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The Literary Beauty of the Bible

A review of Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible

Published on:
March 11, 2019
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5 min.
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Never before has a translation brought me to tears every time I’ve opened it. Robert Alter’s seminal work of a literary translation of the Old Testament has managed it, though. Published by W. W. Norton & Company, the three-volume set represents in many ways Alter’s accidental but necessary life-work. The translation’s roots began in his book The Art of Biblical Narrative, where Alter posed the theory that the Old Testament presented readers with a cohesive literary narrative. Over the years, Alter’s composed his translation by hand on notebook paper.

For the Christian reader, Alter’s introduction to his translation feels a bit like jumping into a frozen lake.

For the Christian reader, Alter’s introduction to his translation feels a bit like jumping into a frozen lake. But if anyone can get away with calling nearly all English translations of the Old Testament heretical, it’s Robert Alter. Alter pinpoints the key weakness of modern Bible translations—attempting to explain the original languages. Most translations of the ancient words in Scripture attempt to make reading easier on their target audiences. But in doing so they commit the “heresy of explanation” (xv). The net effect is, unfortunately, a presumptuous dismissal of the ancient authors’ literary prowess.

Alter provides the example of the Hebrew word “and.” In the text of the Old Testament, that word appears as the small prefixed letter waw. Throughout most (if not all) English translations of the Bible, waw ends up as any one of the various English conjunctions—and, but, then—or disappears altogether.

Translational Hubris

The attitude that produces such a dismissal of intentional literary construction begins when the would-be translator encounters Hebrew for the first time. I’ve had eight years and two degrees’ worth of formal training in Old Testament Hebrew. And from day one, I was always told that the little conjunction “and” should never under any circumstances be left as simply “and.” It would assault the sensibilities of my English readers who, presumably, would demand an inordinate variety in the conjunctions I forced them to read.

Vary it up, I was told, so that the English reader wouldn’t grow bored. And so I did—over and over again I rendered that conjunction in imaginative and entirely unsubstantiated manners. And not only me, but all my classmates learned to translate the words of the Old Testament with an attitude that not only doubted the ability of the ancient authors to communicate with a modern audience, but also our modern audience’s ability to understand archaic words. And our translations suffered for it.

Vary it up, I was told, so that the English reader wouldn’t grow bored.

In his own translation, however, Robert Alter set out to reverse that long tradition of translational hubris. In his work on Hebrew narrative, Alter argued for the literary skill of the Old Testament authors. The ancient authors of the Hebrew Bible understood their craft intimately. What we call our Old Testament isn’t some hurried compilation of fireside tales stapled together by nomads. It represents some of the most sophisticated and nuanced ancient literature in existence. 

And so rather than replicate the heresy-of-explanation translations of the modern era, Alter keeps the “ands.” He strives for what he calls a translation of representation (xv). As an expert (arguably the expert) in Hebrew-Bible-as-literature, Alter strives to represent not just the original Hebrew words and their meanings, but the full literary force of the ancient manuscripts. And that means preserving the literary devices (such as the repeated “and”) that the original authors used to make their point. 

A Translation of Representation

The net effect is a stunning English rendering of the Old Testament. Alter identifies for his readers those important words above and beyond “and” that make up so much of the connective tissue in the Hebrew Bible. Perhaps my favorite example is Alter’s commitment to rendering the Hebrew word ruach as “wind” or “breath” when referring to God’s spirit. Only seldom does he impart the theological force of “spirit” to his translation—preferring instead to maintain a commitment to the more powerful metaphorical options.

The net effect is a stunning English rendering of the Old Testament.

Readers of the antiquated King James Version would recognize Alter’s word “seed” as a stylistic rendering of the Hebrew zera‘. But Alter’s choice goes deeper than simply using an older word—it recognizes the multifaceted literary force of the thematic “seed.” There’s a telescoping strength to Hebrew word choice that often contains an entire semantic range—it means all of it all at once: semen, child, descendants. But modern translators blush at the use to represent semen, and in doing so miss out on the powerful imagery that grows out of calling the stars or the sea’s sand “seed.”

In most modern translations, then, the reader of the Bible encounters a translator’s attempt to reconfigure profound literature into clinical proposition. You don’t have to look far to see that translations have fundamental commitments to presenting certain theologies. The ESV’s recent update to force a more complementarian reading into the words in Genesis 3:16 offers a perfect example. On the other hand, the NET Bible offers an interesting, updated-in-real-time look into exegetical scholarship, taking the altogether unique road in translating Romans 3:22 with “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” 

Instead, Robert Alter sets out to convey in English the full literary force of the ancient Hebrew. He points out that the limited lexicon and intentional repetition of words demonstrates sophisticated literary refinement rather than a provincial vocabulary. So, rather than treat the original writers as backwoods oafs unfamiliar with literary communication, Alter attempts to represent not just their word choice and grammar, but also their literary style.

Like Sight-Reading Hebrew

The result is the closest I’ve ever come to recreating my experience of reading the original languages. In fact, it’s very nearly like sight-reading the Hebrew. The poetic force of economy that the original authors leveraged to drive home theological points shines out in brilliant light. Thematic words that form the theological ligaments between books sit in plain sight. Allusions to the early books stand out in the prophets, since Alter allows the writers to use those dreaded repeated words. 

Even more, Alter manages to recreate the rhythms of both the Hebrew’s meter and sounds. The Psalms read like honey—viscous enough to keep your attention but fluid enough that you don’t get bogged down. Ironically, by preserving the ancient literary nature of the text, Alter manages to make the Hebrew Bible easier to read. The liquidity of meter and sound makes for delightful oral reading.

The result is the closest I’ve ever come to recreating my experience of reading the original languages.

The printed text of the Bible itself is rather distraction-free. In both the print and eBook versions, verse references sit in the margins rather than in line with the text. Alter footnotes the translation extensively, explaining either a tricky translation choice or unpacking a more obscure reference. These notes, however, are tied to the verse numbers to avoid muddying the text itself. 

The Bible Without Ruts

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the translation for me personally has been Alter’s decided disinterest in offering theological commentary on the text. Alter himself is Jewish and is intimately familiar with Christian translation histories and theological commitments. However, he remains unwaveringly committed throughout his work to rendering an accurate representation of the Hebrew literature. As a result, he equips his readers to encounter the Bible sans theology—in many ways like reading the Old Testament for the first time. In the two months I’ve been working with his text, I’ve already been challenged a dozen times to reconsider my understanding of particular texts’ implications. 

And, perhaps more significantly, Alter’s surprising translation draws his readers more deeply into the world of the Old Testament and a better understanding of the original context. Unlike The Message which moves the reader farther away from both the literary and cultural worlds of the Bible, Alter’s translation teaches readers to appreciate an ancient way of seeing God, humanity, and life. 

Whether you’re a Bible scholar or a layperson looking for something other than The Message to get you out of the reading-rut you’ve found yourself in, Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible will open your eyes in a new way to the power of literature. Themes you may have never before encountered in the text will smack you upside the head with their obviousness. You’ll become practiced in the skill of tracing plot, character arcs, and narrative commentary as they weave throughout the history of Israel. 

With Robert Alter’s translation, you’ll enjoy reading portions of the Old Testament you always skipped before. Yes, and even Leviticus.

Jed Ostoich
Jed Ostoich is a writer, editor, and the Dwight of his office. He has his BA from Moody Bible Institute in Hebrew, and his ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary in OT Biblical Theology. When he’s not marking up other people’s words, he’s reading up on Magic the Gathering or down the rabbit hole of YouTube. Jed lives with his wife and four kids in Grand Rapids. You can find him on Twitter @TheJeditor.

Cover photo by Tanner Mardis.

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