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.
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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.


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