Literary critic and translator Robert Alter, 83, has worked for over two and a half decades on this project. His new Hebrew Bible — from Genesis to Chronicles — which, at more than 3,000 pages, has been published this month.
As a translator, Alter has tracked verse by verse through the Hebrew Bible to make the hidden and unknown structures visible in English, in some cases for the first time. Over the course of his career, he has also helped establish the University of California, Berkeley, where he has been a professor since the 1960s, as one of the world’s premier centers of Hebrew literary study.
Selections of his Bible translation, which have been published every few years since the 1990s, have sold robustly and received praise from literary critics like James Wood, who wrote that Alter’s 2004 volume, “The Five Books of Moses,” “greatly refreshes, sometimes productively estranges, words that may now be too familiar to those who grew up with the King James Bible.” Now we finally have the complete translation.
His decision to reject one of the oldest traditions in English translation and remove the word “soul” from the text. That word, which translates the Hebrew word nefesh, has been a favorite in English-language Bibles since the 1611 King James Version. But consider the Book of Jonah 2:6 in which Jonah, caught in the depths of a giant fish’s gut, sings about the terror of near-death by water. According to the King James Version, Jonah says that the Mediterranean waters “compassed me about, even to the soul” — or nefesh. The problem with this “soul,” for Alter, is its Christian connotations of an incorporeal and immortal being, the dualism of the soul apart from the body. Nefesh, to the contrary, suggests the material, mortal parts, the things that make us alive on this earth. The body.
“Well,” Alter said, speaking in the unrushed, amused tone of a veteran footnoter. “That Hebrew word, nefesh, can mean many things. It can be ‘breath’ or ‘life-breath.’ It can mean ‘throat’ or ‘neck’ or ‘gullet.’ Sometimes it can suggest ‘blood.’ It can mean ‘person’ or even a ‘dead person,’ ‘corpse.’ Or it can be ‘appetite’ or something more general: ‘life’ or even ‘the essential self.’ But it’s not quite ‘soul.’ ”
Tracing these kinds of formal structures in the ancient Hebrew text, exploring their significance and arguing for their relevance has been Alter’s lifelong mission as a literary critic.
“It’s the language,” Alter reportedly said. “The artistry of the Hebrew Bible, whose full colors and intricate patterns and designs we can never see in full, especially as they have faded under the accumulations of theological and historical readings. And the task of restoring those original colors and shadings — their nuances — is, I believe, still incomplete.”
No book has been retranslated as often as the Bible, because no book has been as widely republished. The Bible isn’t just the all-time best seller, it’s consistently so, especially in the United States, where in a typical year about half a billion dollars’ worth are sold. Legions of Bible readers hunger endlessly for new versions.
Most translations, however, are more standardized. Of today’s popular versions, most have been commissioned by religious authorities and executed by committee, designed for the utilitarian needs of their congregants — or more likely of their leaders. They make little effort to represent the artistry of either the Hebrew or the English languages, much less of both at once, as Alter tries to do. But religious authority and great art aren’t necessarily at odds: The pious 17th-century translators of the King James Version, who themselves worked in committees, were, as Alter puts it, “masters of English style.” In fact, Alter sees the King James Version’s continued influence, despite the steep competition, as evidence that readers seek art as much as doctrine in their bibles.
And though academic critics have argued with Alter’s approach, they have never been able to ignore it. His growing commitment to translation since the 1990s can be seen as a move toward an increased investment on his part in the general reader, over and against institutional gatekeepers of the text, both in academia and in the religious world.