“You can't really make sense of a good deal of Western literature, especially English literature, without a knowledge of the Bible,” says Robert Alter, one of the most highly regarded translators of the Old Testament working today. Strong As Death Is Love: The Song of Songs, Ruth, Esther, Jonah, and Daniel, his seventh translation and commentary of the Old Testament books, is being published by W.W. Norton in March.
Alter, who has taught comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley for 50 years and is the author of 19 volumes of literary criticism, said his massive project, to translate the entire Hebrew Bible into English by treating it as a literary work rather than only as a sacred text, began accidentally.
“In the early ‘90s, Steve Forman, who would become my editor at W.W. Norton, proposed that I do a Norton Critical Edition of something from Kafka or from the Bible. I told him that one could make a neat Norton Critical Edition of Genesis, but that there was something wrong with the existing translations and that, if I were to do this, I'd have to do my own translation. Within a few months, this turned into the beginning of my Bible translation project." Since then his translations have been widely hailed, not only among biblical scholars, but also as literary studies; The Five Books of Moses won a 2005 PEN Literary Award for Translation.
Critical of English translations of the Bible that came after the King James Version, Alter says subsequent translators “don't really see what there is to love in the Hebrew. Instead, they see a set of philological problems to solve. And their translations, with indifferent diction, inattention to linguistic register [styles of language determined by factors such as social occasion, purpose, and audience], and lack of rhythm, do not reflect much love for the English language.”
He cites as an example the Jewish Publication Society’s translation of Genesis 1:16-17, which reads “God made the two great lights, the greater light to dominate the day and the lesser light to dominate the night and the lesser light to dominate the night, and the stars. And God set them in the expanse of the sky to shine upon the earth.” Alter instead translates the passage as “And God made the two great lights, the great light for dominion of day and the small light for dominion of night, and the stars. And God placed them in the vault of the heavens to light up the earth.”
Says Alter, "The term ‘dominate’ belongs either to politics or to sexual perversion but not to the Creation story. And it's a pity to give up the repetition of ‘light’ in the last verb by substituting 'shine.' The cadence of these lines in the Hebrew is quite beautiful, but the JPS version of the first sentence is lamentably arhythmic. My version replicates the rhythm of the Hebrew.”
For Alter, translating the Bible is a way of “conducting a simultaneous love affair with two languages,” he says. “I've tried to balance the two loves--no doubt, not with uniform success, but even a good approximation is far better than having a dead ear to both languages.”
And, unlike other translators, he also approaches the Bible as the key literary work of Western culture, the foundation for understanding much of the literary canon. Says Alter, “Literature almost never discards its earlier phases but constantly reuses and transforms them. That's why the Bible is still compelling, and studying the biblical tradition in Western literature is important.”