For this episode, we are joined by Robert Alter to discuss his monumental translation of the Bible. Robert Alter has been translating the Bible for more than twenty years, beginning with his translation of Genesis published in 1996. It’s really a tremendous achievement, as he brings his own particular sensibilities to the project as a literary scholar. We’re excited to share our fascinating conversation about the meaning of translation, the significance of Bible translations in particular, and what we get from a translation of the Bible that emphasizes its literary character and sensibilities.
Robert Alter is the Class of 1937 Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley. He has written widely on the European novel from the eighteenth century to the present, on contemporary American fiction, and on modern Hebrew literature, and has also written extensively on literary aspects of the Bible.
In the course of his career, Robert has written a number of significant books on the Bible as literature and the history of Bible translation including The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981), The Art of Biblical Poetry (1985), and more recently Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible (2010) and The Art of Bible Translation, which appeared in 2019.
- Purchase The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary at Amazon
- Purchase Pen of Iron on Amazon
- Purchase The Art of Bible Translation on Amazon
JL: You’ve spent two, three decades now working on a translation of the Bible, and that’s a long time. It’s a very big project, a life’s work in a way. I guess one way for us to get started would be, think about this overarching question about why translation matters, and translating the Bible in particular.
RA: The vast majority of people who are interested in reading the Bible, of course, have no access to the original language, so they’re dependent on translation. In England and America, we’ve had multiple translations, beginning with basically William Tindle in the sixteenth century. Some of those translations have certain virtues. I think Tindle does, and the King James Version that followed him definitely does, although it has problems as well. In my view, the various translations done by denominational committees, including the Jewish Publication Society in this country, basically in the second half of the twentieth century, have been disastrous. They get some important word meanings wrong, despite the fine philological training of the scholars who did them, but even more important, they are tone deaf to the fine literary articulation of the Hebrew, and I… It’s sad to say I find that they’re also tone deaf to English literary usage, and even to English idiomatic usage.
This means that the American and British reader who turns to any of these translations is getting a rather distorted sense of what the Bible is like, and it’s my contention that the stylistic shaping of the Bible is crucial to its meaning. It’s not just icing on the cake. It is the way the ancient Hebrew writers conveyed their vision of God, and humankind, and history, and politics, and human nature, and so forth.
JL: I think that the way that you’re describing these other translations as “disastrous” is really quite interesting, and I hope that we can dive into a bit this question, about what are the deficiencies of the other translations and how yours relates to that. But I want to maybe step back for a second to the implications and the significance of this issue. When you talk about the importance of doing a new translation that perhaps corrects some of these deficiencies, and tries to look at the Bible from a literary perspective, why do you think that it matters to have a good translation of the Bible, as opposed to the ones that you think are deficient? Obviously it’s better to have a good translation than a bad one, but why does it matter so much that you wanted to correct or improve upon the previous translations?
RA: I do think that the literary vehicles of the Hebrew is crucial in conveying what the religious vision of these writers is, so let me put it this way. Let’s take the issue of rhythm. All good literary prose, certainly in all the languages I can read, has rhythm. Rhythm really is the beating heart of the prose. You take away the rhythm. Then the heart goes dead, as would with a human being. Imagine that the manuscript of Moby Dick calls into the hands of a zealous, interventionist editor, so he says, “A pretty good story, but I can fix it up.” He goes systematically through the manuscript, and when Melville writes the whale has no face, it’s not very dignified. I’ll change that to, the whale has no countenance. By making these changes, our interventionist editor would wreck the beautiful cadences of Moby Dick, those wonderful iambic sequences that remind you, or are supposed to remind you, of Shakespeare and of Milton, and the cadences that are reminiscent of the King James Version of the Bible.
You’re left with a fairly interesting story about a kind of crazy whaler captain who’s lost one leg, and is obsessed with capturing this particular white whale, but the magic of Melville’s novel, a book that sounds like King Lear, that sounds like Paradise Lost, that sounds like the Psalms, that reaches up to the litmus of the cosmos in its vision, that would all evaporate. If you look at the modern translations of the Bible, you see arhythmic prose in sentence after sentence, and what is important in the Hebrew vanishes.
JL: This, I think, gets at the heart of what you’ve tried to do with the translation, which is to provide an avenue for the literary meaning of the text. I don’t mean to say that it’s a non-literal translation, but you emphasize in the translation these aspects like rhythm, and cadence, and so on. I guess one of the questions here to think about is, why do you think that these aspects of the text matter so much, when other translators have emphasized other aspects of the biblical text in their translation projects?
RA: Let me say, by the way, that my translation also is quite literal. I am fairly scrupulous about trying to get the exact shade of meanings of the Hebrew words. What I do not do is substitute an explanatory term for what the actual Hebrew says, which I think is one of the great sins of modern translators. But now to address your question directly, maybe I should give you an example. This would have to do with rhythm. In the first chapter of Genesis, the creation of the heavenly luminaries, the heavenly lights, is conveyed as follows, and I will first say this in my own translation: The great light for dominion of day, and the small light for dominion of night, and the stars. The Jewish Publication Society version reads as follows: And the greater light to dominate the day, and the lesser light, or maybe it’s the smaller light, to dominate the night and the stars.
I’d like to comment on that “dominate” for a minute. First of all, it’s one of thousands of illustrations in all these English versions have a tin ear for English. “To dominate” should appear in a sentence such as, “after the Second World War the Soviet Union dominated the smaller states of eastern Europe.” It’s not what the heavenly lights do to the day and the night, but there’s something else of issue. To dominate the day, to dominate the night, wreck a cadence in the Hebrew. The Hebrew sounds like this: et ha-meor ha-gadol le-memshelet ha-yom ve-ha-me’or ha-katan le-memshelet ha-laila ve-et ha-kokhavim. My version pretty much replicates that cadence, the great light for dominion of day, and the small light for dominion of night, and the stars. Why is that important? Rhythm and sound are rarely adventitious aspects of any literary text. They reinforce meaning, so what meaning is reinforced here? Both the priestly writer who is responsible for the first version of creation has a vision of creation rather unlike his predecessor J in chapter two, has a vision of creation as orderly progression, as a series of harmonious act enacted through divine speech. That lovely cadence, et ha-meor ha-gadol le-memshelet ha-yom ve-ha-me’or ha-katan le-memshelet ha-laila ve-et ha-kokhavim, that embodies his sense of harmony in creation. If you take away the cadence, you’re diminishing his attempt to convey the harmonious vision of creation, so it’s not decorative. It’s part of the meaning.
JL: I want to emphasize a bit more this question about why translation matters, broadly speaking, in terms of our American or anglophone culture, because this example that you just gave, which is a great example about how to translate dominion or domination, in the opening of Genesis, that comes from one of a whole series of books that you’ve written about translation, and about the Bible. This most recent one, The Art of Biblical Translation, and there’s another book that you’ve wrote a few years ago as well, about the role of the Bible and of scripture within English-speaking or English linguistic culture, and that’s Pen of Iron, where you’re talking specifically about the King James Version. One of the key ideas there that you’re emphasizing in that particular book is the idea of America as what you term a scriptural culture, which seems to highlight for me one of the reasons why Bible translations matter, because you’re talking about the way in which the translation of the Bible is a foundation or a bedrock for the development of American literature. This is another way in which I think we can talk about the significance of Bible translations, and so I was wondering if you maybe wanted to comment on that a bit, about how you understand the history of Bible translation within the broader literary culture, since the seventeenth century essentially, and why you see something like the King James Version, which you also have talked about, and look upon very highly as a cultural cornerstone, and when we think about this big question about why translation matters.
RA: Let’s do a little thought experiment for a moment. Let’s imagine that the King James Version was not actually what it turned out to be, but it was something like the translations that came out in the second half of the twentieth century. That being said, that it was stylistically in that arhythmic, mangling English idioms, switching levels of diction in the same sentence, and so on and so forth. One thing for sure would have happened. The history of English literature would have been very different. You wouldn’t have had many great English and American writers writing in the same way. You wouldn’t have had Melville. You wouldn’t have had Hemingway. We wouldn’t have had Emily Dickinson, and so forth, or they would have been very different writers, so second thing, this is more conjectural. England and America were both believing Protestant cultures. Obviously not everybody was a believer, but I think the vast majority were.
The question is, would the Bible have played the same central role in our culture if the King James Version had been a wretched translation? I suspect it would not have, but as people, because they were believers, would still have read the Bible. It was the word of God and so forth, but it wouldn’t quite speak to them in the same way. That is, people wouldn’t have ringing in the ear their memory. Yea, though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, etc. I think less of the Bible would have been internalized in the living Anglophone culture.
JL: A followup issue is, when you think about the role of a canonical translation, if I may call it that, like the King James Version, within the development of English literature, or of American and English culture, how do you extrapolate from that in terms of your own thinking, about the importance of Bible translations as significant cultural and literary touchstones, as well as your own effort to translate the Bible?
RA: I’ll slightly rephrase your question, and that is, if we have a canonical version of the Bible, why should anybody do another version? In fact, years ago when my translation of the five books of Moses came out, it got a long review in the New Yorker, which was rather mixed. Basically, the tack he took was, well, this may be all right, but why does anyone need a new translation of the Bible when we have the King James Version? I will now say why one does. Obviously there’s one thing that’s not in the least the fault of the King James Version, which is it’s now more than 400 years since its publication. The English language has changed a good deal, in the last four centuries. You could say, “Okay, we can live with archaism after all.” We still enjoy and celebrate the plays of Shakespeare, which come from about the same time.
There are a couple of other problems with the King James Version. The knowledge of Hebrew among Christian Hebraists had been around for maybe a century at the time that King James convened his committees, so the knowledge that they had of Hebrew was rather imperfect. It was impressive in some ways, and those translators knew not only Hebrew, but Aramaic, and Arabic, and of course, Greek and Latin, but there were all kinds of slips. I would say that Rashi or Abraham Ibn Ezra had a firmer grasp of biblical Hebrew than the King James translators did, so there were a lot of small slips. There are some real howlers. Maybe the most egregious one of all is in chapter 3 of the book of Job, where we have “those who rouse their mourning,” is a total mistake for levyatan, which means of course Leviathan, and it’s a mythological image, but then they construed it also getting the grammatical ending and the suffix wrong. They construed it as levaya, which isn’t even a biblical Hebrew term, but a rabbinic term, meaning funeral.
There were those mistakes, and then there were mistakes that reflect either a deliberate Christian bias, or an extensive influence of the Vulgate, which also is a Christian translation. The Hebrew nefesh, which means life-breath, life, and by extension, throat, that is the passageway of life-breath, and it can even mean appetite, and it can mean person, but it never means “soul,” because there’s no concept of the soul, and the soul probably slipped in the Hebrew Bible, and you have soul all over the place in the King James. There are those errors in construing the Hebrew that need correction, but I would add that in certain ways, the King James Version is a very impressive literary achievement. I think it’s actually better in the prose, this may surprise some of your listeners, than in the poetry, because in the prose, it follows the contours of the Hebrew syntax, and it also respects the Hebrew adherence in the prose to very simple words, that were kind of primary vocabulary.
Say, in the flood story, the King James has, then, the waters were over the earth for 40 days and 40 nights, and the ark went on the face of the waters. They have “was” and “went,” whereas the modern translations, impairing the stylistic dignity of the Hebrew, have “float” instead of “went” and various verbs for coming down in torrents instead of “was.” So that’s very good. But by following the system of parallel clauses connected by “and,” what’s called parataxis, in the Hebrew, they get something of the sweep and the cadences of the Hebrew, not invariably. I think that there is a certain fondness for words like iniquity, which are polysyllabic, and not at all fitting to the stylistic decorum of the Hebrew.
In the poetry, there’s some great lines of poetry in the seventeenth century version, but then there’s some wretched lines. I don’t think they were listening to the sound of the Hebrew that much. My suspicion is that by and large, Hebrew was an ancient language to be deciphered from the printed page for them. You repeatedly find that there are lines that seem to stretch on forever, that have seventeen words to three or four in the Hebrew, and they have no rhythm at all. One of the things that I did in translating Hebrew poetry was to try to find stratagems in English for conveying or simulating the compactness and the rhythmic power of the Hebrew poetry. As good as the King James Version is in a lot of ways, I think there was much to be done, and I tried to do it.
JL: I think that you’re bringing up a whole range of really interesting issues relating to the King James Version, particularly relating to Bible translation more broadly. We have this very curious situation where on the one hand, the King James Version is a truly significant text, in terms of the development of English literary culture. As you’ve written about extensively, it’s been quite significant in terms of the formation of modern English, both in terms of the language itself, and also literary outputs, books, etc. At the same time, English has changed quite a bit over the course of 400 years, as we’d expect for basically any language. The elements of the biblical style that you’ve talked about, the limited vocabulary, for instance, proves a problem for the modern reader, where we’re used to a more expanded vocabulary. Other elements of the style like parallelism, you mentioned before, also parataxis, the use of the vav, of “and.” In so many ways, tThese are unfamiliar to readers, essentially today, and so what ends up happening in the translations is that they kind of feel the need to reformulate the prose so that it’s more intelligible, so to speak. When we look at some of the criticisms that you have for the more recent translations, it comes down to these debates about what is the role of the translator. Is the role of the translator to meet the expectations of the reader, or is the goal of the translator to provide a literal translation of exactly what the text is, without making any compromises whatsoever. If we think about someone like Walter Benjamin in his writing about translation, he writes about and thinks about the idea of finding an echo of the original in the translation, and it seems to me that this is closely related to your perspective on translation, that you are trying to give the reader a sense of the Hebrew, even if they are not familiar with the original text itself.
RA: Let me first say something about what may be intelligible for the modern reader. I think that the modern translated words have gotten it all wrong. Let me begin with parataxis, clauses jumbled together with “and” with no explanatory connectives and syntactic subordination, no “because,” “therefore,” “however,” accents, etc. It’s true that this is not the prevalent way of putting words together in modern English, but it is out there in the literary prose. As far as I can tell, the modern translators have not read Cormack McCarthy, who often has long, paratactic chains reminiscent of the Bible. The greatest piece of extended prose poetry written in the English language in the twentieth century is almost certainly Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in the last section of James Joyce’s Ulysses. That is predominantly parataxis. Molly is repeatedly saying, “And, and, and.” So to begin with, the assumption that a modern reader just can’t manage reading parallel clauses like that seems to me clueless.
But let me give you another example. I said before that the besetting sin of modern translations is to substitute explanation for translation. Instead of laying out what the original says, they tell you what they think it’s supposed to mean. The kind of crazy assumption among modern translators is that readers cannot understand metaphor, and we use metaphors all the time in common speech. “Throw in the towel,” “over the top,” “off the rails,” and so forth. You find metaphors rooted out and substituted for by explanatory paraphrase. For example, when Joseph, unrecognized by his brothers, accuses them of being spies, he says, “To see the nakedness of the land you have come.” That’s how I translated it. The modern version, in this case, not the JPS, although the JPS says this kind of thing elsewhere, repeatedly, say something like, “You have come to spy out the weak points in our defense,” because that’s what they think the nakedness of the land refers to, which it may. But it may refer to other things as well. Of course, there’s an enormous loss in substituting an explanation for the metaphor. The metaphor, of course, is sexual, and it’s language associated in the Bible with sexual taboo. You shall not see your mother’s nakedness. The metaphor has a kind of potency, because of its sexual background. The nakedness of the land is something which should never be exposed to the eyes of strangers. Maybe there’s even an oblique reference on Joseph’s part to some kind of violation of his mother Rachel, by his brothers who are not the sons of Rachel. Again and again, the power of the original is deflected by not translating the metaphor as a metaphor.
JL: One of the things that comes across as we get into these issues and some of these examples about the translation is that it really demonstrates your own influences, and your own background. You come to the translation of the Bible from a literary perspective, as opposed to a philological one. How do you take all of these influences of your own, in terms of how you think about the translation of the Bible as a project on a larger scale?
RA: Of course I’m a literary person, and were I not a literary person, I wouldn’t have done it in this way, and I guess you could say I would never have done it. Let me say something about my being a literary person and the intrinsic nature of the Bible. The culture of ancient Israel was, in a way, rather anomalous. If you think of the geographical and cultural map, you have this little sliver of a country sandwiched in between great imperial powers, and those empires had really impressive material cultures. You think of the pyramids. You think of the ziggurat, the exquisite Egyptian art, breathtaking Syrian bas-reliefs, and so forth. Ancient Israel had very little like that. Visual art, for example, in ancient Israel was, with very few exception, from what archeologists have recovered, it was kind of limited to stick figures. The anomaly is that this culture produced great writers, poets who adopted the formal system of serial Canaanite poetry, we know from the Ugaritic texts now, but totally eclipsed their predecessors, and produced the breathtaking poetry of the book of Job, the soaring poetry of Psalms, the beautiful love poetry of the Song of Songs, and so forth. It’s perhaps even more striking in the prose narratives, where they not only totally eclipsed all their neighbors, but they innovated formally. They developed whole sets of narrative conventions that enabled subtle development of character and plot, and situation. What this means is that in order to see what’s really going on in these texts, you have to understand what they did with poetry, the formal shaping of the poems, the technique and convention, and dial of the prose narrative, and this is not something that’s imposed on the text by somebody who happens to have their PhD in comparative literature, as I do, but it’s something there in the text that the biblical stylists, for all their really impressive and admirable learning, had not at all seen.
I’ll give you a little personal anecdote. Many years ago, when I first became interested in biblical narrative, I taught for the first time, but not at all the last time, a graduate seminar on biblical narrative at Berkeley, reading the narratives in the Hebrew. It went very well, and after three or four weeks, I realized that the group and I were developing this tent of excitement that we were somehow moving into virgin territory. I kind of stopped myself short, and I said, “How could it be virgin territory after all the libraries are filled with books on the Bible, all kinds of learned, scholarly studies of the Bible?” What I concluded was that these were a new set of questions that hadn’t been asked, and it turns out, were important to ask, because they were intrinsic to the nature of the biblical text. What I consider myself to be is lucky, that I’m somebody who is trained in literature, and has a literary sensibility, because in fact, that has enabled me to see certain things in the Bible, and about the Bible, that had not been seen before.
JL: This question of the Bible as literature is really important. We’ve talked extensively about the way in which you’ve tried to translate not just the words, but the aesthetics of the biblical Hebrew, and then also at the same time, comparing also to someone who was a major part of the turn towards the literary study of the Bible in the ’80s and the ’90s, it’s very significant to think about your perspective on the Bible as a literary text, as opposed to, say, a historical text, which might be the perspective of a philologist who would focus more on the meaning of the specific words within the historical context of the ancient Near East, or a scholar of religion who would focus more on the way in which you try to convey the religious and theological meaning of the text.
Alternately, for someone who’s composing a translation for a particular religious audience that has a particular aim in doing their translation to a particular choice, a particular theological or religious end, what I was thinking about as I was looking through the text, as I was even just looking at it, and thinking about the way in which it is presented, if you look at the layout of the text, and this goes back even to your original translation of Genesis, from the ’90s, the way that it was laid out on the page was without the verse numbers inline. It was like along the side of the page, and that seemed to me as indicating this idea of the text as a literary object in and of itself. What’s interesting here, as we think about this question of why it’s important to translate the literary aspects, not just the words, and not just the meaning, how has your understanding of the Bible and its literary artistry affected how you translate it, and also why you think that a literary sensibility is important for thinking about the Bible?
RA: Let me comment on one issue you raised, which is philology. I actually, in the course of… (It) took me 22 years, 24 years, translating the Bible, (I) have become a big fan of philology. I think it’s a very exciting activity. The fact that I was focusing on the literary vehicle of the Bible does not mean that I was dismissing philology, but on the contrary, in many instances, not invariably, but in many instances, it meant that I was doing philology in a somewhat different way, in a way that I think it needs to be done. That is, a familiar route when you, as a scholar, come to a biblical text, and you find an unusual word, or something that perplexes you, that you look at the possible Hebrew etymology, and you look at Hebrew cognate, and then you begin to look at cognate in other Semitic languages, in Ugaritic, in Akkadian, and so forth. The literary context of words often, even difficult words, rare words, often gives you a clue to their meaning, and I found that, in numerous cases, and I found that the biblical scholars don’t pay attention to those contexts, and so they often miss the boat.
JL: One of the questions that I’d like to press you on here is why it matters, when you say that the philologists kind of missed the boat, perhaps, and that you want to bring a different way of thinking about the biblical text.
RA: What I share with the philologists is a notion that we want to get what the biblical words really mean, right? If you don’t get what they mean, then you’re missing things that are going on in the text, so I will give you one example. In the Samson story, Samson had the wager with the thirty Philistine wedding guests that if they solve his riddle, he will give each of them a halifat begadim, and the meaning of that is clear. It means a change of garment. When he finds out that they have wheedled from his wife the solution to the riddle, he’s enraged, and he goes down to Gaza, and he kills thirty Philistines, and he takes from them their halitsot. It sounds rather like halifot, but the middle consonant is a Hebrew letter tsadi and not the Hebrew letter pay, that it’s a ts sound rather than an f sound. Well, all the translations, including the King James Version, render this as… They figure, well, it must be a synonym for a change in garment, so they render it as garment, tunic. One modern version, for some reason, seriously calls it “belt.” I don’t even think they wore belts in the ancient Near East.
I thought, that can’t be right, and I looked at one of my great philological guides, a Hebrew concordance to the Bible. So that noun occurs only one other place in the Bible. It occurs in II Samuel, during the civil war between the house of Saul and the house of David after Saul’s death. Abner, Saul’s general, is being pursued by Asael, the swift-footed Asael, and he knows he can’t outrun him. He doesn’t want to kill him, because he knows that will make bad blood between him and Asael’s rather murderous brother Joab, who he says, “Turn you to the right or to the left, and strike down one of the lad, and take his halitsah.”
Again, the modern versions say, tunic, garment, or whatever. I said, “That is not right.” We know from Homer, what does a warrior take from his playing foe on the battlefield? He doesn’t take his tunic. He takes his armor, and then it occurred to me that this root of halitsah is also the verbal stem of haluts, which means military vanguard. The halitsah may be the special kind of armor that the fighters in the haluts, in the vanguard, were wearing. What difference does this make in the story? It makes actually an important small difference, and that is that the wager was for thirty changes of garment. What did Samson do? He goes down to Gaza. He doesn’t kill thirty ordinary Philistines. He kills thirty Philistine warriors, and takes back to the wedding guests something far more valuable than garments. He gives them thirty sets of armor, but it’s also a veiled threat. He says, “Look what I’ve done. I’ve killed thirty warriors, so you guys better watch out.” One point in the whole story changes when you get the meaning of the word right, and the meaning of the word is given to you by the other literary context in which that noun occurs.
JL: What’s interesting here is when we talk about why translation matters, and why it’s significant to get it right, so to speak—and in a certain way this perhaps betrays my own perspective as a person who focuses on modern history; I’m not a philologist or a biblical scholar myself, in terms of my own training and background—but that when we think about translations, and when you get one word, or phrase wrong, so to speak, it can have tremendous repercussions in terms of the social impact of the translation on the society that reads it, consumes it, and then uses it as a foundation for the way they look at things. One of the more infamous examples, and this is not really an example of the English translation, so to speak, but if you go back to the Vulgate, there’s the infamous translation of Moses’s karnei or, in the Heberw, which they translate as his “horns,” and we see the representation of this in Michelangelo’s status of Moses. This is tied in a certain way to medieval anti-Jewish stereotypes and views. When you have, in the Latin translation, that Moses had horns, or as the Hebrew really means, “beams of light” is perhaps another way to translate it, we can see the social impact of this translation over a very large realm of time, and place.
RA: Of course, another famous example is the ‘alma will conceive and bear a son in Isaiah, where ‘alma means young woman, and in fact, it was used in the Proverbs, the book of Proverbs suggests that it’s a sexually active young woman. And famously coming through the Septuagint this was translated as virgin, and there you have the virgin birth, which is quite a shift.
JL: This gets back to this issue that we were just discussing about the use of the Bible, so to speak, and the use of translation. You’re only the most recent of many, many people to translate the Bible, and I’m curious if you maybe want to situate your work, in terms of the history of Bible translation. One thing that interests me in particular is that if we look at the major translations into Greek, Aramaic, Latin, English, German, and so on and so forth, translation is not really just about making the information, or the source text available. It’s also a point of cultural contact. I think, and do you maybe want to comment on this, and where you see yourself fitting in, and your own sense of the translation’s cultural significance.
RA: Previous translations, of course, have all addressed the confessional needs of the particular community of faith, whether Jewish, Protestant, or Catholic. I have not had in mind any community of faith, and knowing what I’ve discovered, happily I think, is that my translation bridges different communities, so that is people who just are interested in the Bible as an important ancient text, or perhaps an ancient literary text, and maybe preferably secular, have been interested in my translation, but then rather to my surprise, I’ve discovered through email correspondence over the years, and particularly since my big translation came out, it’s been embraced by many believers of different denominations, Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, even Methodists and modern Orthodox Jews, so it’s something that pleases me. I think that there is some kind of hunger to get back to the Bible, in a guise that gives a better sense of what it is really like in the original.
JL: I think there are a handful of things that are particularly interesting when we look at your translation. When we look at so many of the translations of the Bible have been done by a committee, right? You know the King James Version, that’s what it was. Many of the contemporary translations as well—even the Buber and Rosenzweig translation was done by two people, because in a certain way, it’s too much work for one individual, and it’s something that you’ve been doing for over twenty years. Something that I’m curious about from your perspective is, what do you get from doing it yourself, as an individual, as opposed to by a committee, and also when we look at the fact that you’ve done it for such a long time, how is it that your approach to translation has changed over time?
RA: I’ll begin with the end part of your question. I don’t think it’s changed. What happened was that when I did Genesis, I after a while felt that I hit a certain style, which had to be modified for different biblical sources, and different biblical text, but a basic style, and I went with it. Maybe I perfected it a little bit over time, but there it was. Less so in Genesis for poetry because there’s a limited amount of poetry in Genesis, but once I got to Psalms, I kind of honed my skills in translating biblical poetry, and found ways to tamp down the English language, to get the rhythms of the Hebrew to some extent. I think without having translated Psalms, I could not have translated the greatest challenge in biblical poetry, which is with the book of Job.
Also, I’m always a person who has liked to work alone. I guess the two very limited pieces of collaboration I’ve done in my entire now-long career, is that long ago, I did a critical biography of Stendhal in collaboration with my wife, Carol Cosman, but basically, we agreed I would do all the writing. We would simply sit down, and discuss how each chapter is going to be handled, and then she would read my drafts, and we would talk about them. The other limited collaboration was with the eminent British literary critic Frank Kermode. We put together a volume of essays with multiple contributors, called the Literary Guide to the Bible, and Frank and I sat down together and wrote a joint introduction, which went very well. But I’ve always liked working alone. I think it gave me a certain advantage, because I didn’t have to negotiate with other committee members. I didn’t have to come up with inconsistencies reflecting different constituencies within the committee, so I’m happy I did it that way.
JL: One final thing that I would want to ask you about, and get your perspective on is, you’ve talked a fair bit about the deficiencies of the other modern and contemporary translations. What do you think that it means to create a new translation for the twenty-first century? I guess another way to put this is, what do you think about your translation, and what it says about, and how it relates to not necessarily the other translations themselves, but the state of religion and literature in contemporary America, into which you’re producing this work?
RA: Very briefly, I think that doing a translation that has more fidelity to the literary values of the Bible seems to be something that speaks to people in the twenty-first century. I infer this from only fan mail I’ve gotten, and from the reviews of my translation, and I would add the following, and this will be my final remark. The twentieth century versions tend to assume that you need to make a Bible successful by converting it into modern English, in the idioms, in the syntax, and so forth. I feel that without being excessively archaizing, that one has to aim for a style that has a certain timelessness to it, that doesn’t sound as though it was written the day before yesterday, but a while back, and I think by and large, I’ve succeeded in that, and that readers have responded to that, so let me conclude with that.