Judith Shulevitz’s NY Times review of The Five Books of Moses: A Translation With Commentary by Robert Alter not only raves about the book (“Alter’s magisterial translation deserves to become the version in which many future generations encounter this strange and inexhaustible book”), it goes into the kind of detail that whets my appetite:
What Alter does with the Bible instead [of allocating bits to “J” and other presumed authors] is read it, with erudition and rigor and respect for the intelligence of the editor or editors who stitched it together, and — most thrillingly — with the keenest receptivity to its darker undertones.
In the case of the binding of Isaac, for instance, Alter not only accepts a previous translator’s substitution of “cleaver” for the “knife” of the King James version but also changes “slay” (as in, “Abraham took the knife to slay his son”) to “slaughter.” Moreover, in his notes, he points out that although this particular Hebrew verb for “bound” (as in, “Abraham bound Isaac his son”) occurs only this once in biblical Hebrew, making its meaning uncertain, we can nonetheless take a hint from the fact that when the word reappears in rabbinic Hebrew it refers specifically to the trussing up of animals. Alter’s translation thus suggests a dimension of this eerie tale we would probably have overlooked: that of editorial comment. The biblical author, by using words more suited to butchery than ritual sacrifice, lets us know that he is as horrified as we are at the brutality of the act that God has asked Abraham to commit.
Translators often win praise for their attention to nuance, but in the case of the Hebrew Bible subtlety has hurt more than it has helped. Biblical Hebrew has an unusually small vocabulary clustered around an even smaller number of three-letter roots, most of them denoting concrete actions or things, and the Bible achieves its mimetic effects partly through the skillful repetition of these few vivid words. The translators who gave us the King James version appear more or less to have understood this, but many 20th-century English-language translators have not. In their desire to convey shades of meaning brought out by different contexts or, perhaps, to compensate for what they perceived as the primitiveness of the ancient language, they replaced biblical Hebrew’s restricted, earthy lexicon with a broad and varied set of often abstract terms.
Not Alter. As he explains in his introduction — an essay that would be worth reading even if it didn’t accompany this book — the Hebrew of the Bible is, in his view, a closed system with a coherent literary logic, “a conventionally delimited language, roughly analogous in this respect to the French of the neoclassical theater,” though plain-spoken where neoclassical French is lofty. Alter’s translation puts into practice his belief that the rules of biblical style require it to reiterate, artfully, within scenes and from scene to scene, a set of “key words,” a term Alter derives from Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, who in an epic labor that took nearly 40 years to complete, rendered the Hebrew Bible into a beautifully Hebraicized German. Key words, as Alter has explained elsewhere, clue the reader in to what’s at stake in a particular story, serving either as “the chief means of thematic exposition” within episodes or as connective tissue between them.
I like the appreciation (even if muted) for the King James, which will always be my favorite version, and the comparison with the restricted vocabulary of French classicism, and I especially like the preference for rendering the same word or phrase the same way whenever it makes sense: that’s the only way to bring across the growing web of associations that characterizes any great work of literature.