New Bible Translator: Others 'Have Done a Wretched Job'

Robert Alter takes a more literary approach
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 22, 2018 3:43 PM CST
The 'Good Book' Is Reborn
The Torah is shown in this file photo.   (Getty Images)

A new Hebrew Bible translation stands out for accentuating the poetic style of the original language—and for having just one translator, the New York Times reports. Robert Alter, 83, began the project about 20 years ago partly out of frustration: "The modern translators, English and American, have done a wretched job," he tells Prospect. "They just don't see the literary aspects of the Bible at all." His deep knowledge of ancient Hebrew inspired him to translate more carefully, he says, and take poetic license when needed. Take the Song of Songs, Chapter 1, Verse 13 in another translation: "My beloved to me is a bag of myrrh/Lodged between my breasts." Bristling at the word "lodged" in a line meant to convey sex appeal, Alter writes a daring new version: "A sachet of myrrh is my lover to me,/All night between my breasts."

The native New Yorker and Harvard PhD made academic waves in 1981 by saying the Bible wasn't just a tangled heap of documents for scholars to analyze, but formed a cohesive work. "My contention is that if you want to see what the Bible has to say about humankind, morality, human nature, God and Israel, history—if you want to see that in all its fine nuances, you have to attend to the literary workings of these texts," he says. His approach has been acclaimed and debated, per the Arizona Jewish Post, but the praise runs high: "The poets will rejoice," writes novelist Cynthia Ozick, adding that "Alter's language ascends to a rare purity." His translation, which has been published piecemeal, is now out in a full Norton edition. (A Bible museum recently made an embarrassing announcement.)

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