Alter’s Hebrew Bible.

Avi Steinberg reports for the NY Times Magazine on a new Biblical translation by Robert Alter; there’s a lot of interesting stuff, so I’ll quote a couple of chunks and send you to the link for more:

Alter told me about his decision to reject one of the oldest traditions in English translation and remove the word “soul” from the text. That word, which translates the Hebrew word nefesh, has been a favorite in English-language Bibles since the 1611 King James Version. But consider the Book of Jonah 2:6 in which Jonah, caught in the depths of a giant fish’s gut, sings about the terror of near-death by water. According to the King James Version, Jonah says that the Mediterranean waters “compassed me about, even to the soul” — or nefesh. The problem with this “soul,” for Alter, is its Christian connotations of an incorporeal and immortal being, the dualism of the soul apart from the body. Nefesh, to the contrary, suggests the material, mortal parts, the things that make us alive on this earth. The body.

“Well,” Alter said, speaking in the unrushed, amused tone of a veteran footnoter. “That Hebrew word, nefesh, can mean many things. It can be ‘breath’ or ‘life-breath.’ It can mean ‘throat’ or ‘neck’ or ‘gullet.’ Sometimes it can suggest ‘blood.’ It can mean ‘person’ or even a ‘dead person,’ ‘corpse.’ Or it can be ‘appetite’ or something more general: ‘life’ or even ‘the essential self.’ But it’s not quite ‘soul.’ ”

But, I asked Alter, doesn’t “soul” help dramatize the scene’s intense emotion? I mentioned another instance of the word nefesh, the terrifyingly evocative line from the King James’ translation of Psalm 69: “For the waters are come in unto my soul.”

“Oh, yes,” Alter said, with a smile. “That one does have a certain emotional resonance to it. But it’s not what the poet had in mind. And, I would add that the line ‘for the waters have come up to my neck’ … is also rather dramatic.”

Later I looked up the Jonah verse and saw that Alter’s translation was true to the poem’s formal structure. The verse starts with Jonah’s declaring that water had reached his nefesh — his “neck,” as Alter had it — and ends with his exclaiming that his head had been covered with seaweed. Biblical poetry is often made up of line pairings composed of analogous images, and Alter had chosen an anatomical noun, “neck,” that logically matched “head” in the parallel clause. You don’t need to know Hebrew etymology to see that “soul” doesn’t fit the analogy. The poetic structure dictates its own logic. […]

Alter was born in the Bronx and grew up in Albany, to working-class parents who emigrated from Lithuania and Romania. His father was born in the waning years of the 19th century and fought as a teenager in World War I. In that war, Alter told me, his father experienced “some kind of shell shock that wiped out his first two languages,” Yiddish and Romanian, leaving him to speak, as Alter put it, “a very salty American.” His father’s successful taxi-fleet business failed during the Depression; when the war started, he got a job at a tank factory in Schenectady, and the family left the Bronx.

Alter came to Hebrew, like many an American Jewish child, somewhat haphazardly — first in traditional contexts, like bar mitzvah lessons but also in Hebrew-only summer camps of the period. The cultural record of American Jews, in literature and art, can be summarized as a collective complaint against parental demands to learn Hebrew, but Alter took to it immediately and chose to continue his studies, even while playing varsity football and running track. As a young man, Alter was so enamored with the language that he spent much of his time systematically mastering a Hebrew-Hebrew dictionary. “I figured if I could get everything from that book into my head, I’d have it,” Alter said. […]

Alter regularly composes phrases that sound strange in English, in part because they carry hints of ancient Hebrew within them. The translation theorist Lawrence Venuti, whom Alter has cited, describes translations that “foreignize,” or openly signal that a translated text was originally written in another language, and those that “domesticate,” or render invisible the original language. According to Venuti, a “foreignized” translation “seeks to register linguistic and cultural differences.” Alter maintains that his translation of the Bible borrows from the idea of “foreignizing,” and this approach generates unexpected and even radical urgency, particularly in passages that might seem familiar.

Here is Alter’s version of the well-known opening of Genesis 21, part of the story of Isaac, the miracle baby of 90-year-old Sarah, and her 99-year-old husband, Abraham: “And the Lord singled out Sarah.” The word Alter is translating as “singled out” is pakad. The King James, and most others after it, translate it as “visited.” The Jewish Publication Society has it as “remembered.” Others translate it as “kept his word,” “took note of,” “was gracious to,” “was attentive to” or “blessed.” A good literal version, provided by the canny contemporary translator Everett Fox, has it as “took account of” — and there is something numerical and even administrative about pakad. (Elsewhere in the Bible, in the context of describing a public census, pakad means “to number”; in modern Hebrew, it is related to the words for “officer,” “clerk” and “roll-call.”) Weaving together its numerical dimensions with a thread of bureaucratic banality, Alter yields the anxious verb “singled out” and with it, reveals new layers of tension in this story.

He goes on to discuss Alter’s version of Sarah’s reaction (the King James Version has “God hath made me to laugh, so that all that hear will laugh with me”; Alter has “Laughter has God made me,/Whoever hears will laugh at me”). I’m sure no one will agree with all of Alter’s choices, but I like the way he thinks about translating. (Thanks, Eric!)

Addendum. See earlier LH posts: 2004 (review), 2016 (interview).


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    I think quite a lot of the KJV (and the various other early translations of which it was the culmination) may have originally been “foreignized” rather than “domesticted,” compared to ordinary native-speaker English of 400 years ago – if the KJV versions sound “natural” or at least “natural in a weird archaic register used only for religious and quasi-religious discourse” it’s only because of 400 years of familiarity with them. Although maybe the increasing cultural marginality of the KJV and its style over the last few generations will restore that foreignized feel to whatever minority of future generations come across it?

    FWIW, the Septuagint is usually said to be in many places in a very “foreignized” and unidiomatic style of Greek. I guess that doesn’t prove that the LORD himself approves of that stylistic choice, but it does show that it’s a very old choice.

  2. Oops, I did it again.

    (Not that I mind.)

  3. “Whoever hears will laugh at me,” seems pretty terrible to me, since it ruins that passage as aetiological myth,

  4. Oops, I did it again.

    Well, that was an entirely different link, and there’s lots of new stuff in this one. (But looking at that post reminds me that Paul Ogden isn’t around to comment on this one, which makes me sad.)

  5. I snarked too soon, and I mis-punctuated the pop reference (and I hate that song).
    I’m sorry, too, that Paul is gone.

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    To link this post with the prior one, one interesting-if-true tidbit from the family-approved funeral-home obit of Stanley Insler (findable by following a link from Victor Mair’s LL obit) is that his translation of the Gathas (foundational Zoroastrian hymns) has become over the last few decades the standard one used by many Anglophone Parsis, both in India and in diaspora. From which one infers that there isn’t a less-scholarly but pious and workmanlike English version that has been generated within the community and is in wide use by those who might understandably trust that sort of community-internal work product over some scholarly version done by an outsider.

  7. Back to Jonah:

    Short version: the water reaching your nefesh means it reaches your ‘breath’, without being specific whether it’s the mouth or the nose. There is no justification for ‘neck’ here at all, and probably not anywhere else either.

    Jonah’s prayer in chapter 2 evokes the Psalms, and is even known as “the Jonah Psalm”. The verse in question, as Alter says, reflects Ps. 69:2, with the same use of nefesh. That verse speaks of metaphorical drowning. Another example is in Ps. 124:4-5. Neither of them uses the ‘seaweed’ parallel as in Jonah.

    Nefesh appears again, in 2:8, two verses later, “as my spirit falters, I remember the Lord”. Verses 7-10 have by now abandoned any reference to Jonah’s physical predicament. And again, they reflect almost exactly Ps. 107:5 and Ps. 142:4 (that one with ruax ‘wind’, another metaphor for living breath).

    I agree with Alter that ‘soul’, with the modern meaning of an immortal being, is not quite appropriate. Linguistic arguments alone don’t decide whether it is better to translate the verse with the sense of literal or metaphorical drowning (“I’ve had it up to here”). If you use the literal meaning “water surrounded me, unto my breath” or such, you win the parallel to the second half of the verse. If you use a metaphorical meaning, “water surrounded me, to my spirit”, you win the parallel with the later verse, and with the metaphorical drowning in Psalms. It is for the poet within the translator to choose between the two.

  8. Interesting, thanks!

  9. Re the story of Sarah’s reaction, when I was reading that text in Hebrew as an elementary-school student, I took for granted that
    צְחֹק, עָשָׂה לִי אֱלֹהִים: כָּל-הַשֹּׁמֵעַ, יִצְחַק-לִי.
    meant something like “God has made me a laughingstock; everyone who hears will laugh at me.” That just seemed like the most natural reading of the text. But maybe I just had a darker mindset than some other folks.

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