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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Like many formative love affairs, Alter’s romance with Hebrew began during his adolescence, in post-bar mitzvah classes in his hometown of Albany and at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. By the time he arrived in New York City in the 1950s to attend Columbia University, he was already conversationally fluent. He chose Columbia, in part, so that he could pursue his Jewish education at the neighboring Jewish Theological Seminary.

JTS was, at the time, the leading institution in the country for Jewish studies, and Alter studied the Hebrew Bible, Talmud and Midrash with some of the best scholars of the day — all in classes conducted in Hebrew. His bible teacher, H.L. Ginsberg, was one of the primary editors of the New JPS translation, which was published over two decades, starting in 1962. Alter also decided, on his own, to master literary Hebrew, reading novels and quizzing himself with Hebrew vocabulary flashcards as he rode the bus to afternoon track practice. As a result, Alter recalled, “I really acquired all the different historical strata of the language.”

Meanwhile, at Columbia, and subsequently at graduate school at Harvard, Alter studied under some of the most eminent literary critics of the day, including Lionel Trilling, F.W. Dupee and Reuben Brower. Many of these critics were disciples of New Criticism, a mode of literary study that emphasized close reading of texts as self-contained entities — an approach that would later have a deep influence on Alter’s own study of the Bible.

In 1967, Alter moved to California to take a professorship in Hebrew and comparative literature at University of California, Berkeley. Much of his scholarly work has focused on European literature and writers, including Kafka, Stendhal and the picaresque novel, in addition to extensive writings about modern Hebrew literature, and he continues to publish work on modern writers to this day.

It was not until the mid-1970s that Alter turned his literary gaze to the Bible.

“I knew biblical narrative was great, but I didn’t know why,” Alter said. “It seemed so barebones and ostensibly simple.”

At that time, most modern biblical scholarship had focused on source criticism: using linguistic patterns to figure out which parts of the bible were compiled from different historical sources and trying to analyze the differences between those sources. Alter, however, drawing on his training with the New Critics, turned his attention to the literary techniques that recur throughout the bible — the repetition of key words, the reticence of the narrator, subtle variations on conventional scene types — and unite the text into a powerful whole.

The resulting 1981 study, “The Art of Biblical Narrative,” and its subsequent 1985 companion, “The Art of Biblical Poetry,” revolutionized the way that scholars read the Bible.

“It was a revelation for people in the field of biblical studies,” said Ron Hendel, Alter’s colleague and friend at UC Berkeley. “All of a sudden, the literary study of Bible, which barely existed prior to that, was a full-fledged, mature and compelling avenue of inquiry. And he taught everybody how to do it.”

Alter’s scholarship also led, indirectly, to his translation work. Several years after “The Art of Biblical Poetry” was published, an editor at W.W. Norton asked Alter to do a critical edition of either Kafka or a book of the Bible. Alter picked Genesis, but, dissatisfied with all the existing translations, he decided to translate it himself.

Alter says that he expected the translation to be a one-off experiment, “but it turned out to be a rather closer approximation of my fantasies than I assumed it was going to be.”

It was also a hit, and Alter was persuaded to continue translating additional books until, he said, “I had become, willy-nilly, a highly visible translator of the Bible.”

To date, Alter has translated roughly half of the Hebrew Bible, most recently the Wisdom Books of Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (or Qohelet, in Hebrew), which was released in paperback by W.W. Norton & Company in October. His work has drawn rave reviews in virtually every major English-language publication on both sides of the Atlantic, with praise from literary luminaries such as Harold Bloom and Seamus Heaney.

Extensive scholarly notes accompany all of Alter’s translations, and it is here that Alter says he most deeply connects to his translation as a Jewish, rather than a literary, endeavor.

“Commentary is the Jewish mode of expression par excellence,” Alter said. “I’ve come to feel that there is a certain way in which, in pushing ahead with this enterprise, I’ve become a colleague of Rashi and Ibn Ezra and the Ramban.”

Alter is 76, and he retired recently from his post at UC Berkeley, though he remains in good health and is still an avid tennis player. He is currently working on a translation of the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings), which he expects to send to his publisher in the spring of 2012 and to publish in 2013. After that, he expects to continue on to the major prophets — Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel — if, as he said, “I remain in good health and enthusiastic.”

Alter says that he is often asked if he intends to translate the entire Hebrew bible. The answer, he explains with a wry smile, is not entirely in his own hands: “That’s basically an actuarial question.”

Anthony Weiss lives and writes in Los Angeles.

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