Expressing More with Less in Biblical Translation

Image courtesy of Princeton Press
Image courtesy of Princeton University Press

When I first was introduced to the captivating world of Torah study, I had no idea that the English translations I relied on could be misleading and sometimes downright inaccurate. Now, thanks to a fascinating book by Robert Alter, I realize that there can be even more that is missing.

The Art of Bible Translation” takes us inside the mind of a preeminent scholar whose recently completed three-volume translation of the Hebrew Bible with commentary has received international acclaim. At a recent reception held in his honor on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, Chancellor Carol Christ described it as “a literary achievement of worldwide significance and impact.”

Alter took on his monumental task more than two decades ago. He saw it as “an opportunity to conduct two simultaneous love affairs—with the Hebrew language and with the English language.” That combination is expressed in a literary approach to biblical translation that is exquisitely sensitive.

Image courtesy of Princeton University Press

For example, where there is alliteration in the original Hebrew, Alter seeks ways to reflect that in his choice of English. His ear for the rhythm and cadence of the original Hebrew is as finely tuned as a musical composer’s. He hopes to convey its beauty and nuances, which unfortunately are often lacking in other translations. He also wants us to get the puns, an even more difficult task.

Alter describes some previous translations as “bossy,”  in their determination to tell us what the Hebrew means rather than what it says. “They assume people cannot understand metaphor,” he explains. The “they” Alter is referring to are large translation committees.

Anyone who studies Torah can appreciate why metaphor matters.   Engaging in multi-layered interpretations of the text, aided by centuries of rabbinic and other commentaries, is an enduring and meaningful part of the study experience.

I was curious to compare Alter’s translation of one of my favorite verses with others. Here is what I found for the Book of Deuteronomy 30:11.

    • “Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.” – from “The Jewish Study Bible,” based on the Jewish Publication Society translation
    • “For this commandment that I command you today, it is not hidden from you and it is not distant.” – from the Sapirstein Edition of the Torah with Rashi’s commentary
    • “For this command, which I charge you today is not too wondrous for you nor is it distant.” – Alter

There were 47 or so people who created the King James version of the Bible in the early 1600s. Fortunately for us, Alter was a committee of one. Dean of the Berkeley College of Letters and Sciences Anthony Cascardi described his approach as “a mixture of Hemingway and haiku.”

Just as the ancient Hebrew is compact, Alter’s words express more with less. “The Art of Bible Translation” gives us a glimpse of how he does it and of how much more there is to appreciate and understand.

A sample chapter from “The Art of Bible Translation” is available online from Princeton University Press.

About the Author
Shelley is a consultant who has held executive and board leadership roles in the San Francisco Bay Area/Silicon Valley Jewish community. She led development of the Palo Alto Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life, was board president of Hillel at Stanford, and has served on the advisory boards of the Jewish Chaplaincy at Stanford Medical Center, the Taube Center for Jewish Studies and the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture. At Stanford she was the university's Director of Business Development and Executive Director for Public Affairs at Stanford Health Care. She began her career as a journalist and currently focuses on strategic communications and writing. Email: hebert.shelleys@gmail.com
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