By Avi Steinberg
One morning this fall, at his home high in the Berkeley hills, the literary critic and translator Robert Alter chatted with me about the dilemmas he faced while translating the Hebrew Bible. Alter, who is 83, sat on a sofa with a long-limbed, feline watchfulness. Behind him, a picture window looked out onto a blooming garden; now and then a hummingbird appeared over his left shoulder, punctuating his thoughts with winged flourishes. He occasionally cast a probing eye on his brand-new, complete translation of and commentary on the Hebrew Bible — from Genesis to Chronicles — which, at more than 3,000 pages, in three volumes, occupied most of an end table. Published this month, it represents the culmination of nearly two and a half decades of work.
Alter told me about his decision to reject one of the oldest traditions in English translation and remove the word “soul” from the text. That word, which translates the Hebrew word nefesh, has been a favorite in English-language Bibles since the 1611 King James Version. But consider the Book of Jonah 2:6 in which Jonah, caught in the depths of a giant fish’s gut, sings about the terror of near-death by water. According to the King James Version, Jonah says that the Mediterranean waters “compassed me about, even to the soul” — or nefesh. The problem with this “soul,” for Alter, is its Christian connotations of an incorporeal and immortal being, the dualism of the soul apart from the body. Nefesh, to the contrary, suggests the material, mortal parts, the things that make us alive on this earth. The body.
“Well,” Alter said, speaking in the unrushed, amused tone of a veteran footnoter. “That Hebrew word, nefesh, can mean many things. It can be ‘breath’ or ‘life-breath.’ It can mean ‘throat’ or ‘neck’ or ‘gullet.’ Sometimes it can suggest ‘blood.’ It can mean ‘person’ or even a ‘dead person,’ ‘corpse.’ Or it can be ‘appetite’ or something more general: ‘life’ or even ‘the essential self.’ But it’s not quite ‘soul.’ ”
But, I asked Alter, doesn’t “soul” help dramatize the scene’s intense emotion? I mentioned another instance of the word nefesh, the terrifyingly evocative line from the King James’ translation of Psalm 69: “For the waters are come in unto my soul.”
“Oh, yes,” Alter said, with a smile. “That one does have a certain emotional resonance to it. But it’s not what the poet had in mind. And, I would add that the line ‘for the waters have come up to my neck’ … is also rather dramatic.”
Later I looked up the Jonah verse and saw that Alter’s translation was true to the poem’s formal structure. The verse starts with Jonah’s declaring that water had reached his nefesh — his “neck,” as Alter had it — and ends with his exclaiming that his head had been covered with seaweed. Biblical poetry is often made up of line pairings composed of analogous images, and Alter had chosen an anatomical noun, “neck,” that logically matched “head” in the parallel clause. You don’t need to know Hebrew etymology to see that “soul” doesn’t fit the analogy. The poetic structure dictates its own logic.
Tracing these kinds of formal structures in the ancient Hebrew text, exploring their significance and arguing for their relevance has been Alter’s lifelong mission as a literary critic. As a translator, he has tracked verse by verse through the Hebrew Bible to make these structures visible in English, in some cases for the first time. Over the course of his career, he has also helped establish the University of California, Berkeley, where he has been a professor since the 1960s, as one of the world’s premier centers of Hebrew literary study. Selections of his Bible translation, which have been published every few years since the 1990s, have sold robustly and received praise from literary critics like James Wood, who wrote that Alter’s 2004 volume, “The Five Books of Moses,” “greatly refreshes, sometimes productively estranges, words that may now be too familiar to those who grew up with the King James Bible.” Now we finally have the complete translation.
But what, I asked Alter, motivated him to undertake this massive project? What exactly is the problem with the hundreds of other English translations that already exist? In response, he offered an example, reciting for me the Song of Songs, Chapter 1, Verse 13, as it appears in the popular translation of the Jewish Publication Society: “My beloved to me is a bag of myrrh/Lodged between my breasts.” When he alighted upon the word “bag,” Alter pointedly turned to me with a look of deep condemnation. His face transmitted, in full, his commentary on this text: Only translators devoid of style, those who lack even a rudimentary grasp of the connotative powers of language, much less those with any sense of sex appeal, would animate erotic verse with diction such as this. And then there was that other word.
“Lodged?” Alter said to me, his startling blue eyes widening. “Like a chicken bone?”
Alter’s own translation of the verse — “A sachet of myrrh is my lover to me,/All night between my breasts” — is far more seductive, with its meowing alliteration of Ms, his triplicate myrrh-my-me, which echoes the rolling three Rs of the Hebrew, tsrorr hamor.
It is also boldly unfaithful. Whereas in the first verset Alter matches the Hebrew syntax precisely, in the second he unties the drawstring of a verb, yalin (a play on the Hebrew noun laila, or night), that the Jewish Publication Society edition translated as “lodged.” By dropping the verb entirely from the translation, the dramatic urgency and nocturnal mood of the verb is somehow deepened. If the old Hebrew word is now veiled in the English, it is also more present, under the covers.
“In the Song of Songs,” Alter told me, “we see later biblical Hebrew writers playing with poetic possibility as much as with erotic possibility. These poems are clearly aware of the conventions of Hebrew poetry that preceded them — and this, I think, was and still is part of why it is exciting to see a slight loosening of some of these poetic strictures.”
And what about those strictures? Just how did the Song of Songs, a racy pop album that was possibly sung in ancient taverns, arrive in Holy Writ?
“It’s the language,” Alter told me. “The artistry of the Hebrew Bible, whose full colors and intricate patterns and designs we can never see in full, especially as they have faded under the accumulations of theological and historical readings. And the task of restoring those original colors and shadings — their nuances — is, I believe, still incomplete.”
No book has been retranslated as often as the Bible, because no book has been as widely republished. The Bible isn’t just the all-time best seller, it’s consistently so, especially in the United States, where in a typical year about half a billion dollars’ worth are sold. Legions of Bible readers hunger endlessly for new versions. One of these, which Alter finds endearing, is a loose, vernacular rendition titled “The Message,” by the Rev. Eugene H. Peterson, which describes the uncreated world at the beginning of Genesis as a “soup of nothingness” and has God command his new creation by exclaiming, “Earth, green up!”
Most translations, however, are more standardized. Of today’s popular versions, most have been commissioned by religious authorities and executed by committee, designed for the utilitarian needs of their congregants — or more likely of their leaders. They make little effort to represent the artistry of either the Hebrew or the English languages, much less of both at once, as Alter tries to do. But religious authority and great art aren’t necessarily at odds: The pious 17th-century translators of the King James Version, who themselves worked in committees, were, as Alter puts it, “masters of English style.” In fact, Alter sees the King James Version’s continued influence, despite the steep competition, as evidence that readers seek art as much as doctrine in their bibles.
“I think the English reader, regardless of background, and religious or not, comes back to [the King James] because of the magnificent language,” he said. “Imagine if Lincoln had concluded his speech by saying ‘shall not come to an end,’ or something like that, instead of ‘shall not perish from the earth.’ That kind of language was powerful to those who heard it, and today, not only because it is a quotation from the Bible but because the sound of the words moves us.”
Still, as a readerly translation of the Bible, the King James is imperfect. Its archaisms aren’t always grand; sometimes they’re just dead weight. Its Christian bias, in theologically freighted words like “soul,” can be a distraction. And some of its translations are simply incorrect, as we’ve learned thanks to advances in Near East philology and archaeology since the 19th century. The translators of the King James, though they were masters of English style, showed little interest or ability to represent the characteristic forms of ancient Hebrew, especially, as Alter has argued, in the poetic sections. If the King James demonstrates that the Hebrew Bible can be made an English masterpiece, it also proves that even a masterpiece of translation is never the final word.
Alter came to the biblical text first as a reader and interpreter. In his early critical writings on the Bible, in the 1970s, he pushed against a dominant view within academic Bible scholarship that the ancient texts were effectively a big messy pile of documents, useful mostly for what data they might yield to linguists in their tallies of Semitic verb forms or to historians in their efforts to document ancient cultic practices.
Alter didn’t deny the central theory of the field at the time: that many of the texts had been stitched together, over many years, by various sects with various agendas. These seams are, after all, visible in the texts themselves — for example, in narrative duplications, beginning, famously, with the two contradictory versions of the creation story of Adam and Eve in Genesis. One says that Adam and Eve were created together while the other tells a story of Adam created alone, trying and failing to find a partner among his fellow creatures, until God surgically removes his rib to create Eve.
But Alter objected to the assumption of modern scholars that the Bible’s editors must therefore have, almost compulsively, inflated these texts with “material that made no connective sense,” as he put it in his influential 1981 book, “The Art of Biblical Narrative.” To Alter, this idea, which he characterized as “wrongheaded” and “extravagantly perverse,” is amply refuted by the texts themselves, which, in significant cases like Genesis, display a fine tapestry that could only have been intentionally woven. In “The Art of Biblical Narrative,” after demonstrating that the two creation stories complement each other in their language and imagery, Alter concluded that “the Genesis author chose to combine these two versions of creation precisely because he understood that his subject was essentially contradictory, essentially resistant to consistent linear formulation, and that this was his way of giving it the most adequate literary expression.”
The art of the biblical narrative, Alter hypothesized, was finalized in a late editorial stage by some unifying creative mind — a figure who, like a film editor, introduced narrative coherence through the art of montage. Alter called this method “composite artistry,” and he would also come to use the term “the Arranger” — a concept borrowed from scholarship on James Joyce — to describe the editor (or editors) who gave the text a final artistic overlay. It was a secular and literary method of reading the Hebrew Bible but, in its reverent insistence on the coherence and complex artistry of the central texts, it has appealed to some religious readers.
In its day, “The Art of Biblical Narrative” was subversive. A current Berkeley colleague of Alter’s, Ronald Hendel, told me about his experience as a Harvard grad student in philology in the early 1980s. One of his instructors pulled him aside after class and whispered, “Go to the bookstore and get yourself a copy of ‘The Art of Biblical Narrative,’ but you can’t let anyone around here see that you’re reading it!” Hendel added, “And he wasn’t kidding.” One of Alter’s former undergraduate students during that period, Ilana Pardes, who is now a professor of comparative literature at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has written of “witnessing the birth of the book, or rather the birth of a new way of thinking about the Bible.”
Alter did not set out to do this work (“I certainly never planned to sit down and translate Leviticus,” he told me). The translation emerged organically. In the 1970s, decades before he began to translate in earnest, he confronted a technical problem: The existing English versions didn’t convey the Hebrew literary patterns that he was analyzing in his critical essays about biblical literature; out of necessity, he composed his own translations so he could cite them. His later translation work has carried out, in a larger and more systematic way, what he started in his criticism. Sales figures support his belief that there’s a popular desire for this approach to the text. Since 1997 — and not including this current complete edition — his Bible translations have sold in the hundreds of thousands.
The final product bears out one of Alter’s critical insights about the text: the theory of the bible’s “composite artistry.” Despite his publisher’s carefully worded marketing materials — the first-ever single-author scholarly translation of the entire Hebrew Bible! — the work itself feels relevant precisely for the way it builds on its predecessors, openly conversing (and sometimes singing duets) with its contemporaries.
Alter’s version of the verse from the Song of Songs, quoted above, “a sachet of myrrh is my lover to me,/all night between my breasts” is a lovely example. The first verset, semantically airtight, is all Alter. The second, the daringly loose-limbed, “all night between my breasts,” originated at another address in Berkeley: Alter adopted it from “The Song of Songs,” a 1995 book by Chana and Ariel Bloch, a poet and philologist translation team, for which he wrote the afterword and which he footnotes in his own translation. In the skillful way that he has harmonized the various voices, past and present, Alter proves to be another Arranger, practicing the composite art that he believes has long been the life-breath of this text.
Alter was born in the Bronx and grew up in Albany, to working-class parents who emigrated from Lithuania and Romania. His father was born in the waning years of the 19th century and fought as a teenager in World War I. In that war, Alter told me, his father experienced “some kind of shell shock that wiped out his first two languages,” Yiddish and Romanian, leaving him to speak, as Alter put it, “a very salty American.” His father’s successful taxi-fleet business failed during the Depression; when the war started, he got a job at a tank factory in Schenectady, and the family left the Bronx.
Alter came to Hebrew, like many an American Jewish child, somewhat haphazardly — first in traditional contexts, like bar mitzvah lessons but also in Hebrew-only summer camps of the period. The cultural record of American Jews, in literature and art, can be summarized as a collective complaint against parental demands to learn Hebrew, but Alter took to it immediately and chose to continue his studies, even while playing varsity football and running track. As a young man, Alter was so enamored with the language that he spent much of his time systematically mastering a Hebrew-Hebrew dictionary. “I figured if I could get everything from that book into my head, I’d have it,” Alter said.
Alter’s commitment to Hebrew may have been uncommon among American Jews of his generation, but his intellectual development was typical. A membership card to his local public library became his ticket to the wider world. Like many of his contemporaries with literary aspirations, he graduated from a public high school and found his way into the middle of a thriving midcentury literary scene in New York City. The critical vogue was still with New Criticism, an analytical approach that emphasized “close reading,” isolating the formal artistic elements of literary text. As an undergrad at Columbia, he studied with Lionel Trilling before heading to Harvard for a Ph.D in comparative literature.
The young, often first-generation Jewish-American littérateurs of that period — Alfred Kazin, Grace Paley, Irving Howe among them — took on a distinctly strident attitude: Literature, to them, was a form of citizenship. As Cynthia Ozick, one of the remaining grandees of that midcentury group, put it in a recent essay, these were “boys and girls drenched in ferocious bookishness and utopian politics, un-self-consciously asserting ownership of American culture at a time when it was most vigorously dominated by WASPs.”
Many Jewish writers of those years saw it as their mission to march onto center stage of American literature: not simply to master the English language but to remake it in their own voices. Of the novelist Saul Bellow, a hero to that generation, Ozick wrote with pride that he “capsizes American English.” Whether this is accurate, of course, is a matter of debate, but it does capture the ambition and the self-fashioning aspirations of that midcentury moment. As a young critic, Alter was active in this project. In a 1969 volume on contemporary Jewish literature, drawn from essays he published in magazines, Alter championed Bellow, among others, noting, “The WASP cultural hegemony in America is over.”
For a literary person of those generations, the King James Version loomed large. Along with Shakespeare, the King James was one of the wellsprings of English literature, especially in the United States. “It was in America,” Alter has written, “that the potential of the [King James] translation to determine the foundational language and symbolic imagery of a whole culture was most fully realized.” And unlike the work of Shakespeare, the Bible, or at least the first part of it — known in English as the Old Testament, a name that still carries a pejorative edge, positioning those books as the primitive precursors to the enlightened New Testament — happened to have been a kind of family inheritance to Jews. It is one of the few major texts that was foundational in both the Jewish and the Anglo-American traditions. And though Alter and his peers remained smitten by the language of the King James, there was an underlying sense that a key piece of their Jewish heritage had long been held captive in the churches and schools and texts of white Protestant English. With his intricate and artistically attuned translation, Alter has helped carve out a dignified place for the Hebrew Bible as the Hebrew Bible, squarely within the Anglo-American literary tradition, and rescued it from second-class status.
Alter regularly composes phrases that sound strange in English, in part because they carry hints of ancient Hebrew within them. The translation theorist Lawrence Venuti, whom Alter has cited, describes translations that “foreignize,” or openly signal that a translated text was originally written in another language, and those that “domesticate,” or render invisible the original language. According to Venuti, a “foreignized” translation “seeks to register linguistic and cultural differences.” Alter maintains that his translation of the Bible borrows from the idea of “foreignizing,” and this approach generates unexpected and even radical urgency, particularly in passages that might seem familiar.
Here is Alter’s version of the well-known opening of Genesis 21, part of the story of Isaac, the miracle baby of 90-year-old Sarah, and her 99-year-old husband, Abraham: “And the Lord singled out Sarah.” The word Alter is translating as “singled out” is pakad. The King James, and most others after it, translate it as “visited.” The Jewish Publication Society has it as “remembered.” Others translate it as “kept his word,” “took note of,” “was gracious to,” “was attentive to” or “blessed.” A good literal version, provided by the canny contemporary translator Everett Fox, has it as “took account of” — and there is something numerical and even administrative about pakad. (Elsewhere in the Bible, in the context of describing a public census, pakad means “to number”; in modern Hebrew, it is related to the words for “officer,” “clerk” and “roll-call.”) Weaving together its numerical dimensions with a thread of bureaucratic banality, Alter yields the anxious verb “singled out” and with it, reveals new layers of tension in this story.
Sarah has just given birth to her first child, a son; in Hebrew, his name is Yitzhak, meaning he who laughs. Amid the celebrations of this miracle birth, the nonagenarian mother offers her own punning commentary on the child’s name. According to the King James Version, Sarah says, “God hath made me to laugh, so that all that hear will laugh with me.” This is the direction that nearly every other English translation has taken since the early 1600s, and many others, too, in languages before English.
Alter, who gives Sarah’s statement its formal due as poetic speech, setting its line breaks apart on a page of prose, translates it like this: “Laughter has God made me,/Whoever hears will laugh at me.” This strange new Sarah, unlike the familiar Sarah of other translations, is not joining in the laughter nor is she offering a bawdy aside. Though it sounds odd in English, Alter has retained the Hebrew’s ambiguous verbal construction, “Laughter has … made me.” More startling still, Alter has taken advantage of another ambiguity in the Hebrew’s prepositions and has Sarah directly say that her society is not laughing with but at her. After giving birth, she feels mocked, shamed and socially demoted. At the end of her life, when she should be reaping the rewards of seniority and respect, she fears that she has been turned into a punch line.
This translation transforms Sarah’s experience into one of postpartum alienation; her statement becomes an agonized testimony of being marginalized, through laughter, by a patriarchal society. Does this make Sarah a hero? Not exactly. In fact, painting her in this pained light deepens her complexity by giving a more terrible clarity to her motives in the next episode, when she takes vengeance on Hagar, a foreign woman of lesser social status, whom she perceives as a rival.
If the traditional English translations were all we had, with their depictions of Sarah’s laughter as celebratory, her subsequent actions against Hagar could be read as merely petty or even capricious. Perhaps a misogynist tradition of translation was more comfortable with Sarah as a crazy woman than as a victimized truth teller. If Sarah is read as joyous, the tragic cycle that emerges — in which both children, Hagar’s and Sarah’s, are nearly killed by Abraham — might be read (as it often is) as a series of unrelated events, a result of a mysterious deity’s whims. Alter’s translation allows for the possibility that Sarah’s actions are a logical response to living in a society that pitted women against each other in a contest for a male heir.
Alter was not the first person to detect Sarah’s pain amid the laughter. It has been the subject of centuries of conjecture and, among feminist critics since the 1970s, a subfield of study. Even so, major translations that most readers encounter continue to domesticate Sarah’s experience, forcing her to play the role of enthusiastic new mother. In Alter’s foreignized text, the mask is off: The laughter is at Sarah. And it sears.
What does Alter himself see through the mask of the text? As we sat outside in his courtyard garden, in the warm glow of the Berkeley sun, I asked Alter whether he, who had spent so many hours in his upstairs study with the works of these ancient Hebrew authors, had ever got a signal from a human on the other side of the text.
“There were some moments during my work on the Book of Daniel,” Alter told me, after a moment, “when I could sense, as you put it, the human.”
This answer surprised me. Despite the book’s famous imagery — the disembodied hand writing on the wall, the 10-horned beast, the lion’s den — Daniel isn’t a particular favorite of most Bible readers today. Alter, for one, finds its apocalyptic imagery a bore. So why did Daniel move him?
“While working carefully with his words, it suddenly became clear to me,” Alter said, “that the author, in some of those texts, felt very uncomfortable in the Hebrew language. It was strangely intimate, you know, for me to discover that, to see this writer struggling.”
Daniel is almost certainly the Bible’s latest book, composed during a time when Hebrew, no longer the spoken language, had gone into decline. It is one of the few books in the Hebrew Bible where Aramaic appears for long stretches of the text. And this linguistic estrangement isn’t just the historical background of Daniel’s authors, who scholars believe were living under foreign domination and religious persecution by the Seleucid Greeks around the second century B.C. It is a theme of the story itself, which imagines a similar crisis, set in an earlier period, of a Judean exile in the court of the Babylonian king, tasked with translating a mysterious text.
The Book of Daniel offers a clear illustration that the conundrum of translation did not emerge later, after biblical history; the problem was there all along. Daniel, like his authors, is a late arrival to a lavish party at which he is very much a guest. He grapples with a foreignized text in a foreign kingdom, a writer in a globalized world who is left to decipher the writing on the wall.
“Do you identify?” I asked Alter.
He laughed. “I think many writers — many people — would see something of themselves in that struggle,” he told me. “And translators certainly do.”
Originally posted at The New York Times
Avi Steinberg is the author of “The Lost Book of Mormon.” He last wrote a Letter of Recommendation about fake flowers.