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Englishing the Hebrew Bible

All translators of the Hebrew Bible into English work in the shadow of the genius of the King James Version (KJV), done in the 17th century and still in wide use today despite its thee's and thou's.  The diction of the KJV has been modernized in the Revised Standard Version (1962) and the New Revised Standard Version (1989). Jewish translations, following the sequence and other features of the Hebrew Bible, and guided by rabbinic understandings, have been brought out by the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) and others.  

In the 1980s, the American literary critic and scholar Robert Alter began publishing original studies of the Hebrew Bible that yielded, among other books, The Art of Biblical Narrative and The Art of Biblical Poetry.  In 1987 he co-edited, with the late Frank Kermode, The Literary Guide to the Bible, a volume of essays by diverse authors on the books of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Since then he has been publishing his own translations into contemporary English of, to borrow his titles, The Five Books of Moses, The David Story, and The Book of Psalms. The newest addition to this ongoing project, just published, is The Wisdom Books, consisting of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. All of these translations, informed by both scholarly understanding and literary sensitivity, are accompanied by detailed commentaries free of jargon. Anyone interested in the Hebrew Bible should become familiar with Alter's undertaking. 

In the introduction to his latest volume, Alter helpfully explains the phrase, "wisdom books." As he writes, Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, while sharing "with Greek philosophy an inquiry into values and a disposition to reflect on the human condition," also form part of a broader corpus of Near Eastern "wisdom literature" characterized by a distinctly pragmatic, didactic, and sometimes skeptical bent. Within that broad category, the "God-obsessed" figure of Job stands out as one who "never wonders or speculates about God's existence." This aside, however, the three wisdom books remain, "in different ways, worlds apart from Genesis, Deuteronomy, and the Prophets."     

The best way of illustrating what Alter has accomplished, and the difficulties of meaning, diction, word choice, and other technicalities he faced, is to pick a couple of examples and discuss his, and others', solutions. Take, for a start, Proverbs 6: 6, a verse that recommends the hard-working ant as a model for human emulation. Here is the KJV:

            Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.

Aside from the now-archaic "thou," the diction here is at the right level of seriousness for a "Mentor" offering "pragmatic admonitions" (Alter's characterizations), and the prose is forceful, starting off, as does the Hebrew, with the verb. The 1917 JPS translation reproduces the KJV exactly.  Both the New Revised Standard Version and more recent JPS translations replace "sluggard" with "lazybones," lowering the diction markedly. The JPS and other modern translations also set out the maxim in verse:

Lazybones, go to the ant;
Study its ways and learn.

Alter gives us:

            Go to the ant, you sluggard,
                                       see its ways and get wisdom.

To my mind, Alter has here captured the virtues not only of the original Hebrew but also of the KJV, retaining the initial verb, the diction, and, where accurate, the KJV's word choice. His use of "see" rather than "consider" replaces the somewhat anachronistic abstraction of the KJV with a word reflecting the Hebrew's concrete simplicity. This brief example exhibits Alter's gift for modern, precise, and compact equivalents of the ancient text.

One special merit of the JPS Bible, copied by no other I know of, is a recurring footnote that reads: "Meaning of Hebrew uncertain." Just how important this is can be seen when it comes to the poetic sections of the book of Job, which in the JPS version contain over 30 instances of this footnote and about which the translators write: "There are many difficulties in the poetry of Job, making interpretation of words, verses, and even chapters uncertain."

Recall the story: in the book's preliminary narrative, Job is a rich man with a large family and an upright character respected by all. He is then rapidly deprived of fortune, children, and health, and participates with his friends in a great symposium on justice and injustice in the world. Eventually God Himself, in the form of the Voice from the Whirlwind, intervenes in magnificent poetry to present His own view of the issues they have been debating in their human ignorance. 

Job's final response to God's intervention comes in chapter 42, verse 6, aptly described by The Jewish Study Bible (2004) as "key to understanding the book as a whole." But what exactly does Job say? The King James translators, with their extraordinary care, italicize words that are not in the Hebrew but that seemed to them needed for meaning in English. They offer:

            I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes. 

Alter has:

            Therefore do I recant,
                                          and I repent in dust and ashes.

Both of these renderings suggest an attitude of surrender, if not of capitulation. But the text is problematical, and Alter, who presents a general discussion of difficulties in Job, has no note on the specific difficulties of this verse. In a note to his own excellent translation of the book (1998), Raymond Scheindlin says this:

[God's] speeches have finally made Job grasp the sheer puniness of man in the scale of the universe. . . . The resignation he has thus achieved will from now on enable him to endure. . . . I do not sense abjectness in the Hebrew . . . and [contrary to the KJV translators' surmise of "abhor myself"] the text does not stipulate the verb's direct object.

Scheindlin also points to the fact that "dust and ashes" is "the classic Hebrew idiom expressing mortality." In the chapter on Job in Alter and Kermode's Literary Guide to the Bible, the scholar Moshe Greenberg translates the second half of 42:6 as "I am consoled for [being mere] dust and ashes." It seems to me that what Job is made to say by this great poet is: "I am reconciled to mortality."

Such, in any case, are the ordeals of puzzling out meaning from so rich and unfailingly suggestive a text—and the rewards of reading translators of such high competence, distinction, and honesty. Rendering the advice of the Mentor in Proverbs 2:2, Alter gives us:

make your ear harken to wisdom,
                           incline your heart to discernment

Here, with the echo of "harken" and "heart" reinforcing the parallel meanings of the first and second halves of the verse, is why you should read this book.

David Curzon is the editor of Modern Poems on the Bible (Jewish Publication Society).

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Gil Student on October 8, 2010 at 9:36 am (Reply)
I think the word "sluggard" that Alter uses in Prov. 6:6 is overly archaic, and the preface "you" is unnecessary. If "lazybones" is too colloquial, "lazy one" is better, even if it is two words. I would translate the phrase as "Go the ant, lazy one".
Scott on October 8, 2010 at 10:08 am (Reply)
"Lazybones" reminds me of Hoagy Carmichael.
Miss_X2 on October 8, 2010 at 10:36 am (Reply)
I would prefer an accurate, word-for-word translation from Hebrew to English and I'll spend the time necessary to interpret the "good book" myself. No doubt it will turn into a life project but I can't think of a better life time project, can you?
Nachum on October 9, 2010 at 4:29 pm (Reply)
Miss_X2, a less-than-a-lifetime project would be learning Hebrew. :-)
Stuart Berman on October 10, 2010 at 8:12 pm (Reply)

THe problem is that a single Hebrew word may have several meanings and 'map' to several English words. When you hear a sentence in Hebrew you may assume the meaning of a word in context, but also realize these other shades which may be an intentional play on words or simply reveal greater depth than it first appears on the surface. English can often be a precise language with a specific intent in the vocabulary, whereas Hebrew is more poetic with far fewer 'roots' (some say as few as 300) that form the base of the vocabulary.
Arthur Kaye on October 14, 2010 at 1:12 pm (Reply)
The art of translation is surely one of the least appreciated of literary arts. The Bible is not an easily accessible book to a native English speaker with good Hebrew skills, and to a person who thinks a "literal" word for word translation is possible, then you are out of touch with what a translation is about.

If you are interested a wonderful book came out earlier this year on exactly this topic, "Why Translation Matters" by Edith Goodman.

Robert Alter's translations have done more to make the Five Books of Moses, The Book of Samuel and Psalms alive for me than my 40+ years of struggle with Biblical Hebrew did. I am looking forward to reading this translation.

If I had one wish for these books, it would be to have facing page of Hebrew and English so I could easily reference the original. I do understand that Alter's "original" is not limited to the Masoretic text, but is a scholarly examination of the various early versions available to us.

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