Sunday , July 25 2021

Robert Alter completes his monumental translation of the Hebrew Bible

San Francisco (J. Jewish News of Northern California through JTA) – "When God began to create the heavens and the earth, and then the earth was a hillside and a desert and darkness over the depths and the breath of God hanging over the waters, God said," Let there be light. "And there was light.

Thus begins a monumental new literary translation of the Jewish Bible from the University of California Berkeley Research Robert Alter. Yes, "valter and waste" – more for that later.

Most complete translations of the Bible are performed by teams of translators. Alter is the first person to complete a major translation of the entire Hebrew Bible into English.

Started in a voice with Genesis, published in 1997. Since then, at the height and the beginning, he has translated several more books from the Bible. And next month, his full three-tier translation falls, which is a decade of work.

"The alter versions are not intended to replace King James's version, they are designed to remove their knowledge, to help us see the biblical text more closely and accurately," wrote poetry and literary critic Adam Kirsh.

The results are widely admired, but widely discussed. The late writer John Updike was not a fan, he wrote in New Yorker, that in an attempt to "achieve absolute faithfulness" to the original Hebrew, Alter "is settling in strange English."

But another novelist Cynthia Ozik loved her translation of Moses's Five Books.

"Poets will enjoy," she writes. "Alter's language climbs up to rare purity through a plane that equals the plane of Hebrew."

Ron Handel, a professor of Jewish Bible and Jewish research at UC Berkeley, who is editor-in-chief of the Hebrew Bible: Critical Edition, is also praiseworthy.

Alterre is the "best translation of the Bible in English ever," said Hendel, who taught courses with Alter. "And to do it as a man is an incredible achievement."

Jewish on the bus

Alter, 83, goes to what he calls a "typical Jewish school" in a conservative synagogue in Albany, New York. At the time of Mitz's bar, it was hardly a miracle.

"I could read the Hebrew alphabet, I knew about 35 words, and I can make a canopy," he said. "Then I would throw it out completely.

But two conservative synagogues in the area gathered for a more advanced class.

"I was a competitive man, so I made a lot of effort, that was a serious instruction," says Alter, In an interview at her home in Berkeley Hollis, where she works in a small office "wardrobe nest" overlooking Berkeley, the Bay and San Francisco.

While he was a bachelor at Columbia University, he continued to study Hebrew at the Jewish Theological Seminary of the Conservative Movement, right on the street. And there was an idea.

"This was the crazy thing you do when you are 18 years old: I thought I would achieve full proficiency in the Hebrew language," Alter said. "So I took a Hebrew dictionary and decided to put it back in memory."

Robert Alter's Triple Volume "The Hebrew Bible: Translation with Comment" comes in a box. (With the courtesy of W.W. Norton & Company)

It went on a bit, but as it turned out, there are many words that start with an aleph.

"I would have written every word that I did not know, however vague, on flash cards and I would study them," he said. Alter travels to the Bronx every day for tracks, and the bus is the perfect place to train. "After about a year and a half I barely found words I did not know."

Studying Hebrew became a central place for his Jewish identity, but for most of his professional academic career he was firmly embedded in the world of English and other Western literature. In 1962, he received a Ph.D. in English Literature at Harvard. In 1967 he came to Berkeley University, where he has been since then, as a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature.

By the 1980s, he worked on novels of Europe, America and modern Israel, and dealt with writers such as Franz Kafka, Saul Below, and CJ Agnon. Then came the Bible.

"I wrote a terrible part complaining that Biblical scholars have spent all their time hunting Acadian loans hidden in the text, but they did not know how to read history," Alter said, "They are learning all sorts of useful things. Historical Facts, Archeology – they choose several ancient languages, Akkadian and Egyptian. But one thing that has never been studied is style. "

Alter figured the piece published in Commentary would be a one-time, short-lived career.

"But then I started getting letters pouring," he said. She had struck the nerves. "I had a few more ideas for this, so I kept going."

Then in 1982 he wrote "The Art of the Bible Story".

There are two common approaches to the Bible: this is either a sacred revelation whose existence must be taken with a nominal value, or a historical artifact that must be disentangled and contextualized.

But in the "Art of Biblical Narrative," Alter offered a third way: to analyze the Bible as an interrelated series of literary works using the tools of literary analysis as he did with Western novels in his career so far. Then it was revolutionary. He looked at the Bible not as sacred, not as historical, but as artistic.

The book is immediately recognized as a gem, welcomed by critics and colleagues as a revolutionary. She won the 1982 National Jewish Book Prize in Hebrew Thought. In terms of academic volumes, it was a sensation of sales. It has been in print more or less uninterrupted since it has been published.

Handel said Alther's literary approach to Bible reading has contributed significantly to the way the Bible is taught today in academic circles.

An unlawful commission

A book about the literary style of the Bible is far from the beautiful tritoment of the whole thing. You would expect such a difficult undertaking to be a goal throughout life. But Alter did not want to do it. In fact, the project was more or less accidental.

A Norton editor approached him to make a critical edition of "maybe something from Kafka because I had just written a book that included Kafka." Perhaps something from the Bible, Alter said. Genesis, perhaps.

"But the problem is that there is something really wrong in all existing translations," he told the editor. "If I had to do that, I would have to make my own translation. Alther said, not thinking twice about where he was going.

"I had read the Hebrew Bible from my teenagers, and the beauty of Hebrew spoke to me in any way," he said. "I wanted to see if I could get more than that in English than the English readers have seen so far."

Which brings us back to the "shaft and waste". The Hebrew term he makes in English is "tohu vavohu". In his comment, Alter writes, "Tohu alone means" emptiness "or" nonsense "while vavohu seems to be anywhere else in the Bible -" think of rhyming with [tohu] and reinforce it, an effect I tried to bring to English with aliters. "

Compare the elegance of your solution by bringing to the English reader the sound poetry in Hebrew with that of translating tohu vavohu to "Jewish publication of society": "unformed and invalid."

Alter's Genesis turned out to be better than he expected, and he was well accepted. "So I said," I think I will do another one, "he remembers.

The cover of each set is made up of a series of tapestries depicting abstract Jewish letters from the Israeli artist Mordecai Aron. (With the courtesy of W.W. Norton & Company)

This is still the "History of David," which includes the books of 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel, largely related to the life of King David. Published in 2000, David translated as a true literary character, inadequate and heroic.

In 2008, Alter extended his translation to Genesis and made "The Five Books of Moses: Translation with Commentary". In 2009 came the "Book of Psalms" In 2011, "The Books of Wisdom: Work, Parables and Ecclesiastes". 2014: "Ancient Israel: Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings" 2016: "It is as death is love: song of songs, Ruth, Esther, Jonah, and Daniel."

His translations are read by a broad circle of spectators, Jewish, Christian, and others – academics and their students, readers of literature, loyal to the good book.

The big picture

The "Hebrew Bible: Translation with Comment" is proudly shown on the coffee table at the Alterre House for good reason. The end product is a boxing set – beautiful and colorful, with artwork adapted from a series of 10 tapestries designed in the late 1970s by Israeli artist Mordecai Arden.

The package body collects all of its previous translations, plus a few books that it postpones – including works that spread its idea of ​​the Bible as literature to almost a point of smashing, small pieces of the big picture, and slogans for translation.

"Listen, the first nine chapters of Chronicles 1 are just a list of names," he said. "You can not call this literature. And what do we have to do as a translator? There is nothing but writing down the names. You just have to experience it because you can not decide to edit part of the Bible. "

Alter also does not think much about Levitte, with its long passages about priestly behavior and ritual slaughter procedures.

"I do not even like getting into the butchers' shops, and here I'm translating all the instructions for cutting animals," he said.

But ask for your favorites and change everyone except cruises through the content.

"I love Genesis," he began. "And I love the Psalms and the story of David, and then there are later books. [Ecclesiastes] speaks very loud about me. And Job, of course, poetry is incredible … "

And then he has his pride in translating a mysterious word into Sampson's story, which only appears twice in the Bible: "halitsah." It is usually assumed that it refers to clothes, sometimes translated as a tunic or just a garment, but identification in particular has long given the translators a lot of problems. However, Alterre proposes a new translation.

In the story Samson brings 30 of these unclassified clothes after hitting the men who wear them. By comparing it with the only other example of the word in the Bible, Alther identifies it as a type of armor – a translation that brings new meaning to history. The image of Samson, carrying 30 sets of armor, strengthens its legendary superhuman power.

Other cover from the box (courtesy of W.W. Norton & Company)

Alter believes he is the only one in history who translated it exactly.

"I am 100% sure he is right," he said.

His colleague, Hendel, said Alter triumphed as a translator and critic.

"His work on reading the Bible will be as long as his translation, and they are ingenious works," said Hendel, "and they will be part of his long-term legacy as well as translations."

Alter feels good with this.

"A friend once told me that the shelf life of the book of literary criticism is six or seven years, but the Art of Biblical Narrative has been in a continuous seal for 37 years," he said. And surely the whole translation of the Bible will be at least for so long.

"All right," said Alter, pleased.

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