In Praise of Robert Alter, Part 1

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I have been a unabashed fan of Robert Alter’s translations of the Bible, since his first, Genesis, appeared in 1996, and my admiration has deepened with each new installment. His most recent, Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets, is an expansion of his earlier project, The David Story (1999). Where the earlier book was limited to the life of King David found in 1 and 2 Samuel, the new collection also includes Joshua, Judges, and 1 and 2 Kings, capturing the grand sweep of the historical narratives, hence the title. At 880 pages, it is Alter’s most hefty, and perhaps most intimidating, translation and commentary to date.

Since I don’t know biblical Hebrew, I am not in a position to assess or critique the fidelity of Alter’s translations to the original texts. To be frank, it is not clear to me that James Wood, Michael Dirda, or John Updike are, either. That hasn’t stopped any of them from offering an assessment of Alter’s accomplishments. In that vein, I’d like to offer a few brief observations about the virtues I see in Alter’s work.

The first is simply that, among a bewildering array of translations on the market, Alter’s offers something fresh but authoritative, one not assembled by committee but by the private deliberation of a careful reader. In this sense, Alter stands in league with Edgar J. Goodspeed, E. V. Rieu, and Richard Lattimore. (Robert Gundry would have qualified if his translation had been less intertwined with his commentary.)

I find that my familiarity with the biblical texts—particularly from the KJV or RSV—is checked or disrupted, allowing me to see them in a new light. When I first read Alter’s translation of 1 and 2 Samuel, for instance, I remember the experience feeling more like the Iliad than the Bible. More important, it brought out the alien character of the text, both its time and place. Increasingly, I need that when I approach the Bible.

This effect may arise in part from the fact that Alter is Jewish. The passages are not read or translated through the filter of the New Testament. They concentrate exclusively on the linguistic features of the original Hebrew and on the literary conventions or cultural referents being taken up or modified by the Biblical writers.

As a mere layman, I think there is a great value in stripping away these layers of theological imposition and trying to understand the plain sense of a particular passage. It seems self-evident to me that any theology—indeed, any attempt to formulate doctrine or reconcile apparent differences across multiple authors, texts, and times—must be based on a valid interpretation of this base layer of the text. First the plain sense, the peshat; then midrash.

Without knowing the original language, readers, myself included, must grapple with multiple English translations to get at the essence of a particular passage. What Alter’s translations and commentaries offer is a stripped-down point of access to the text. His is not embedded in layers of commentary from the translation committee. Even an ecumenical translation such as the RSV seems at times held captive to its formulations and decisions in other parts of the Bible. Alter’s fidelity is only to the specific author’s intent and his understanding of the underlying Hebrew.

Alter’s translations also eschew the aims of modern translation committees, veering between “essentially literal” (ESV) and “dynamic equivalence” (NIV or HCSB). His principal concern is to reproduce the literary and formal aspects of the Hebrew in English, without a specific procedure. This is perhaps what elevates his practice of translation to an art, especially when he must, say, adjudicate the differences between the Masoretic text and the Septuagint. Translation, particularly of a literary or poetic text, cannot be reduced to a formula or an algorithm (sorry, Bing or Babelfish).

As Alter himself bemoaned back in 1995:

It is regrettable that [contemporary translations] should be marred by the recurrent slippage in poetic diction, the indulgence in heightening paraphrase in the guise of translation, and the instances of tendentiousness and anachronism. As the translators continue to wrestle with the poetic and religious challenges of the text, one may hope these are flaws they will seek to correct.

In the intervening years, Robert Alter has surely done more than any other living translator to correct, or at least to ameliorate, these flaws. For that, we must thank God for him and his labors.

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