Reading Robert Alter’s ‘Five Books of Moses’

Posted: July 26, 2013 by J in Bible, Book review, Linguistics
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Robert Alter has spent a lifetime thinking about how Hebrew texts work. He has helped a lot of us read these texts better through his book, The Art of Biblical NarrativeIn his own translations he shows us the fruit of his thinking, shows what can be done with a sensitive and informed reading of the texts.

The results are a little surprising. Reading Alter’s translation is not like reading anyone else’s. It may take some time to get used to. It took me a while. That’s because he’s doing a whole bunch of stuff other translations aren’t doing. In fact, he’s doing stuff other translations never even dreamed of.

Most of our translations take an ‘engineers’ approach. They’re a bit mathematical. They consider the Hebrew word or phrase, they ask, what does it mean? Language is about meaning, so the great task of the translator is clarity.

So they analyse the grammar, find out who is subject and what is object, how the grammatical machinery is working, they determine word meaning – and then they try to render the whole in English. Then they move on to the next word or phrase. That’s about it. When the text has complexities such as imagery, they often end up giving an English ‘explanation’ or decoding of them – committing what Alter calls ‘the heresy of explanation.’ The end result is hopefully nice to read, but it communicates pretty much just through word and phrase meanings: very limited as a piece of writing. A bit mathematical.

So the reading is limited, and the writing is limited. There is communication loss at both ends. And the ‘decoding’ approach means that there is loss in the middle also. Overall, too much is lost. Alter writes, ‘The general result…is to reduce, simplify and denature the Bible’. And, I would add, to ‘de-culture’ it.

Alter starts his project with a different approach to reading. For Alter, the text communicates and functions in many different ways, not just by word and phrase meaning. So he tries to employ as many of these dimensions as possible to render the text in English. The result is a complex expressive creation – like the Hebrew!

Clarity is not always the goal. In fact it is only one aspect of a translation, for language is a quirky and playful thing. Often it functions by obscuring meaning, encoding it in metaphor, blurring it in ambiguity, veiling it in enigma etc. This playfulness is an integral part of language and should itself be translated as much as possible.

Here are some of the many ways the Hebrew text functions and conveys meaning.

cultural flavour – one thing about the Pentateuch writing is that it’s Jewish. Very Jewish! The flavour of that culture, the fact that the stories are about and by and for those particular people, that’s important, and worth translating. It gives us the cultural setting or context in which the stories make sense. Alter does this in many ways, one of the chief of which is:

rhythm – texts use rhythm to convey meaning. When Joseph is propositioned by Potiphar’s wife, his stream-of-consciousness, wordy reply strongly suggests panic: he’s in a flap. The rhythm gives it away. Also, the Semitic flavour of the texts is partly encoded in the Semitic rhythms which they employ. Notable in this regard is the frequent use of the same conjunction, waw, (= and). Where English likes to vary, Hebrew likes the rhythmic effect produced by sameness of conjunction. Alter creates this rhythm in English, and it’s a bit weird at first. Feels foreign! Which is the point. Stay with that rhythm for a bit, and you’re back in the Ancient Near East!

The other distinctive thing about Hebrew rhythm is its briefness. Hebrew prose won’t use three syllables where two will do. It tends to avoid wordy phrases. This makes for a streamlined, fast-moving, compact narrative style that sounds well out loud.

metaphor – Hebrew is fond of earthy metaphor, imagery taken from everyday life, and especially from the human body. These images have their own cognitive and emotive effects on the reader/hearer. Texts don’t just mean things: they do things. If you ‘decode’ these metaphors, you lose a whole dimension of meaning and function in the text. The Holman and the NIV are especially bad in this regard. More paraphrased translations in general are bad here.

repetition – where English loves the variety of synonyms, Hebrew loves repetition. A tightly limited vocabulary is deliberately used again and again. This gives an earthy simplicity and rhythmic musicality to the writing which makes it listenable and memorisable.

intertextuality – a specialised form of repetition. A word or phrase or image from one place will recur in another narrative context, creating an echo. The Joseph cycle is full of such echoes, regarding hands, memory, lordship, etc. These echoes convey meaning, they create links. Intertextual echoes are a device by which the writer can comment on the action and its significance. If the word or phrase is translated the same way each time, the echoes can be heard. If the word or image is translated differently each time, the echoes are lost.

These are some of the main ways in which, for Alter, the Hebrew text communicates. It doesn’t just mean something, it does things: it surprises, puzzles, delights, confuses, and moves. It dances and sings, and skips along at a cracking pace. It penetrates the mind with its terse and emphatic rhythms. It subtly betrays the feelings, intentions, and motives of the characters.

And all of this, all of these dimensions, are waiting to be rendered in English. This is the sophisticated, indeed breath-takingly demanding task that Alter has taken upon himself. Other translators, it seems, aren’t even aware of half of these dimensions of the language. But Alter is, and he is at least trying to translate them.

How does he do? Pretty well, actually. It’s not perfect. He is constantly stretching the expressive capacities of English, and sometimes the stretch is a bit far. But overall, this is a work of genius. It conveys so much more of the Hebrew text than our usual versions do, that there’s really no comparison. This is translating at a different level altogether.

It’s not in easy English. You may not wish to read it in your church. But read it at home, and be enriched and refreshed. Give it some time, and it will reward you with new riches from the glories of the Hebrew Scriptures.


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