Robert Alter on Translating the Hebrew Bible.

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!


  1. I feel like a truly successful literary translation of the Tanakh, especially the Torah books, has to capture the stylistic disunity of the writing. The “books of Moshe” are a strange mish-mosh, and sometimes it’s very obvious (even to me, and my Hebrew is very limited) where one account ends and another begins. To me, this is one of the most important features of the text, and a translation in a uniform poetic style would lose an awful lot of character.

  2. Good point; I wonder if someone has read both and can say something about it.

  3. I’m intrigued.

    Does anyone know of any samples online?

  4. There are samples on Amazon that I peeked at. Certainly reads better than any version I have seen: it’s clear and clean without the dumbing down some modern versions have done to try to achieve this. All the same, the compactness of the Hebrew is lost, and when I read ’caused to sprout’ for יַצְמַח yatsmaḥ, I feel like I am watching a movie played at half-speed. Perhaps it can’t be helped.

  5. I have read samples of the Hebrew bible at school. Much later I have read the song of songs in Hebrew and in the King James Version, and I think the KJV provides an excellent rendition which is poetical and close to the original text. I have yet to read any of Alter’s translations. The Hebrew Bible is highly recommended.

  6. J. W. Brewer says

    I think “flattening” or “evening” is a ubiquitous problem in Bible translation. I’m not competent to speak to the Hebrew but there’s a notable range of style and register in the Greek of the various component books of the NT, but relatively few attempts to capture the breadth of that range in English have been made and, to be sure, it’s easier to think of ways that attempts to do so could go badly awry than ways in which they might succeed.

  7. I’ve read the greater part of the original Hebrew text and probably a similar percentage of KJV, plus bits of other translations and a smattering of works like that of Chouraqui (sp?).

    No translation I’ve seen is as laconic as the Hebrew original. KJV remains a masterpiece but is a different work altogether. Some of the Hebrew is badly corrupted, while in other areas it’s fairly easy to discern how the language was changing. This is quite evident in Chronicles, which reads quite easily. Most modern translations fail to capture any semblance of the literary style seen in the Hebrew. Shameful.

    In my view Alter has done wonderful work. May his tribe increase.

  8. For “welter and waste,” Voltaire just kept tohu bohu, with a pleonastic et vide. Chouraqui likewise tohu-et-bohu, plus the cosmologically subtle, mais le souffle d’Elohîms, like de Almeida’s mas o Espírito de Deus.

  9. I feel like a truly successful literary translation of the Tanakh, especially the Torah books, has to capture the stylistic disunity of the writing. The “books of Moshe” are a strange mish-mosh, and sometimes it’s very obvious (even to me, and my Hebrew is very limited) where one account ends and another begins.

    If you’re referring to the Documentary Hypothesis, there is a translation which color codes the different “authors” (although I believe it is still not “very obvious” to everyone where the actual divisions are).

  10. Some of them are very obvious. Numbers chapter 25 is my favorite example, where the differences go beyond the stylistic, and the villains of the story change in the middle of the account.

  11. @Brett,
    Sorry, didn’t mean to sound snarky. Was trying to point out that Friedman’s divisions are not universally accepted, and that there is still quite a bit of disagreement among the scholars in that discipline.

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