An Alter-ed Perspective on the Bible

Scholar Robert Alter Has Issues With Translations of Holy Text

Good Book Scholar: Robert Alter has changed the way the Bible is perceived as literature.
Nathan phillips
Good Book Scholar: Robert Alter has changed the way the Bible is perceived as literature.

By Anthony Weiss

Published November 27, 2011, issue of December 02, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

As this year marks the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, a new English translation might seem a bit late to the game. After all, the KJV is justly celebrated for its eloquence, and the shelves are packed with more recent translations, such as that of the Jewish Publication Society, that draw on modern advances in linguistic and historical scholarship and are written in more contemporary English.

But Robert Alter sees problems with all these translations, which he describes in the introduction to his own 2004 rendering of the Five Books of Moses: “Broadly speaking, one may say that in the case of the modern versions, the problem is a shaky sense of English and in the case of the King James Version, a shaky sense of Hebrew.”

Alter argues that the KJV is frequently inaccurate, and that both the King James and its successors fail to convey in English the refined narrative style and linguistic rhythms of the Hebrew original. It is an argument that is all the more persuasive because it is backed by groundbreaking contemporary scholarship on the literary artistry of the Bible — namely, his own.

Even to the untrained reader, Alter’s translations are both familiar and startlingly different. The language is simple, vigorous and rhythmical, and Alter prefers concrete, often tactile metaphors to the more philosophical renderings of other translators. Thus, in Psalm 63, where both the KJV and the New JPS translate the poet as declaring that his “soul” thirsts for God, Alter translates nefesh as “throat,” rejecting an abstract term in favor of an image rooted in the trials of desert life.

The resulting text stands as a fresh reminder that the authors of the Bible were not lawyers or philosophers but desert tribesmen living in a stark and often brutal world.

Alter himself, by contrast, is a courtly presence with a bushy halo of white hair and an easy manner — “a genial genius,” one friend calls him — that belies his intellectual heft.

“He is the most accomplished Jewish humanist in America,” said Leon Wieseltier, A longtime friend of Alter’s and literary editor of The New Republic, to which Alter is a periodic contributor.

Alter says that he “stumbled” into his career as a biblical translator, but it is, in many ways, the unification of twin passions that Alter has pursued most of his life: literary scholarship, and Hebrew language and culture.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.