(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020), 148
Style is important in efforts to translate the Bible into English, and most modern translations have not given sufficient attention to the style of the original Hebrew. This is often a symptom of attempting to explain everything to the modern reader and achieve a level of precision that does not exist in the ambiguous original.
Robert Alter is all about literary style, and this is his book to argue for giving more attention to style when translating the Hebrew Bible into English. As he says, "from the beginning my translation was impelled by a deep conviction that the literary style of the Bible in both the prose narratives and poetry is not some sort of aesthetic embellishment of the 'message' of Scripture but the vital medium through which the biblical vision of God, human nature, history, politics, society, and moral value is conveyed."
One key example of this is parataxis, or the ordering of parallel clauses linked by "and." This "grand rhythm of parallel utterances" gives a dignified cadence to the biblical narrative. Parataxis is used in Genesis 1 to illustrate the orderly harmony of the created world, but many modern translations do away with this dignified progression.
Biblical Hebrew—especially narrative prose—uses a characteristically terse vocabulary. By excluding much of the colloquial ancient language, biblical language is elevated (this is also one argument for using older English translations that preserve antiquated, and therefore elevated, language). Alter criticizes the tendency of modern translations to include synonyms when the same simple Hebrew words are used out of a misguided desire to either explain the Bible to readers rather than merely translating it, or to give more variety to the style: "It should be evident that the restricted vocabulary of biblical narrative is a resource, not a limitation, and that translators should not obscure the ways in which this resource is deployed."
While much of his stylistic guidelines for biblical translation favor literal translation philosophies—and he explicitly names his distaste for dynamic equivalence—he warns against an overly precise literalism. Rather, ambiguity is a fundamental part of the Bible itself: "The Bible itself does not generally exhibit the clarity to which its modern translators aspire: the Hebrew writers reveled in the proliferation of meanings, the cultivation of ambiguities, the playing of one sense of a term against another, and this richness is erased in the deceptive antiseptic clarity of modern versions."
This work is a sort of mini commentary on the Bible given the number of examples he uses to demonstrate his points on style in translation. To examine just one, Amnon's rape of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13 has a triply inverted allusion to Joseph (OT): first "clear out everyone around me", then the words of Potiphar's wife, then the ornamented tunic. Modern translations sacrifice, for the sake of an efficient narrative, this important allusion of how Amnon reverses the bringing together of brothers that Joseph gave.
I already noted how Alter tends to side with the King James Version translators, while recognizing limitations of the KJV from change in the English language over 400 years and philological mistakes given the state of scholarship at the time. In evaluating modern versions, he specifically criticizes the Revised English Bible, the Jewish Publication Society, and the Jerusalem Bible (though he praises the NJB at least twice). Since I recently read Bible Translation & the Making of the ESV Catholic Edition and am becoming more drawn to the ESV (including acquiring an ESV Pocket New Testament and the Cambridge ESV Diadem), I compared many of his examples against the ESV. While not universal, the ESV hews closely to many of Alter's stylistic suggestions. Exceptions include sound and word play, where the ESV tends to be more literal. As a whole, reading this book elevated my already high opinion of the ESV, which I hold for three primary reasons:
- It respects and grows out of the King James Version literary tradition (KJV→ASV→RSV→ESV, see Bible Translation Chart).
- It is essentially literal, presenting the biblical text as is without significant interpretation
- It can be an instrument of Christian unity in the English speaking world
I would love to hear Alter's opinion of the ESV directly, but a fourth point I believe could be added above that Alter would agree with is that the ESV on the whole presents a reasonably balance translation in its translation of the Hebrew with respect to literary style.
I heard about this book from the translation notes on BIBLIOTHECA (see also his Commentary Magazine article: Beyond King James), so I am intrigued to read the Bibliotheca American Literary Version which claims to adhere to his principles: "Robert Alter, whose numerous works on biblical literature and translation philosophy provided much of the inspiration behind Bibliotheca and the choice of the ASV as its base text." I am also interested to read other of Alter's books: Pen of Iron and The Literary Guide to the Bible, and most especially his own translation of The Hebrew Bible.
- Autobiographical Prelude
- Chapter 1: The Eclipse of Bible Translation
- Chapter 2: Syntax
- Chapter 3: Word Choice
- Chapter 4: Sound Play and Word Play
- Chapter 5: Rhythm
- Chapter 6: The Language of Dialogue
- "Any translation of a great piece of writing is bound to be imperfect...The practice of translation entails an endless series of compromises." (ix)
- Another of his books: The Art of Biblical Narrative (x, bib)
- "There was something wrong with all the existing translations" of Genesis (xi), esp. Gn-18 and Gn-19 (x)
- He then translated Genesis and provided a commentary, later to become his Five Books of Moses bib
- "From the beginning my translation was impelled by a deep conviction that the literary style of the Bible in both the prose narratives and poetry is not some sort of aesthetic embellishment of the "message" of Scripture but the vital medium through which the biblical vision of God, human nature, history, politics, society, and moral value is conveyed." (xiii)
- Example: Isaiah uses word play to convey his meaning by juxtaposing two words with similar sounds but opposite meanings to how virtue and vice had been mixed (xiii)
- This also makes this a book on Biblical style (xiv)
Chapter 1: The Eclipse of Bible Translation
Summary: The King James Version gets a lot right stylistically and is a cultural monument itself, so English translations should recognize and respect this legacy while being attuned to current English usage and style.
- William Tyndale, a "translator of genius", influenced the Geneva Bible and the King James Version, even including Ecclesiastes that he didn't live to translate but which bears elements of his style (1-2)
- "This preference for the King James Version [55% on survey in 2014] is surely dictated in part by the woeful inadequacies of the twentieth-century English translations." (2) ..."misconception that for modern readers everything in the biblical text needs to be explained." (3)
- Strengths of the King James Version:
- "inspired literalism", for example the italicized addition of words not in Hebrew, maintaining parataxis, preserving the small vocabulary of the Bible (3)
- He criticizes three translations other than KJV of Gn-07 (check verses)—including the New Jerusalem Bible—for subordinating clauses rather than maintaining parataxis—"the grand rhythm of parallel utterances is turned into something commonplace" (6)—and for replacing was and went with continued/lasted and floated/drifted—"Such substitutions seriously compromise the beautiful dignity of the Hebrew with its adherence to a purposefully simple lexicon of primary terms." (6)
- Problems with the King James version:
- The English language has changed in 400 years
- The translators had an imperfect grasp of biblical Hebrew and made mistakes
- Stylistic issue: does not treat poetry as well as it does prose: "The power of biblical poetry inheres in its terrific compactness", rather than the "orotund and expansive Jacobean rhetoric" of KJV (9)—the translators read Hebrew but didn't hear it. Jb-03 (check verses): "the meaning of the Hebrew is there, but the poetry gets lost in the verbiage" (9)
- "The impulse to explain through translation has still more dire consequences because it becomes an explanation to make the Bible conform to modern views or modern ideologies." (7)
- Boom: "This is manifestly not how the biblical writers chose to tell their stories." (7)
- Don't throw the KJV baby out with the bathwater: original, overly precise translations are misguided because (10):
- "The Bible itself does not generally exhibit the clarity to which its modern translators aspire: the Hebrew writers reveled in the proliferation of meanings, the cultivation of ambiguities, the playing of one sense of a term against another, and this richness is erased in the deceptive antiseptic clarity of modern versions."
- Don't ignore the KJV: "It has been such a powerful presence for four centuries of English readers that a translation of the Bible that proceeds as though it simply didn't exist becomes hard to read as a version of the Bible that has any literary standing."^372153
- ...modern translations should "create a modern transmutation of how the King James translators imagined the Bible should be rendered in English"
- Literary style is not studied in mainstream biblical studies, just philology, but this neglect results in less than full understanding (12)
- For example, Jgs-14 (check verses): "spoil" or "garments" is actually "armor" (13)
- "The absence of a literary perspective in the training of biblical scholars thus leads to serious deficiencies in the translations they produce, but at least as problematic is the fact that most of them appear to be out of touch with the literary culture of our own times...not only do the modern translators lack a clear sense of what happens stylistically in the Bible, but also their notion of English style tends to be rather shaky" (15-16)
- Generalism: "My suspicion is that the problem stems from the specialization of knowledge that leads to a focusing on one area of rather technical expertise and a lack of intimate connection with other cultural spheres—precisely what was not true for the King James translators." (17)
- Modern translations hold the conviction that a word always has to have a context-specific translation into English, hold a "horror for repetition"; he disagrees with this and prefers to keep same for same in the original (21)
- Lawrence Venuti distinguishes between "domesticting" and "foreignizing" translations: Alter prefers the latter (22)
- He also does not agree with "dynamic equivalence" (23)
- Everett Fox emulated the German version by translating into English in a way that attempts to capture the rhythm of the Hebrew; he criticizes this approach because it makes it less idiomatic in the target language thereby creating distortion (24)
Chapter 2: Syntax
Summary: Many modern translations ignore syntax altogether, losing narrative meaning or effect.
- Normal Hebrew Syntax (ordering of words) is verb-subject-object (27)
- Modern translations, apart from rendering in readable English, disregard syntax altogether, resulting in an undistinguished modern sound (28)
- He re-emphasizes his previous point about maintaining parataxis as a means of conveying the cadence of Biblical narrative (28-30)
- Syntactic inversion:
- Can't convey in English, but the Hebrew of Gn-25 "the elder shall serve the younger" is actually ambiguous and could mean "the younger shall serve the elder", which us unresolved until Jacob and Esau meet (31)
- Also syntactic fronting (like Yoda), which Jacob does to emphasize his long-suffering as a bereaved parent
- "If an English version makes no attempt to mirror the order of the original, the force and subtlety of the Hebrew texts are often blunted and sometimes altogether obscured." (44)
Chapter 3: Word Choice
Summary: Some word choice errors grow from a philological grasp of Hebrew, some from timidity or lack of imagination in seeing what the Hebrew writers are actually doing, failure of modern translations (unlike KJV) to create an appropriate diction for rendering the Bible in English. The biblical narrative is beautiful in its simplicity without modern explanatory changes.
- "The biblical writers are so sparing in their use of language that the choice of single words is constantly telling, and if the translator gets one word wrong, it may throw an episode off-balance or even altogether misrepresent it." (46)
- Some inaccuracies include:
- Ex-19: the "thick cloud" should be something more like the "utmost cloud"
- Rendering nefesh as "soul"
- Reducing Joseph (OT)'s ravid to a "chain" rather than something more substantial like a "collar"
- Gn-21: Hagar does not "lay" or "put" her child under the bush to die, she "flings" him (hishlikh)
- Abraham talking to Abimelech does not refer to "God" but "the gods" (plural form of 'elohim)
- After the six days of creation God does not simply refresh himself, he "caught His breath" (wayinafash; the NJB gets closer by saying he "drew breath")
- It is anomalous that Biblical narrative is in prose, which indicates a literate culture freed from the oral constraints of metrical composition (53)
- The Song of Deborah in Judges 5 is probably the oldest extended poem in the Bible, and "it's splendidly archaic language sounds virtually epic"; it was composed about 300 years before Homer in 1100 BC (54)
- Gn-07 the 'arubot of the heavens were opened is "windows" or "casements", not "floodgates" (54)
- Biblical narrative prose "possesses an eloquent dignity of simplicity" (55); the efforts of modern translators to improve on the original often amounts to a "lamentable tampering with it" (56)
- Amnon's rape of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13 has a triply inverted allusion to Joseph (OT): first "clear out everyone around me", then the words of Potiphar's wife, then the ornamented tunic. Modern translations sacrifice, for the sake of an efficient narrative, this important allusion of how Amnon reverses the bringing together of brothers that Joseph gave (56)
- 2 Sm-13: use only "hatred" and "love" rather than other words like "loathing" and "passion" (the RSV/ESV gets this right); "It should be evident that the restricted vocabulary of biblical narrative is a resource, not a limitation, and that translators should not obscure the ways in which this resource is deployed." (58)
- Gn-39 Joseph and Potiphar's wife: errors abound, such as "make love" instead of "lie with", not using "place in my hand", "loincloth" instead of "garment" (58-63)
- "Because the translators do not see the artistry of the simple language of the original, they feel at liberty to rearrange it in ways that undermine it and to substitute wrong English terms for beautifully right ones in the Hebrew." (61)
- "There is a kind of literary art that achieves the most sophisticated effects through a seeming simplicity of language" i.e. Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway: he cites the opening of chapter 4 of The Sun Also Rises as an example (63)
Chapter 4: Sound Play and Word Play
Summary: As with other aspects of biblical style, play with the sound of words is not ornamentation but intrinsic to the meanings of both the poetry and the narratives. The lexical value of the words used is an important, but not the only, source of meaning, and exclusively literal translation can amount to a flattening of the sound and rhythm.
- His discussion of John Donne's puns in A Hymn to God the Father lead me to Batter My Heart!
- "Serious puns of this order of meaningful brilliance are the translator's despair, and there are many of them in the Bible." (66)
- There are many Biblical puns you can't translate: "all translations are no more than approximations of the original" (68)
- But some approximations can be made, he gives three examples from Job, "the work of the supreme virtuoso of biblical poets" (68)
- "Translation often involves painful compromise—you gain something through the loss of something else." (69)
- Isaiah is the master of highlighting antithesis by juxtaposing words that sound alike but are opposite in meaning; he does this to show how things are not as they should be in Judah (72)
- Biblical prose maintains a limited vocabulary, but Biblical poetry often does include unusual or arcane terms, making the use of English alternates by the translator to preserve some of the sound and word play permissible, but "a translator can scarcely expect to equal the virtuosity of a great poet" (75)
- "Meaning the the Bible or in any literary text cannot be reduced to lexical values; it involves the communication of affect and can never be separated from the nuanced connotation of words and their dynamic interaction as they are joined through sound, through syntax, and through poetic or narrative context" (76)
- Is-05 is an example of when one might deviate slightly from a literal translation to preserve the word play of poetry. Compare the ESV "he looked for justice but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!" to his version "he hoped for justice, and look, jaundice; for righteousness, and, look, wretchedness" (78)
- 78-79 is an interesting example of his thinking process through several word choices in Is-13 to arrive at a solution that is workable
- "The words used in biblical Hebrew are for the most part quite compact, and as a general rule it is preferable to employ short English words in translation, which usually are Anglo-Saxon rather than Latin or Greek in origin." (80)
Chapter 5: Rhythm
Summary: Rhythm is the beating heart of literary prose. It is not possible to convey literal meaning and poetic rhythm both in their entirety, but neither should be entirely neglected (as many modern English translations do with rhythm).
- The rhythm of Genesis 1 illustrates the orderly harmony in the creation of the world, and dominion preserves the rhythm of the Hebrew memSHElet; the KJV mostly preserves this (83)
- Parallels between 2 Samuel and Hamlet: the Parable of the Poor Man's Ewe in 2 Samuel 12 is like Hamlet's play-within-the-play, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are sent off with a sealed death sentence for them, just like Uriah is (85)
- "The modern tendency to explanatory paraphrase has the effect of converting the sound of poetry into the amble of expository prose." (93)
- Hebrew poetry is beautiful (and difficult to translate) because of its compactness (93) and few polysyllabic words (94). Translations of The Odyssey are instructive, successful versions being those by Richmond Lattimore in 1951 (an example of repeated gestures toward the sound and feel of the ancient poem even if the nature of the language of translation works against any complete replication of them) and Robert Fagles (94).
- Iambs are the most natural rhythmic pattern in English, which makes it sound like proper English poetry (96)
- The dimension of sound would have been all the more urgent for the first audiences to whom these texts were addressed (102)
Chapter 6: The Language of Dialogue
Summary: Dialogue is the vital center of biblical narrative. As with all aspects we have considered above, the translator needs to first see the stylistic subtleties in the original Hebrew and then attempt to do something with them in translation.
- Dialogue is central to the biblical narrative from Genesis through Kings, it sets and example for the modern novel, and we often first meet a character through their dialogue.
- The dialogue between Abraham, Abimelech, and God in Genesis 20 is stark, blunt, and strange in the original Hebrew, though normalized in many modern translations (106-109)
- 2 Sm-18: Ahimaaz's reply to King David's question about Absalom is an incoherent muttering that breaks off, since he knows Absalom is dead but is afraid to tell the king. But most translations think the Bible must contain "correct" English, and so make it a correct and complete sentence, losing the sense of the dialogue (109)
- Relating the tragic story of Jephthah and his daughter in Judges 11: "It is wise to render the Hebrew fairly literally as far as English usage allows." (116)
- The translator needs to first see the stylistic subtleties in the original Hebrew and then attempt to do something with them in translation.
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- Parataxis: the ordering of words in parallel clauses linked by "and", a common style in the Hebrew Bible (3)