The Chicago Manual interviews Robert Alter about his much-praised translation of the Hebrew Bible:
CMOS: You have now translated a large portion of the Hebrew Bible into English. What motivated you to take on such an enormous, high-profile, high-stakes project?
RA: I have to say that it really sneaked up on me. That is, I was dissatisfied with the existing translations, and I thought, well, I’ll give a whirl at translating Genesis and see if I can do something about the English that would make it exhibit more of the stylistic power of the Hebrew. I was rather unsure that this was going to work, but I figured it was worth a try. And it turned out to work better than I thought it would. Not that I ever think that my translations are perfect, but it got some very good responses: a rave review in the New York Times and that kind of thing. So I thought I’d do one other book that I like, and I translated Samuel, basically the David story, and that also got a nice response, and then I was kind of talked into doing the Five Books of Moses by my editor at Norton. And then because it was perceived as a fundamental building block of the whole Bible, it got reviewed all over in places I’d never been reviewed before like the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. So there I was. Up until a certain point I wasn’t thinking of doing the whole Bible, but then I looked back and said, “Hey, I’ve done about two-thirds of it, so I might as well go on and do the whole.”
CMOS: What was wrong with the translations we already had?
RA: I’m a literary person who happens to have the skill set of a Bible scholar, and as a literary person I read the Hebrew and see that much of it is fantastic, stylistically—wonderfully subtle prose, powerful, resonant poetry—and I think that the existing translations don’t do justice to it because the modern translators don’t look at the stylistic aspects of the Hebrew.
There’s a good deal more — he’s especially proud of his translation of Job and of the beginning of Genesis (I agree with him that “welter and waste” is excellent), and he talks about elements of biblical Hebrew that just don’t come across well in translation — but that will give you an idea. When asked about other translators, he says “The only English translation I honestly admire is the King James Version,” which won my heart, and he adds that modern English versions “have a very shaky sense of English style,” which is exactly right. Rhythm and style are the indispensable foundation of all literary translation (and, for that matter, of all literary writing). Thanks, Paul!