Bible translator speaks on challenges, beauties of Hebrew scripture

PROVO, Utah — Robert Alter acknowledged it was a “somewhat peculiar thing” for him to take up the task of translating the world’s most translated book.

Alter, a professor of the graduate school and emeritus professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley, published his three-volume translation of the Hebrew Bible in 2018 after more than two decades of work.

On Wednesday, Jan. 29, Alter presented his approach to translating biblical Hebrew at a guest lecture hosted by Brigham Young University’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and co-sponsored by BYU’s Department of Ancient Scripture and Ancient Near Eastern Studies Program in Provo, Utah. The event drew an audience of about 350 in the university’s Varsity Theatre.

The problem with previous translations of Hebrew scripture, Alter said, is translators’ inattention to the original text’s literary artfulness. 

Because the Bible is a set of religious books, Alter said some may think, “Isn’t the literary fashioning of these texts icing on the cake — some kind of purely decorative thing?”

Not at all, he asserted. To abandon the style and craft of the Bible’s authors is to misrepresent the meaning they wanted to express: “These writers, driven by the new monotheistic vision of reality, felt that the way to convey that vision was through highly artful prose, and through often dazzling and moving poetry.”

This is why Alter decided to produce a one-man translation of the ancient text — he intended to do justice to the literary form of Hebrew scripture.

He gave examples of some original Hebrew elements he attempted to faithfully reproduce in English at the level of individual words as well as in dialogue, sound and word play, rhythm and word order.

To emphasize the impact of word choice in biblical translation, Alter explained that mistranslating a few of 150,000 words in a novel will not change the overall meaning of the book. In contrast, the Hebrew Bible uses relatively few words, so a poor translation of one of them can cause repeated distortion through the whole text.

The Hebrew word “nefesh,” for example, is usually translated as “soul,” as in the King James Version’s Psalm 63: “My soul thirsteth for thee.” The Bible’s authors, however, did not conceive of a division between body and spirit, Alter said. Rather, they viewed spirituality as “anchored in the human body.”

Attendees listen to Robert Alter, professor of the graduate school and emeritus professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley, as he speaks during a BYU Maxwell Institute guest lecture on Jan. 29, 2020, in Provo, Utah, about the challenge of translating the Hebrew Bible.
Attendees listen to Robert Alter, professor of the graduate school and emeritus professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley, as he speaks during a BYU Maxwell Institute guest lecture on Jan. 29, 2020, in Provo, Utah, about the challenge of translating the Hebrew Bible. Credit: Blair Hodges, Maxwell Institute

To avoid imbuing the word “nefesh” with a meaning alien to the original writer, Alter often translates it as “life breath.” In the case of Psalm 63, he used context clues to interpret the term as “throat” — the passageway for breath — so that it matches the physical longing expressed in the rest of the verse: “God, my God, for you I search. My throat thirsts for you, my flesh yearns for you in a land waste and parched, with no water.”

Though he felt some regret at losing the beauty of the phrase “my soul thirsts,” Alter said, he did not think that was what the author meant.

In Genesis 25, when Esau trades his birthright to Jacob for stew, Alter said most translators gloss over key features of the dialogue between the twin brothers.

The original Hebrew reflects two contrasting natures, he explained. While Esau’s speech is impatient and incoherent, Jacob’s words are calculated. 

“Give me some of this red red stuff, for I am famished,” Esau sputters in Alter’s translation, which preserves the Hebrew repetition of the word for “red.” Jacob replies deliberately, “Sell now your birthright to me.”

The literary techniques that juxtapose the brothers’ personalities are essential to a complete understanding of the text, Alter argued. Translations that attempt to make “coherence out of incoherence” because the Bible is a canonical text erase the nuanced characterization that passages such as this provide.

He also took care to mimic the Hebrew poetic devices as much as possible in English. In the account of the Creation, most versions of the Bible use terms such as “rule over” or “govern” to describe the roles of the sun and moon. 

Alter, however, rendered the Hebrew as “God made the two great lights, the great light for dominion of day, and the small light for dominion of night, and the stars.”

Not only does this translation reflect the fact that “dominion” is a verbal noun in the original text, but it also remains faithful to the cadence of the language. Alter recited the passage aloud in Hebrew to demonstrate.

This is not merely a cosmetic choice, he emphasized; the original author used literary strategies to convey meaning. “As a priestly writer, his vision of creation is beautiful orderliness,” Alter said, suggesting that the “lovely cadence in this sentence is an embodiment in sound of his sense of cosmic order.”

Robert Alter, professor of the graduate school and emeritus professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley, speaks during a BYU Maxwell Institute guest lecture on Jan. 29, 2020, in Provo, Utah, about the challenge of translating the Hebrew Bible
Robert Alter, professor of the graduate school and emeritus professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley, speaks during a BYU Maxwell Institute guest lecture on Jan. 29, 2020, in Provo, Utah, about the challenge of translating the Hebrew Bible Credit: Blair Hodges, Maxwell Institute

What his translation offers that others do not, Alter contended, is a closer reproduction of the Hebrew Bible’s sophisticated artistry. Any casual reading, he said, obscures the text’s powerful nuance — a loss that betrays the work of its authors.

Tony Lund, an attendee from Salt Lake City, said he went to the lecture because he feels much of the Old Testament is overlooked. Its authors “were literary geniuses,” he added, and Alter’s attention to their techniques facilitates a deeper understanding of Bible narratives.

Camille Dahl, a BYU student from Springville, Utah, said she came to the event hoping to learn more about truths that may have been lost in translation of the Bible.

The eighth article of faith of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints states, “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly,” she said, and this piqued her interest in learning about translation from the original Hebrew.

She added that Alter’s lecture made her realize many translations “take the human out of the Bible. … A lot of the translations took out references to the body, or to feelings that we experience.”

Her husband, Dallin Dahl, also a BYU student, agreed that Alter’s interpretation of the Bible restored a sense of respect for the human body. The lecture reminded him “it is very difficult to understand something in a language it wasn’t written in,” he said. “It makes me want to go learn Hebrew.”

A recording of Robert Alter’s lecture, “The Challenge of Translating the Bible,” will be available on the Maxwell Institute’s website at mi.byu.edu.