that you’re only going to approximate; the question is, how good an approximation it is.” Why is that, and what tends to trip you up when you’re translating?

A:  Every great work of literature – and there’s much great writing in the biblical Hebrew – has a mastery of means in its own language. It’s not only the kind of perfect word choice and subtle shifts from one level of the language to another, but also the rhythms, the lengths of words, etc. When you’re translating, you can’t possibly get all of those, while all the different features come together in perfect harmony in the original language. In most cases, you decide what’s less important and you sacrifice something: maybe you don’t focus on the order of the words in order to achieve some other effect of the original that’s important; maybe I can get the rhythm of the language but not quite the English equivalents that have the exact same resonance as the original.

In translating poetry, for example, every once in a while you produce a line of poetry where you just manage to get a terrific equivalent in English, but that only happens once in a while. I often get stuck on the rhythm. Biblical Hebrew, and especially biblical poetry, is very compact. You can sort of make certain efforts to tamp down the English language and get it closer to the compactness, for example, if there are three words and six syllables in the Hebrew, you may end up with nine words and 10 and 11 syllables in English. Then there are words that have no exact equivalent in English so you have to come up with approximations and you know it’s not exactly the same.

Sometimes you cannot find a decent English equivalent. In the Book of Ruth, Boaz is described as “goel.” The direct translation is “redeemer,” but the Hebrew word refers particularly to a member of your family who has the legal obligation to pay a debt that you cannot pay. “Redeemer” sounds like Jesus Christ; if you use “kinsman,” you lose the “redeemer” part. So I would say “redeeming kin.”

There are other places where, simply by remaining faithful to what is going on in the Hebrew, you get the literary effects of the Hebrew. In Exodus chapter 2, in the beginning of the Moses story [after Moses has struck down an Egyptian taskmaster and tells two Hebrew men to stop brawling], Moses asks the Hebrew man who is in the wrong, “Why should you strike your fellow?” The man says, Mi samcha l’ish sar v’shofet aleinu, “Who set you as a man, prince, and judge over us?”

The Hebrew word ish, a very simple word that means “man,” occurs maybe half a dozen times in four verses and I’ve reproduced each of those repetitions. One way you can see that the writer is going out of his way to repeat it is in the phrase, “Who set you as a man, prince and judge over us?” That is, you don’t need to say “a man;” you can just say, “Who made you prince and judge?” But it was important to the writer to say ish because there’s something haunting about the way the word “man” is repeated. It leads us to ponder what is a man, what is a Hebrew man who’s one of Moses’s brothers, what is an Egyptian man, what is a man who is set up as a prince and a judge?

In the next few verses, when Moses flees and shows up in Midian, he is identified because of his clothing as ish mitzri, an Egyptian man, and that too has a sort of double meaning. In one sense, he is an Egyptian and in another sense he isn’t at all, and all that wonderful richness of ambiguity comes through the simple repetition of one of the most basic words in the Hebrew language.

Q: Why do Bible translators not transliterate biblical names exactly from the Hebrew, for example – “Yoel” is translated and pronounced as “Joel” in English versions.

A:  It’s a matter of the tradition of the European languages. For example, “Michael” is a Hebrew name, pronounced in Hebrew “Mi-kha-el.” All the translations into English, French, and German simply use the English form of the name rather than the transliteration of the Hebrew. Adoniahu, the son of David, comes out as “Adonija.”

There is one translator, Everett Fox, who represents all the Hebrew names in transliteration. The problem is that we have a certain tradition of reading the Bible in English that goes back to the sixteenth century, at least a century before the King James version. As a translator, I didn’t want to make the names sound too weird or to put readers off too much. If they’ve always been used to encountering “Solomon,” “Shlomo” will be weird to them.

Q: In a recent interview with the Forward, you spoke about the “tedious sections” in the Bible. While perhaps boring to a modern audience, what was their original purpose, and who was the ancient audience they were meant for?

A:  In the early part of Kings, when Solomon builds the Temple and his palace, you have about four long chapters in which there is an elaborate catalog of the furnishings of the Temple and the furnishings of the palace. A lot of that we only have a hazy idea of because the architectural and interior design drawings have been lost. This is not anything that would fascinate the modern reader, but it’s quite possible that if you go back to the 8th century BCE, an audience would have reveled in all these details as instances of the glory that was Solomon.

Literacy is a very early phenomenon in ancient Israel and the whole ancient Near East, so it’s reasonable to assume that only a learned elite would be literate. In any case, even if others were literate, it would have been very expensive to own a scroll; these are painstakingly labor-intensive hand-crafted products.

If somebody wanted to deliver the written form of the David story to an audience, he would have read it out to a group of people and the group probably was perfectly mixed – aristocrats, literate scribes, sheepherders and farmers and so forth.

In my own work, whenever I say, “This conveyed such and such a signal to the original audience,” I’m working by inference. If I see a recurring formal technique in the biblical narrative and it occurs again and again, I have to assume that this technique was not just built into this story for the amusement of the writer but was a signal that the writer wanted the audience to pick up. It’s akin to a device in our culture: when a storyteller says, “Once upon a time in a land far away,” the listener knows it’s a folktale.

Q: How do you decide what to translate? With your Bible work, have you gone in order?

A:  I have followed my own order. I translated Genesis as a kind of experiment to see whether my concept of translation is viable, and it turned out to be more viable than I’d thought. Then I jumped to David’s story in the Book of Samuel, my other favorite biblical narrative. Then I started getting a little more serious about doing more of the whole, so I went back to the Torah and did all of that. My next two choices, in terms of what I was drawn to do at that point and what would be meaningful to readers, was Psalms, which attracted a lot of interest, and then the three “Wisdom Books” – Job, Proverbs, and I particularly wanted to translate Kohelet (Eccesiastes).

I then went back to the order: the Former Prophets is a continuation of the five books, but now I won’t necessarily go in order. I’m almost through with a book of translated poems of [Israeli poet] Yehuda Amichai; I translated 100 poems, recruited some translations, and used some existing translations. My involvement in Hebrew literature began with the modern period, and I still teach it and have a great love for modern Hebrew literature. Yehuda Amichai is one of the great poets of the 20th century, for my money, in any language. He also happened to have been a dear friend of mine, so I have a sense of personal connection. I’d like, if possible, to get all the way through the whole Hebrew Bible, but I don’t consider that to be my only scholarly translator’s task.


Dr. Robert Alter will speak at the Bruce Museum, 1 Museum Dr., Greenwich, on Thursday, July 11, 7 p.m. His talk is sponsored by JCC Greenwich and UJA Greenwich.  For ticket information call (203) 551-1818 or visit www.jccgreenwich.org.


Comments? email cindym@jewishledger.com.






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