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Robert Alter Answers our questions!

r/Judaism sent Robert Alter some questions, and he sent some answers. This is the email he sent me

I undertook the translation because I was deeply dissatisfied with the existing English versions. The modern translations are all lamentable. They run roughshod over the subtle and purposeful literary fashioning of the Hebrew and repeatedly exhibit a tin ear for the English language. The JPS is no worse in this respect than the Protestant and Catholic translations but at best only marginally better. The best English version in regard to style is still the King James Bible, although there are more stylistic lapses than people remember. In regard to meaning, it is shot through with errors, large and small. Some of these are the result of a certain Christian bias, but many reflect misunderstandings of the Hebrew. There are lots of translations of later works that I keenly admire. Among many, I would mention Richard Wilbur’s Molière, which miraculously manages to do the rhymes, something that’s beyond me, and Carol Cosman’s translation of Camus’s Exile and the Kingdom, which wonderfully reproduces in English the rich lyricism of the French. I do not admire any of the modern Orthodox translations of the Bible. Let me add Nicholas DeLange’s extremely accomplished English versions of numerous novels by Amos Oz. The process of translating was strongly engaging and often enjoyable for me. It did not affect the direction of my career in any way because I felt there was a direct connection between translating and the literary criticism I was writing on much later texts. Perhaps the most challenging book to do was Job, in part because of the lexical and textual difficulties it presents but also because it is the very pinnacle of biblical poetry, and trying to find a reasonable equivalent for that in English was not easy, though satisfying when I felt I had come close. The big difference in working with biblical poetry is the challenge of approximating the terrific compactness of the Hebrew. Absent the compactness, the poetic rhythms vanish. As to subjectivity, one can’t altogether escape it, but I have done my best to be faithful to the meanings of the Hebrew, and this is equally true of the examples I discuss in my book on biblical narrative. As to Genesis 1:1, I suppose I should have provided a note: the Hebrew grammar, as Rashi recognized long ago, requires that “beginning” be attached to the next word, ” In the beginning of God’s creating,” which in workable English comes out as “When God began to create.” This is something long recognized by modern scholars and not my innovation.

I have no favorites in post-biblical canonical Hebrew texts in English. For a book that takes up the overarching issues of Bible translation, I would recommend John Barton”s The Word, just now published, and my own The Art of Bible Translation, available in a Princeton paperback. On an economical alternative to my three-volume edition, Norton does plan to bring out each of the volumes separately and eventually to do paperbacks, but as long as the three-volume set is selling strongly, they are unwilling to do that.

Finally, a word on reception. I have received many enthusiastic responses from modern Orthodox readers. What surprised me more was that a readership I did not anticipate, believing Christians from a variety of denominations, have written me to tell me how much they appreciated my translation. Evidently there is a hunger among believers to have an English version that gives them a better idea of what the Hebrew sounds like and what it actually means.

Best,

Robert

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