Robert Alter on translating the Hebrew Bible [MIPodcast #115]

  • It isn’t every day that a scholar publishes a book that changes the entire landscape of a field of study, but that’s exactly what Robert Alter did in 1981 with his book, The Art of biblical Narrative. For centuries and more, scholars had meticulously studied the Bible to tease out the voices those who compiled it, but Robert Alter paid attention to the finished product to see what the stories had to say in their completed form. It’s hard to overestimate Alter’s influence on literary studies of the Bible—looking at plot, genre, character, and more. And now Alter has finished his own complete translation of the Hebrew Bible—a mammoth task that took quarter of a century.

    In this episode, Robert Alter joins us to talk about the challenges and surprises of biblical translation. He visited the Maxwell Institute earlier this year to deliver a set of guest lectures which you can watch here.

    About the Guest

    Robert Alter is 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 is especially well-known for his work on the literary aspects of the Bible. His twenty-two published books include two prize-winning volumes on biblical narrative and poetry, and award-winning translations of the Five Books of Moses. In 2019 he published The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, and The Art of Biblical Translation.

  • BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges.

    It’s not every day that a scholar publishes a book that changes the entire landscape of a field of study, but that’s exactly what Robert Alter did in 1981 with his book, The Art of biblical Narrative. For centuries and more, scholars had meticulously studied the Bible to tease out the voices those who compiled it, but Robert Alter paid attention to the finished product to see what the stories had to say.

    It’s hard to overestimate Alter’s influence on literary studies of the Bible—looking at plot, genre, character, and more. And now Alter recently finished his own translation of the Hebrew Bible—a mammoth task that took quarter of a century.

    In this episode, Robert Alter joins us to talk about the challenges and surprises of biblical translation. He visited the Maxwell Institute earlier this year to deliver a set of guest lectures which you can find right now on our website.

    Questions and comments about this and other episodes can be sent to me at

    * * *

    BLAIR HODGES: Robert Alter joins us here at the Maxwell Institute. Thank you for doing the interview, we’re glad to have you.

    ROBERT ALTER: I’m happy to do it.

    Translating the Bible alone

    HODGES: Let’s start off here—The first English Bible translation was done by William Tyndale in the 1520s. And he did the New Testament but only some of what Christians call the Old Testament. It has been centuries since his translation appeared, but did you feel any kinship with him as a translator?

    ALTER: Well, yes. First of all, he wasn’t a committee. And the vast majority of translations that have been done have been by committee—I think, by and large, to their detriment. Because committees come up with consensuses, and there are usually compromises that probably reflect the lowest common denominator. I’m thinking on the level of style rather than for philological choices.

    The King James Version committee did pretty well. I think because this was a moment in English literary history when the learned divines who were assemble by King James I—and they were men who knew biblical Hebrew with errors, but they knew biblical Hebrew. They knew Aramaic. Some of them new Syriac. Of course, they knew Greek and Latin. Some of them knew Arabic. But they were also steeped in the literary culture of their times. You know, Lancelot Andrewes, the leading figure among the forty—some odd translators, was a fine English stylist as we know from his published sermons.

    The opposite has been true for a long time. You can go to Johns Hopkins, or Yale, Harvard, Penn, Oxford, Cambridge, and learn all kinds of useful things about the Bible, but you’re not looking at style and these people, I think demonstrably, are not reading W.S. Merwin or Ian McEwan—

    HODGES: You compared such translation to being more like a boring newspaper article, the voice that they had.

    ALTER: Right, right. Exactly. Now, to go back to your question about Tyndale, I think he was a kind of untutored genius. That is, he had this notion that there was some profound affinity between the Hebrew language and the English language, which I think is probably not true. But for him it was an enabling fiction. And he thought that he could render the Bible in an English that would be accessible to an “ordinary plowboy.”

    And that was a guiding principle that helped him to keep it simple, because—Poetry is a different story, but in the narrative prose in the Hebrew Bible, there is a concerted effort to use primary vocabulary, to keep things simple, and to produce subtle effects through repetition of the same words rather than through elaborate synonyms. That’s the way in which I do feel an affinity with Tyndale. At the same time, I’m grateful for the fact that translators of the Bible these days are not usually burned at the stake! [laughter]

    HODGES: That’s a good thing about living in your era! Speaking of King James, that’s not the first version you encountered of the Hebrew Bible, right?

    ALTER: Oh, no. The first way I encountered the Hebrew Bible was in Hebrew.

    HODGES: You have a Jewish background.

    ALTER: Yeah, I have a Jewish background. I would say, traditional but not orthodox. Now, we were not the kind of family—I don’t know that many Jewish families are—where the family would sit around and read the Bible out loud. So, I didn’t have much exposure to the Bible as a kid, except, I confess, maybe when I was about ten with a comic book version of the Bible stories. [laughter]

    So, when I first started getting into the Bible was when I was in my teens, probably it was by my late teens when I was able to read it in Hebrew, and I was drawn into it.

    The strengths and weaknesses of the King James Version

    HODGES: And then when you first encountered the King James, did you see pretty big differences in how you experienced it?

    ALTER: Oh yeah. And let me say this about the King James: It’s certainly grand, and I would take it in a heartbeat over any of the modern translations. Which I think—let’s say just in terms of felicitous English—are wretched compared to the King James.

    There are some problems with the King James—I’ll kind of put aside the errors in construing the Hebrew. Because the fact is that we have a better knowledge now of biblical Hebrew than Christian Hebraists did in the seventeenth century. And the Christian Hebraists, to be honest, were never quite as good with their Hebrew as Jewish Hebraists. Some of the great Medieval Hebrew commentators who are quite wonderful have a subtle sense of what’s going on in the Hebrew. Okay so put aside the errors, certainly put aside the archaic language, it’s in their—

    HODGES: “Thee’s” and “Thou’s”—

    ALTER: Yes, like any language, English has changed a lot since 1611. On the whole, they do well with the prose narrative, especially because they’re rather literal and they follow the syntactic contours of the Hebrews which the moderns don’t do.

    HODGES: One example is called “parataxis,” which you do as well. Maybe take a second to describe that phenomenon.

    ALTER: Well, biblical prose unfolds through parallel clauses connected by “and,” and that is technically called “parataxis,” which really means parallel syntax.

    HODGES: So instead of using a period or starting new sentences or something, it would be like “such and such and so on so forth and such and such.”

    ALTER: Well it’s not only like the period. It’s the lack of connecting words like “although,” “inasmuch as,” “because,” “since,” “therefore.”

    HODGES: It’s just “and.”

    ALTER: Now, a lot of modern committees view this as something we can’t assimilate anymore and so they repackage the syntax. Now that, I think, is a grave error. Because the parallel syntax is a manifest artistic resource for the biblical writers. That is to say, in some cases, like Rebekah at the well, it gives you a sense of a rush of events—“and she did this.” And…, and…, and… .

    HODGES: In Genesis, Rebekah is filling up water containers to give to camels, and it’s this huge feat of miraculous strength, but that can get lost in the translation.

    ALTER: Right, right. And then there’s a kind of dignity and high decorous quality, as in the first creation narrative story in Genesis and so forth. So, it would be—I think it’s a great loss not to preserve it.

    And let me tell you a little story. I have a friend who teaches at Stanford. And a couple years ago, before my three volumes came out, he was teaching a course for undergraduates at Stanford in which he was including parts of the book of Ezekiel. And he said, “Could you—if you have it in draft, could you show me some such-and-such chapters in Ezekiel which I’d like to share with my students?” I said, “Sure.”

    So, I sent it to him, and he gave it to his students, and they were reading another translation—probably the New Revised Standard version—and then he gave them this interesting assignment. He asked them to compare my translation with the other one they had been reading. And almost every one of them said what they really liked about my translation, in comparison with the other one by a modern committee, is that it preserved the parataxis. Because for them, it made things more concrete. It was more eloquent, and so forth. And that was an eye-opener for me, because the assumption of the moderns has been that modern readers cannot anymore assimilate parataxis. And here are these nineteen-year-olds at Stanford who are really responding to it.

    HODGES: Yes, the text seems to flow. I’ll read here—this is from Genesis chapter 1, the very first verse features parataxis. And then there’s also another element in here that I want to ask you about. So here it is, Genesis 1:1.

    “When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovered over the waters, God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good, and God divided the light from the darkness…”

    And then it continues on. So, we have a lot of these ands, but it keeps the story moving­—it’s very moving.

    ALTER: Right.

    Artfulness, welter, and waste

    HODGES: The other thing is this very interesting phrasing here, when you said the earth was “welter and waste.” Talk about that, because I think it highlights a lot of what you’re trying to do when you translate.

    ALTER: Yes, that’s true. I came to the first verse and I didn’t quite know yet what I was doing as a Bible translator—very first verse in translating. [laughter] And I knew, of course, that the Hebrew was tohu wa-bohu (תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ), the Hebrew. Now, that’s—

    HODGES: That’s got a nice ring to it.

    ALTER: Yeah. That is generally represented, first in the King James and then by the moderns with modest variations, as something like, “chaos and void.”

    HODGES: Or like “without form and void” or something?

    ALTER: Formlessness and void. Now, that’s perfectly okay as far as the sense of the Hebrew phrase. The thing is, works of literature—especially great works of literature—are not limited in the meanings they convey to lexical values of words. So, if you think you’ve nailed it by getting the lexical value, you may be dead wrong. So, I said to myself, “Tohu wa-bohu. I wish I would think of a rhyming pair, but I can’t. So instead, I’ll use a strong alliteration and call it ‘welter and waste’.”

    And then—not at the time, but later—I thought about this, that English has a number of pairs like this. Like, “Harem-Scarem,” “Helter-Skelter.” And all these pairings actually suggest, because of the phonetic interaction of the two words that are bracketed, they suggest things mixed together in some hasty lack of order. And that’s perfect for Genesis! So, at least with alliteration, I felt that I needed to do something like that.

    HODGES: And you do that throughout your translation. You say, “the Bible contains an artfulness that the translations usually fail to convey.” And you believe the artfulness itself is part of the text, it’s part of what the Bible is trying to do. Here’s a quote from you, you say “Style is the vital medium through which the biblical vision of God, humans, and everything else is communicated.”

    ALTER: Right. I stand by that.

    Translation is an endless series of compromises

    HODGES: We’re talking today with Robert Alter. He’s a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California–Berkley. He recently published his complete translation of the Hebrew Bible. And his latest book is called The Art of Bible Translation.

    Robert, you’ve said you learned from experience that the practice of translation is “an endless series of compromises.” And some of those compromises are happy and some are painful. Talk about a painful one. Where did you have to make a painful compromise as you translated?

    ALTER: Okay. Let me just first explain what was behind that remark. If you’re translating the Bible, or you’re translating let’s say, Pindar, or Virgil, or Flaubert, you’re translating writers who make the most subtle and inventive, and sometimes surprising use of the intrinsic resources of expression of their language. And since your language is not the same as theirs, you’re often going to find that it’s very difficult to find even an approximate equivalent. And so, you had to settle for something less.

    My general guiding principle is that I try to be literal, but if it sounds weird or ridiculous in English, I have to forget about the literalness. That’s one kind of compromise. Let me tell you a place where I was literal. The result is a little bit awkward. But I decided it was worth paying the price of awkwardness. This is the painful compromise: Everybody talks about Adam and Eve. In fact, the figure that we represent is Adam is always called an article in Hebrew with a definite article, “the adam” meaning, it’s a common noun. It’s not a proper noun. And an adam is a person or a human being. And in fact, although grammatically all Hebrew nouns are either masculine or feminine—there’s no way of getting away from this, it’s gendered through and through. However, although it’s grammatically masculine, it’s not inflected as the gender.

    How do I know that? The verse in Genesis 1—“In the image of God, he created them. He created the adam—male and female he created them.” So “the adam” includes female. So, even though I have sympathy with feminism, it wasn’t feminist principles, but rather what the language itself says, that led me to avoid translating “adam” as “man.” Although there’s an exception I’ll come to in a minute.

    So, what did I do? I translated “ha-adam”, the Adam, as “the human.” That’s a little bit clunky and you know, “God created the human.” [laughs] It’s a bit—I said to myself afterwards, like a sci-fi story where somebody from another galaxy kind of says “there’s a human!”—

    HODGES: Yeah, because we bring this different cultural background and baggage to that word “human,” right? So, it does sound like an extraterrestrial saying it or something.

    ALTER: So that was kind of an awkward compromise. But for the reason I just spelled out, I couldn’t bear either to represent it as a proper name, Adam, that’s just wrong, or to represent it as gendered when it’s “male and female he created.” So, I settled for this awkward compromise.

    Now, let me give a counter-example, where I decided not to use the compromise. You have in Psalms and a few other places in my translation “man and beast the LORD rescues” as the Hebrew sounds like this, [speaking in Hebrew]. Now, I felt that man and beast—and it comes in a few other times—as paired terms are so proverbial in English that it’s perverse not to keep it. Even though I regret the gendered aspect of “man.” I mean, in other places, I do use—if the writer seems to be referring to people in general, I’ll use “humankind,” not “mankind.”

    The shelf life of translations

    HODGES: That suggests, too, that your translation also has a shelf life too, right? Because the English language is going to continue to adjust and so—

    ALTER: Well, sure. Every translation does.

    HODGES: Have you thought about that as you did the work, in terms of having a shelf life?

    ALTER: It’s a good question. Yes, I translated it in order to provide the best English rendering that seemed to convey the values of the Hebrew that I could in the English as we use it at this point in time. So, I didn’t deliberately translate it in a way to say, “Well, if I use these words it’ll have a shelf life of a hundred and ten years instead of a shelf life of ten years.”

    However, let me tell you something I did do which might extend the shelf life. It seemed to me a grave mistake—among many that the modern versions make—to translate the Bible, which is written, let’s say, beginning in Iron Age in a different part of the world, to translate it as though it were written in contemporary English. So, while I avoided blatant archaisms, which would sound altogether too coy, or cute, or whatever, or affected, I did scrupulously avoid all terms that sounded explicitly contemporary.

    I’ll give you an example, I hope this is not for indelicate ears—[laughter]

    HODGES: Well, we can always edit it out. So—

    ALTER: Okay. Now, the Hebrew Bible, which is very frank about the body, unlike the moderns who seem uneasy about the body—especially the female body, and fudge a lot of the terms— There are basically three words for having sex. There’s “to lie with,” which you all understand, and that’s what the King James Version uses. And I don’t think there’s any problem with comprehensibility, even if it’s not contemporary. That is, someone wouldn’t say to his best friend after a date, “Did you lie with her last night?” Right?

    HODGES: Yeah. It’s funny, we wouldn’t use it in normal talk, but most people would know what that would mean, yes.

    ALTER: Okay. So, there’s “to lie with.” Then there’s “to know.” Now, “to know,” I think, has established itself in English, because of the literal rendering of the King James Version. And we even have a legal term “carnal knowledge.” And everybody knows what that is.

    HODGES: And it’s kind of a joke. You’ll hear people say like, “’Know’ in a biblical sense.”

    ALTER: Exactly. People say that all the time. So that means they know the biblical sense. And the third example—this is a slightly tricky one to translate, is literally “to come into.” Now, I decided to modify that for simple—you know, I have all these calculations I’m making in translation. I figured “to come into” might suggest to some people, simply the act of penetration.

    HODGES: Right. And it’s androcentric.

    ALTER: Yes, and it’s androcentric. Whereas the “come into” in biblical Hebrew has the sense of a consummated sexual relationship. And usually, actually, it’s used for the first time you have sexual relations with a woman. So, I ended up with—I wanted to preserve the “come to bed with.” A bit of a compromise, but I think it worked.

    HODGES: And you wanted to avoid the word “sex.” Would that just be too blatant?

    ALTER: Well, here’s the thing. When I look at the range of modern translations and how they represent the act of sex, here’s what I discover. I discover “to be intimate with,” “to have relations with,” “to co-habit with.” All of which sound legal and ponderous and very twentieth or twenty-first century.

    And then there’s even a mistake in a different direction. One translation—a prominent translation—uses “make love.” Now, for example in the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife where she says to him, “Lie with me,” the translation has her saying, “Make love to me.” Now as I said in my little translation book, that makes her sound a little bit like a frustrated wife or a neglected mistress.

    HODGES: Or even a romancer. Like, she wants some sort of romance or something.

    ALTER: A romancer saying, “Make love to me.” So, it’s very much of our moment and not of the biblical moment. So, to take all this back to your question of shelf life, I would say that simply hewing to those three biblical terms—two of them quite literally and the third one with a certain modification—I’ve used language that is a little bit more timeless. I mean, if “lie with” as a biblical location for sex has survived the four hundred years since the King James Version appeared, it may be around for a while more.

    Productively estranging readers

    HODGES: Did you find yourself seeing the King James that timeless way? I was interested to see that you had some very good things to say about King James and we kind of covered that already, but it reminds me of something a famous literary critic said in a published review of your translation. They said it “productively estranges readers from the text.” And he meant that as a compliment. What do you take away from that?

    ALTER: Yeah, [laughs] I have to say a number of a years ago, I gave a talk at, of all places, the law school at NYU. And I was introduced by a very fine scholar who’s a professor there half the year, and the other half in Jerusalem, named Moshe Halbertal, who is a very learned person, knows Hebrew sources inside out, and grew up in an orthodox background. So, this is maybe my favorite introduction. He said, “You know, I grew up reading the Bible in Hebrew and thought I knew it backwards and forwards. And then when I read Robert Alter on the Bible, I suddenly realized that it was a different book from the one I imagined.” [laughter]

    And I was very pleased with that, because I would have to say this, that my great discovery—first as a literary critic before I was a translator, when I wrote a book on biblical narrative—was that, okay, I’ve always admired these narratives. But in fact, when you look at them really closely and try to figure out how they’re put together, you see that they manifest a level of literary sophistication, which is astounding, that the great prose modernists of our era don’t in any way eclipse them.

    HODGES: Some of them do homages. You’ve got Hemingway, and I think even Cormac McCarthy and some of these–

    ALTER: That’s true.  So, that was kind of a revelation to me about how remarkable it was in the way it’s wrought. And so, then I tried to get that across in translation. And that may be a good reason why it seems like a surprising book to some readers.

    I could give one example, which is dialogue. Now, maybe I’ll just do this in a generalized way. All the translations of biblical dialogue—which is the heart of biblical narrative. People may not realize this, but the real burden of storytelling is carried on my dialogue. That is, when there’s a lot of summary, like the childhood of Jacob or Moses is told in six words and they’re growing up, but then when something important is happening, the narrative slows down. So, you have an equivalent of narrating time and narrated time, which is what dialogue is.

    And the dialogues are, in a way, remarkable precursors to dialogue in the novel. Which means, among several other things—this, by the way, is something that surprised me when I started working on all this—What it means is that language is bent, and reshaped, and sometimes deliberately twisted in order to reflect the character, the social location, the psychology of the speaker, and the speaker’s interaction with the other speaker.

    Now, in some cases, the language is actually deformed, scrambled. You never see this in the previous translations. Because their assumption is, “Hey, it’s the Bible! It must be coherent. This is the book that is telling us the truth about everything.” But in fact, the biblical writers did not hesitate to—a character was, let us say, jabbering, because he was nervous or didn’t know what to say—they represent the jabbering in the Hebrew, which becomes a kind of gibberish that you have to translate as gibberish!

    HODGES: Yeah like someone saying, “I don’t—what—I can’t—she–“ Yeah.

    ALTER: Exactly, exactly.

    Facing doubts in translation

    HODGES: But then some of these—in your book, The Art of Bible Translation, if people pick that up, they’ll see examples of that dialogue, where one might refer to it as the “myth of coherence.” This idea that all these sentences have to make sense. But you find examples where they don’t.

    And I wanted to ask, when you started out on this, it began with Genesis. You were invited to  do a book on Genesis, that’s how this all began—People who want to know the background can check out the lecture Robert gave here at BYU, the video is up on our YouTube channel.

    But when you started out, did you begin with fear and trembling? Did you begin with doubts? Did you have any—you know, this is the Bible! This is probably the most published and published about in history.

    ALTER: Yes, certainly with doubts. In the following way. What I wanted to do from the get-go was to create an English version of the Bible that would convey much more of the power, and subtlety, and inventiveness of the Hebrew.

    But I thought when I began, “Maybe this isn’t going to work at all.” And the reason I thought it might not work was, it’s not like translating a French novel. The structure of the two languages is quite different—even the verb tenses, which means the way that time is construed is quite different in the Bible. And then, since cultures are different, there are many key terms in the Bible that have only very rough equivalents in English, or need several different equivalents in English.

    So, my suspicion was—I viewed it as an experiment, especially since I wasn’t thinking of doing anything but Genesis at the time. I said, “I’ll try to do this, but it might turn out to be something of a disaster. People will hate it and I will hate it.” [laughter]

    Now, it certainly isn’t perfect, and no translation ever is perfect. But it turned out to be a better approximation of my dream of translation than I thought I could do. And it was very well received, so that’s what encouraged me to do more books.

    Also, what I would say is this: When you’re translating a text that is culturally and historically and linguistically strange to us, you struggle with how to find a rough equivalent, stylistically, in English. And if you’re lucky, at a certain point, you hit your stride and you begin to say to yourself, “I know how to do this.” That is, not in specific instances. You may be sailing along and then you come on this phrase and, “Oh my God, what am I going to do with it?”

    Thinking about different audiences

    HODGES: And your translations, they came out in individual volumes first—Genesis came out and then some more, until you ended up doing the entire Hebrew Bible. And your translations, as they’ve continued to come out, have been praised and welcomed by believing Jews and Christians, and even secular-minded people—people who don’t adhere to any religious tradition.

    ALTER: Right.

    HODGES: And so, you’re covering a wide range of readership. Did the weight of religious traditions bear one you as you translated, or the expectations of the academy? Or was it just a more straightforward process and you didn’t really have to worry about the audience you were writing it for?

    ALTER: Okay, well there are two questions. One is religious tradition in the academy and the other is audience. Now the audience—I didn’t have a clear-cut notion to begin with what audience I was aiming at. Since I’m a literary person and I was very much focused on doing some justice of the literary means of the Bible, I thought—the first audience I thought of was people who wanted a heightened appreciation of the literary mastery of the Bible. Which would’ve been not necessarily religious people, probably many of them secular people in universities, people teaching courses to undergraduates on the Bible as literature. And in fact, I know my Genesis is very broadly used that way.

    HODGES: That’s where I first was introduced to it.

    ALTER: So, that was my first idea. From the email response that I’ve gotten over the years, but especially since the big fat volumes came out, I learned that my translation has spoken to people of faith commits—very different kinds of faith commitments. Modern Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists—this has surprised me!

    HODGES: So, you didn’t see that coming.

    ALTER: Yeah, I didn’t see that coming.

    HODGES: Why do you think that is? What do you make of that kind of reception?

    ALTER: I think there are lots of people out there with serious religious commitments who have felt that the Hebrew Bible they’ve been reading, in some fundamental way, doesn’t do justice to the original. Either it’s denatured, it’s not getting the power and the frankness of the original, or even if they’re Christians, that it’s excessively Christianized.

    So, I’ve been very pleased to get an email from a Methodist minister who says, “I will now use your Bible in my sermons.” Or, from an Episcopalian nun—I didn’t quite realize the Episcopalians had nuns. But evidently, they do!—who said that my Psalms had changed her spiritual practice.

    Maybe that takes me back to the first part of your question, which is, did I feel imposed on by religious tradition when I set out to do this. I think not. Even though I certainly had some involvement in Jewish tradition. Now, the reason is this: Just as modern scholars quite rightly have tried to get the exact original meanings of biblical terms. So say, a term that was conventionally translated as “brook,” they determine convincingly, meant wadi, which is a little different from a brook. Okay, that’s good.

    But they haven’t taken this project over to the terms for spirituality in the Bible. And in trying to be faithful to the original, I—in a way—swept aside the way both Christians and Jews have thought about the Bible. So, biblical spirituality is anchored in the body. This is encouraged by the fact that there’s no biblical notion of an afterlife. When you die, you go down into the ground and into a place called sheol, and that’s pretty much it.

    One biblical scholar, a good biblical scholar at Oxford, John Barton, in a recent book has said something that always occurred to me, that death in the Bible is rather like death in Homer.

    Now, in being anchored in the body, I discovered that there were all sorts of biblical terms—there are a number of key biblical terms—that address the realm of the spirit, but they’re embodied. Here’s one I’ve felt compelled to talk about: There’s no “soul” in my Bible. There’s no soul because there’s no biblical conception of soul. There’s no notion of a dichotomy between body and soul, and especially since there’s no afterlife, there’s no place that a soul goes to when the body perishes.

    So, the Hebrew word “nefesh”, the primary meaning is breath. So, it means “life breath” and in some contexts, simply “life”—that is, the life of a person, not life in general. But then it has some surprising additional meanings. Because of metonymy, these two terms connected because they’re contiguous to each other, it sometimes means “throat” or “neck” because that’s the passageway for the life breath. It also can mean, strangely enough, “appetite.”

    So I’ll begin with, I’ll offer two examples. One that the moderns get right, and the king James was hilariously wrong on. In one of the Psalms, the King James Version’s speaker says, “Waters have come in, even unto my soul.” So, I think, what kind of leaky plumbing is that? [laughter] Now, what it actually says, since drowning is an image for death that recurs in Psalms, it said, “The waters have come up to my neck.” Another moment and I’m going to drown, right? So, that’s kind of clear cut, and pretty much all the moderns recognize this.

    But here’s another one, an example I used last night in my lecture. In Psalm—I think it’s 69—I sometimes get the numbers off. You have, “My nefesh thirsts after you as in a parched land without water.” Now, most translations render, quite eloquently, “My soul thirsts after you.” Well, I had to resist “soul” because, as I said, it never really means soul. It does, by the way, in post-biblical Hebrew. But then I looked at the context, “parched land without water,” and the following parallel line where you have the word “body” paralleled to “nefesh,” and I said, “It has to mean throat.” And I translated it—perhaps a little shockingly, certainly ignoring tradition, “My throat thirsts for you.”

    Now, that’s, as they said, startling. But I think that it’s a powerful expression of a spirituality that is a bit different from the spirituality we’re accustomed to. The speaker wants to express how desperate he is to be in contact, close contact, with God. And the way he says it is to image a guy wandering in the desert. There’s no water left in his water skin and he feels absolutely desperate. His throat is parched and dry and desperate for even a drop of water. “My throat thirsts for you as in a parched land without water.”

    It’s strong!

    Not all biblical books were created equal

    HODGES: And speaking of the Psalms, I image that was pretty enjoyable to do that. But you’ve done the entire Hebrew Bible. Were there any portions where it was more difficult to get the motivation to do it. I can’t imagine Chronicles, Leviticus—

    ALTER: Chronicles, which I followed, in my last push, the order of the Hebrew books in the Jewish canon. So Chronicles was the very last thing. And it’s a downer, let’s face it [laughter]—for a couple of reasons. First, the initial nine chapters of Chronicles 1, I’m not exaggerating, is nothing but lists of names.

    HODGES: That’s pretty easy.

    ALTER: Yeah. Well, it’s easy but it’s a bore! What do you do to translate with lists of names? In addition to which, there’s always this challenge, I decided not to do my own new transliteration of biblical name. So then you have to keep all the spellings exactly in order, and my copy editor had many a headaches with that one.

    Okay, so that was one. The other thing that’s a downer about Chronicles is that it’s a drastic abbreviation and rewrite of the narratives, especially in 1 and 2 Samuel and Kings. And what it does is bowdlerize them and take all this interesting stuff out. For example, it wants to represent David as an ideal king. So, no sex with Bathsheba, no murder of Uriah. The things that make this a deeply interesting story are not there. [laughs] So, I thought that was a downer.

    I would say the same for much of Leviticus, because—

    HODGES: Legal codes are not your favorite? [laughs]

    ALTER: Legal codes, and especially there are an awful lot of passages describing how to butcher the animal sacrifices. I don’t even like to walk around in butcher shops! [laughter]

    Moments of discovery

    HODGES: How about a favorite moment of discovery. Did you ever find yourself in awe of something as you went along—you found yourself delighted by something that you translated?

    ALTER: Yes, quite a few things. There were a lot of such discoveries in the book of Job. For example, in the speech from the whirlwind, when God finally talks at the end of Job—which I think is one of the greatest poems written in all of antiquity anywhere—he’s describing creation, and he says something like, “The primordial waters, with mist their swaddling cloth.” Swaddling cloth is an ancient equivalent to diapers. So, at first, I asked myself, “What the hell are diapers doing in the creation story?” [laughter]

    But the Job poet is certainly the most inventive coiner of metaphors in the Bible. And what he’s imagining is like, strips of white mist hovering over the surface of the Mediterranean as you look out. And they’re like the bands of white cloth of swaddling cloth. But then, why swaddling cloth? It’s not that it’s a vivid image, but it hooks up with a whole set of birth images in the first part of the voice from the whirlwind. And the birth images are a point-for-point rejoinder to Job’s death wish poem in chapter three, where he wishes he were a stillborn. He wishes he had never been conceived. He wishes he had died from the womb. So, this is an amazing poetic reversal!

    HODGES: Yes. I also wanted to read for people from Psalm 104. This is one of my favorite ones.

    ALTER: Mine too.

    HODGES: And it took my breath away when I first read it. And it happened to be the week I was preparing a lesson for my congregation’s Sunday School. So, I was able to take it to the congregation. It says, “Bless O my being, the Lord. Lord my God, you are very great. Grandeur and glory, you don. Wrapped in light like a cloak, stretching out heavens like a tent cloth, setting beams for his lofts in the waters. Making his chariot the clouds. He goes on the wings of the wind.”

    And it goes on this way, and in your commentary, you talk about how it’s drawing this beautiful image of God donning this clothing of grandeur and glory that becomes the stars itself as though you can look up and see God’s cloak over the earth. It’s a beautiful image.

    ALTER: Right. It is. And since you’ve read those lines, let me make remark about one other translation story. “Grandeur and glory you don.” I really like the sound of that. And of course, there’s a strong alliteration in “grandeur and glory.” And the Hebrew is [Hebrew words]. So, it’s almost the same rhythm. And you have the similar alliteration.

    When I read the Hebrew, and I feel the magnificent role of sound in the language, I thought “I have to try to do that in English as well.”

    HODGES: There’s so much more going on in the Hebrew. This is the value of your translation. It’s finding those things that are happening in the Hebrew that have been lost in English translations from the beginning. That have never been accessible in English translations.

    We’re talking today with Robert Alter. He’s professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at UC Berkley. We’re talking about his translation of the Hebrew Bible. He’s written other books like The Art of Bible Translation, The Art of biblical Poetry, The Art of biblical Narrative, and has published all sorts of excellent things on the Bible.

    Robert Alter himself and the Bible

    Robert, before we go, I wanted to know how your own feelings about the Bible may have changed over the course of translating it. You worked on it for maybe a quarter of a century—

    ALTER: Almost, yeah!

    HODGES: Yeah so, how did your relationship to the Bible change?

    ALTER: Well, I would begin by saying this. Of course there are things in the Bible that are hard to fit into our value system. That is, we don’t particularly like these episodes of thousands of Israelites being swallowed up or cut down by the sword because they’ve exhibited rebellious behavior. We don’t go in for stoning much these days—our culture doesn’t, some others do.

    So, in grappling with the whole Bible, I realized that there are some things that are just not part of my values—nothing I can accept.

    Also, there are things in the Bible where there are counter-voices, and I identity with a counter-voice. For example, there was a polemic among the returnees from exile to the kingdom of Judah about whether to accept people who were not of pure Israelite extraction. And Ezra and Nehemiah took a very uncompromising view, that “we have nothing to do with these people. Not only do we have nothing to do with them, but those of you who have taken foreign wives, you have to kick them out.” It was a very cruel thing. Now, I’m afraid that became the majority opinion in posterity.

    But there is a counter-view, and that’s the book of Ruth, probably written at the same time. And in the book of Ruth, a Moabite woman—and the Moabites are supposed to be sworn enemies of Israel and never to come into the sanctuary—a Moabite woman is this devoted, loving person who says, “Wherever you go, I will go. And your God is my God,” and who becomes a progenitrix of King David. And so, I identify with that, but not with the opposing view.

    But I would say this. That overall, I came to a fuller appreciation, that there’s so much in the Bible that speaks to our lives, to our understanding of people and of human predicaments. Now it’s not a matter of straight-forward, moral instruction. The Bible—except for a few places—is not a didactic book. But it does convey a very complex notion of what human beings are all about. And that’s really an enriching thing to continue to follow.

    HODGES: Thank you. Last question. What would you say has been the most satisfying part of your work to this point in your career? what have you found the most personal satisfaction in?

    ALTER: A part of the work, or a book?

    HODGES: Anything from your whole career. Whether it be teaching a class or someone you met with. Just anything—

    ALTER: Oh, I see. Well, I wouldn’t compare it to teaching a class. I love teaching, and I’m gratified—seriously gratified—by my teaching successes. And every once in a while, in Berkley say, I’ll meet a guy on the tennis court a couple of decades younger than I, and we’ll hit balls together and then he’ll say, “You’re a UC professor aren’t you?” And I’ll say, “Yeah?” And then he’ll say, “You know, I took your course on the Bible twenty-five years ago, and that was really a great course!” That feels wonderful.

    But it’s just a different order of gratification from the gratification of producing a translation. Just as you would say, certainly there’s nothing more gratifying than a profound love relationship. But it’s not the same. Each thing is different in its own way. So, if I think of the kinds of things or texts that gave me great gratification in translating the Bible, I would say—Well, in general, in the narratives, once I had hit my stride, having worked out a style that I thought conveyed the strength, the eloquence, the punchiness of the Hebrew. And in translating the poetry, being able to reproduce something that actually sounded a lot more like Hebrew in its rhythmic force and compactness, and that conveyed some of the poetic strengths of the Hebrew.

    And I’ll mention just two examples. I said before that I think the voice from the whirlwind is one of the great peaks of ancient poetry. So, when I sat before that Hebrew text, I said, “I gotta do something good with this!” [laughter] And I felt that I did. That there weren’t very many painful compromises, and that the grandeur, and the sweep, and the vividness of the poetry spoken out of the whirlwind came across, to a large extent, in my English version. So, that was really satisfying.

    Then, another biblical text which we haven’t mentioned, the Song of Songs, which is certainly one of the most wonderful pieces of love poetry of all times. And it’s richly sensual at the same time that there’s a certain delicacy about it. That’s a balance that’s hard to strike. I think that, by and large, I was able to do that. And that felt very good.

    HODGES: That’s Robert Alter. He’s professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California Berkley. And he recently published a translation of the Hebrew Bible. I believe it’s the first complete English translation by a single translator. Is that right, Robert?

    ALTER: I think there are—

    HODGES: Your publisher told me that, so—blame them!

    ALTER: Yeah. I think that’s sort of true. [laughter] I think there have been some eccentric translations. Some of them have a certain interest, but they’re—

    HODGES: But by a single—?

    ALTER: Yeah, by a single person. But they—

    HODGES: Well, I guess The Message would be one of those.

    ALTER: Yes, The Message, Pastor Peterson got a message from God that he had to translate the Bible, both testaments. And I don’t know to what exact he actually knows biblical Hebrew.

    HODGES: Yeah, he might’ve just used regular versions.

    ALTER: And it’s kind of inventive in using colloquial American to translate biblical phrases like “Give us this day our daily our bread” becomes, “Provide us three square meals.”

    HODGES: You didn’t consult that one on your translation? [laughter]

    ALTER: No, no. Or, the one I really like is, “And the Lord said to all the growing things, ‘Green up!’”

    HODGES: Yeah!

    ALTER: So, it has a kind of liveliness, but it’s playing a different ball game with different rules.

    HODGES: Yeah, and it’s for a different purpose, sure.

    ALTER: Yeah. So, it may speak to a certain kind of parishioner, but I don’t quite consider it a serious translation of the Bible.

    HODGES: Yeah, yeah.

    ALTER: So, I go along with my publisher.

    HODGES: That’s right. And if folks can’t get the entire Hebrew Bible translated by Robert Alter—which is published in a box set—they can also check out individual volumes. I highly recommend Genesis, that’s a great place to start. It comes in a single paperback. A really inexpensive volume.

    Robert also recently published a short book called The Art of Bible Translation. This is from Princeton University Press—a fantastic book that goes over all the little elements of style that go into a translation, such as diction, rhythm, syntax, vocabulary, dialogue, and all of these things. So, if you’re interested in that, you can pick up these books.

    And again, Robert, we really appreciate you taking the time to visit Brigham Young University.

    ALTER: Well, I’ve enjoyed your questions.

    HODGES: Thank you.

    * * *

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