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Poetry and Prophecy, Dust and Ashes: “The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary”

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Phil Christman writes in Plough Quarterly Magazine:

In the early 1990s, W. W. Norton, that indefatigable supplier of textbooks, invited the literary scholar Robert Alter to assemble a critical edition of Genesis. Alter countered that he’d have to do his own translation, the existing ones being inadequate. Norton agreed. But, Alter tells us in his new treatise The Art of Bible Translation, “I had not gotten halfway through the first chapter of Genesis before I discovered that there were all sorts of things going on in the Hebrew, many having to do with its literary shaping, that had not been discussed in the conventional commentaries and that I wanted to take up.” The scholar-turned-translator thus found himself launched on a third parallel career, as commentator. Alter’s Genesis appeared in 1996 to rapturous reviews, followed by The David Story (both Samuels and a smattering of Kings) a few years later, then the Pentateuch a few years after that. Those of us who came to love Alter soon found ourselves in a position akin to that of Robert Caro’s or George R.R. Martin’s fans. Would he keep going? What if he lost interest, perhaps taking up a less exacting hobby upon his retirement? What if – morbid thought – he died? But twenty-three years after Genesis, Alter has completed his work: a finished Hebrew Bible, three volumes lovingly footnoted; an altogether worthier object of contemplation than some fantasy series, or Lyndon Johnson. And I, who am but dust and ashes, review it.

From his earliest writings on the Bible, Alter has warred against what he calls “the heresy of explanation”: the tendency among most modern English Bible translators to turn the original text’s weirder idioms into their own English-language explanatory glosses. In his introduction to the three volumes, he lists some examples: translations that describe Onan’s “offspring” where the text gives us the cruder, but simultaneously far more suggestive, “seed”; avoiding the text’s repetition of the metaphorical “hands” (into his hand, in his hand, by his hand, my hand against him) even when this avoidance destroys a careful network of verbal echoes that carry through several chapters; breaking up a large series of actions soldered together into a single sentence by and-constructions (she did this and that and that and that), or turning several linked simple sentences into compound-complex sentences, and thus slowing a patch of narrative meant to read as a series of quick, decisive actions.

He complains forcefully about this kind of thing in The Art of Bible Translation, and sets out a convincing brief guide to some of the Bible’s distinct stylistic devices – the semantic parallelism seen throughout the Psalms, in which the first line sets out an idea and the second elaborates or retraces it; the constant use of punning and wordplay, some of it untranslatable; the kind of repetition in which tiny variations or omissions often speak volumes; a preference for concrete language. His translation, however, makes the strongest argument of all. After you’ve read Alter, the NRSV or the NIV read like the work of a subcommittee of deans. At the same time, he isn’t simply literal, in the manner of Everett Fox, whose jerky, jittery rendering of the Pentateuch makes me feel as though I’m reading Talking Heads lyrics. He makes the text sound strange, but still recognizably English. (A brief example, from Isaiah 1:11: “I am sated with the burnt offerings of rams and the suet of fatted beasts.” As you read you really feel all those ts in your teeth.) In his judiciously-applied literalism and sensitivity to English idiom, he makes possible an encounter with the text that other contemporary translators don’t seem to trust readers with.

I don’t see myself rereading any other version of the Pentateuch but Alter’s in the near future, and any version of the Song of Solomon that avoids the KJV’s unfortunate rendering of verse 5:4 (“my bowels were moved for him”) is an improvement. At the same time, Alter doesn’t fully overshadow the best of his early-modern rivals, Tyndale, Coverdale, and the translators of the KJV. Isaiah 60 is a major literary test for any English Bible translator. In his History of English Prose Rhythm, George Saintsbury wrote that the KVJ’s rendering of this passage was “one of the highest points of English prose,” and you are probably already murmuring its first verse to yourself: “Arise, shine, for thy light has come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.” (The assonance alone overwhelms – arise/shine/thy/light and is/risen and glory/thee.) Here is what Alter does with it: “Rise, O shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has dawned over you.” I don’t know how he could have done better, in modern English; but with the older rendering in your head, you can’t help feeling that he’s flinched.

Then again, when it comes to the Bible, we all flinch. No other book makes me so know my own readerly laziness. I always set out with good intentions, planning to read every verse slowly, sifting every genealogy for hidden theological claims, limning every ritual instruction and temple spec with the empathy of a fieldworker and the ingenuity of an allegorist. I always get through Genesis just fine. At least, that’s been true since I read Alter’s version back in college – one of a handful of experiences that delivered me from the kind of scared, pious Bible reading that assumes the text is like a lease agreement, too important to be enjoyed. Genesis, in its careful organization, its deft portraiture, its mysteries and silences, most of all its beautifully strange, believably nuanced ending – Joseph, through months of indecision, revealing himself to his brothers via a tortuous and self-torturing process that allows him just enough revenge (can you imagine poor Benjamin, seeing that cup in his bag?) to be believable – is among the loveliest objects in the literary canon. (I want to say that this is self-evidently true, apart from religion, apart from our assumptions about the truthfulness of the text’s worldview, but of course aesthetics and ethics and politics are siblings, like Jubal the herder and Jabal the musician and Tubal-cain the metalworker. They form civilization with continuous reference to each other. And so the aesthetic through which I form a judgment on its loveliness is descended, willy-nilly, from this book.)

And I always appreciate the weirdness of early Exodus, but then you hit the back half of the book, where God spends several chapters telling Moses exactly how to build a temple, and then Moses (or his secretary or, fine, be that way, “the redactor”) spends several chapters telling us that that’s exactly how he did it, quoting the earlier passages verbatim, page after page, like Kathy Acker in a particularly sadistic mood, and … here, reader, my attention will go no further. It turns and rebukes me, like Balaam’s ass. Someday, I keep telling myself, I’ll find the proper angle of view to see it whole. My patience with the text will attest to God’s with me.

Still, these are strange and alien volumes, and by this point the Bible’s body count and terrifying strictness have begun to make the alienation more than simply aesthetic. You start to wrestle with a special version of the same problem that worries every theist: if God is all good and merciful, and intends, finally, only restoration and wholeness, then why … all this? Why not skip to the good part? You can ask that question about all human history, and about the millennia of death and extinction that preceded human existence, and also about whatever future is left to life. The books themselves provoke such questioning – “Will you really wipe out the innocent with the guilty?” – even as they forbid it – “Who is this who darkens counsel?”

Those doubts only increase with the violence of Joshua, hero to gun-toting colonialists in modern America and modern Israel alike, and Judges, a book that ends in horrifying violence against an unnamed woman. As Israel begins nation-building in earnest (“Give us a king!”), the prophets register their anger at injustice, but they are at least equally insistent about ritual observation and location, a subject about which readers who aren’t practicing Jews don’t even have the option of having an opinion.

At worst, the picture that emerges for a modern reader is of a God more . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 November 2019 at 9:05 am

Posted in Books, Religion

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