Robert Alter’s Translation of the Hebrew Bible

I’ve always wondered how well the talks of different general authorities translate to other languages.  For example, I can imagine that a lot of the alliteration that a few apostles adopt in their addresses doesn’t carry over.  And I know from my work on translating Spanish hymns that translating between languages is an inexact science and involves compromises to keep certain aspects of the original language – rhyme, meter, literal meaning of words, nuances conveyed in idioms, etc.  It’s almost impossible to carry all of those together across from one language to another.  Largely because of this, translations of the Bible have proliferated, with each trying to convey the meaning of the texts from the original languages in different ways.  For example, Robert Alter’s English translation of the Hebrew Bible focuses on carrying the literary forms of the Hebrew texts.  In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Robert Alter discussed his translation.

Robert Alter is a noted scholar who received his doctorate from Harvard University and is a Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature.  His doctorate was in modern comparative literature, but he noted in the interview that: “as an undergraduate I spent three years studying biblical texts rigorously with H. L. Ginsburg, one of the leading philological scholars of the Bible of his generation.”  His familiarity with literary forms and biblical texts came together to lead to his translation:

In the late 1970s I published an article on the need for a literary perspective on biblical narrative. That turned into a book on the subject, followed by another on biblical poetry. …

In the 1990s, a New York editor proposed that I do a book that would involve Genesis. I proceeded to do my own translation as a kind of experiment. When it turned out better than I had hoped, I went on to do another book of the Bible and eventually translated the whole Hebrew Bible.

His literary perspective led to a particular emphasis on form within the Bible while he was translating:

What may make my translation unique is the attention to the literary form of the Hebrew, which I have tried to convey in English to the extent that the differences between the two languages will allow. I believe this is crucial to a perception of what the Hebrew writers are saying about God, human nature, history, the realm of morality, and much more.

For reasons we cannot fathom, many of them were brilliant poets and masters of narrative art, and it is through their artistry that they chose to convey their understanding of the monotheistic vision. The artistry is important for seeing the subtlety and depth of what they are saying. …

The sundry translations by committee done in the second half of the 20th century are blind to all this.

Beyond just conveying meaning, Alter’s translation seeks to convey the artistry of the authors in the Hebrew Bible.

In the interview, Alter shared one example of how his translation differs from many of the other modern translations.  As he wrote:

My effort to get at the precise original meanings of Hebrew terms may have at some points had a destabilizing effect.

In the 23rd Psalm, for example, everyone follows the choice of verb in the KJV, “Thou anointest my head with oil.” There is only one biblical verb for “anoint,” which is cognate with the noun from which we get “messiah.” It is used only for the consecration of high priests and dedication to the throne of kings.

The verb actually used, dashen, means, roughly, “to make luxuriant.” Thus, there is no sacerdotal, political, or messianic suggestion in the Hebrew, and I rendered it as “moisten,” reflecting the here-and-now emphasis of the Hebrew—rubbing the head with fine olive oil is a feature of the good life, as in Homer.

The result, Robert Alter’s translation of Psalm 23, is this:

The Lord is my shepherd,

I shall not want.

In grass meadows He makes me lie down,

by quiet waters guides me.

My life He brings back.

He leads me on pathways of justice

for His name’s sake.

Though I walk in the vale of death’s shadow,

I fear no harm,

for You are with me.

Your rod and Your staff—

it is they that console me.

You set out a table before me

in the face of my foes.

You moisten my head with oil,

my cup overflows.

Let but goodness and kindness pursue me

all the days of my life.

And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD

for many long days.

While different from many other modern translations of the Psalm, his captures some of the nuances that are frequently lost in translation.

For more from Robert Alter on his translation of the Hebrew Bible, head on over to the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk for the full interview.