Alter has just produced a major revisionist translation of the first five books of the Bible that would have the cosmos begin with a more conversational clause: “When God began to create heaven and earth… ”
His new English translation of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible – also called the Five Books of Moses, the Torah or Pentateuch – has already attracted its fair share of critics and supporters.
A professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Alter says since he has never found a biblical translation that he liked or could recommend to his comparative literature students, he decided to do his own, starting with the story of Genesis and ending with the death of Moses.
Need for renewal
His argument is that past translations either get the Hebrew wrong or mangle the Bible’s syntax or lose the power of the work or even are so up-to-the-minute that they become too conversational to be accurate or interesting.
He was also determined to get back into the book every single “and” that other translators left out, saying that part of the book’s majesty is built by its use of repetitions.
The 1611 King James version is fraught with “embarrassing inaccuracies” and often substitutes Greek or Latin words and Renaissance English tonalities and rhythms for biblical ones, Alter says.
Alter said he was especially pleased with restoring all the “ands” into his new translation:
“And she came down to the spring and filled her jug and came back up. And the servant ran toward her and said, “Pray, let me sip a bit of water from your jug”.
“And she said, ‘Drink, my lord’, and she hurried and tipped down her jug on one hand and let him drink. And she let him drink his fill and said, “For your camels, too, I shall draw water until they drink their fill.”
“And she hurried and emptied her jug into the trough, and she ran again to the well to draw water and drew water for all his camels.”
But others have not held back on voicing their disapproval. Author John Updike has reviewed the translations and complains about page after page of footnotes that often explain obscure points.
“Reading through this book is a wearying, disorientating and at times revelatory experience,” he noted
Updike also took exception to some of the translation. For example, he is a lot happier with the King James version in which “the spirit of God moved upon the face of the water” than with Alter’s version of the same sentence: “God’s breath hovering over the waters”.
But Alter said his task was to find the English equivalents of the Hebrew. “Hebrew is filled with concrete images. For example, the King James translates the famous lines of Ecclesiastes as ‘vanity of vanities … all is vanity’ but the closest word in English to the Hebrew is ‘vapour, vapour, all is mere vapour’.”
And Washington Post reviewer Michael Dirda has given a favourable account of the new book, saying some Bible translations are so simple-minded that Adam and Eve might as well be called Dick and Jane.
“This makes reading his version of the Torah … thrilling and constantly illuminating: After the still, small voices of so many tepid modern translations, here is a whirlwind,” Dirda writes.