An award-winning biblical translator reflects on the art of capturing the literary power of the Bible in English
In this brief book, award-winning biblical translator and acclaimed literary critic Robert Alter offers a personal and passionate account of what he learned about the art of Bible translation over the two decades he spent completing his own English version of the Hebrew Bible.
Alter’s literary training gave him the advantage of seeing that a translation of the Bible can convey the text’s meaning only by trying to capture the powerful and subtle literary style of the biblical Hebrew, something the modern English versions don’t do justice to. The Bible’s style, Alter writes, “is not some sort of aesthetic embellishment of the ‘message’ of Scripture but the vital medium through which the biblical vision of God, human nature, history, politics, society, and moral value is conveyed.” And, as the translators of the King James Version knew, the authority of the Bible is inseparable from its literary authority.
For these reasons, the Bible can be brought to life in English only by re-creating its literary virtuosity, and Alter discusses the principal aspects of style in the Hebrew Bible that any translator should try to reproduce: word choice, syntax, word play and sound play, rhythm, and dialogue. In the process, he provides an illuminating and accessible introduction to biblical style that also offers insights about the art of translation far beyond the Bible.
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The Eclipse of Bible Translation
THE TRANSLATION OF THE BIBLE into English has had a peculiar history. The first complete translation of the New Testament as well as of extensive portions of the Old Testament from the original languages, and also the first after the invention of printing, was done by William Tyndale in the 1520s. His work, alas, was permanently interrupted when he was seized by the Inquisition, strangled (not quite successfully), and then burned at the stake. Catholic authorities in this period, it is clear, took a rather dim view of vernacular renderings of Scripture. Tyndale, who was clearly a translator of genius, favored a notion that there was an underlying affinity between the Hebrew and English languages, and as a result that it was possible to render the true meaning of the Bible in a way that would speak directly to an ordinary plowboy. One may regard this as a beguiling fiction that helped to make possible the remarkable achievement of his English version. The Tyndale Bible provided the basis a generation later for the Geneva Bible, produced by Protestant exiles who had fled to Switzerland during the reign of the militantly Catholic Queen Mary. More decisively, in the first decade of the seventeenth century Tyndale became the model for the King James Version (1611). The translators convened by King James took very many verses and countless phrases and clauses directly from Tyndale, but, even more important, he blazed a stylistic path for them even when they weren't copying him. An instructive case in point is their translation of Ecclesiastes. It is one of their most memorable achievements, capturing much of the haunting prose poetry of the Hebrew with its beautiful cadences (even if some of the key terms, such as "vanity of vanities" and "vexation of spirit," reflect a misunderstanding of the original). None of this is borrowed from Tyndale because he did not survive to translate Ecclesiastes, but in regard to diction and rhythm and the managing of many Hebrew idioms, he had given them an invaluable precedent.
It took a century or more before the King James Bible became the fully canonical English version. By the nineteenth century it was entirely dominant — some of the major works of American literature in this era are unthinkable without the matrix of the King James language — and, despite the welter of new translations that have been produced from then down to our own time, the 1611 translation has shown a surprising degree of staying power. As recently as 2014, it was still the preferred Bible of 55 percent of the respondents to a broad survey. It had undergone several successive revisions beginning in the later nineteenth century that mitigated the archaism of its language and corrected its more egregious translation errors while unfortunately somewhat flattening its style, but the grandeur of the original version, even if some of its language is now opaque, still clearly continues to appeal to a large number of readers. This preference for the King James Version is surely dictated in part by the woeful inadequacies of the twentieth-century English translations. Before considering the reasons for this general decline, I would like to indicate briefly the genuine virtues and also the shortcomings of what has for so long been our canonical English Bible.
The committees — they were called "companies"— assembled under the authority of King James were composed of scholars and ecclesiastical figures with impressive credentials of erudition — many knew Arabic and Syriac as well as Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic — who were also immersed in the literary culture of their age. Launcelot Andrewes, the Anglican bishop who was probably the most influential figure among the company members, was one of the great prose stylists of the early seventeenth century, as his published sermons attest, and his fine command of the language surely left its imprint on the translation. The much-celebrated eloquence of the King James Version is very real, and that, coupled with its royal authorization, must have had a great deal to do with its rise to canonical status and with its profound influence on literary English.
One of the signal strengths of the 1611 translation is what I would call its inspired (not divinely inspired) literalism. The seventeenth-century translators worked with the theological conviction that every word of the Bible was revealed to humankind by God and that one didn't play games with God's words. A vivid typographical illustration of this conviction is the use of italics that has often puzzled modern readers. (In the 1611 printing it was less confusing because these words appeared in a roman font that contrasted with the more or less gothic font of the surrounding text.) The italics do not indicate emphasis, as they would in current practice, but rather the introduction into the translation of a word that is merely implied in the original. To cite a very common example, Hebrew has no present tense for the verb "to be." To say "I am Joseph," just two words are used — "I" ('ani) and "Joseph" (Yosef). The King James translators, given their scruples, could not permit themselves to write "am" as though it actually appeared in the Hebrew, and so they set out the word in a different typeface to show that it wasn't literally in the Hebrew but had to be added because of the necessities of English usage.
The inspired literalism of the King James Version begins with its representation of Hebrew syntax in the prose narratives. Biblical prose predominantly uses parataxis — that is, the ordering of words in parallel clauses linked by "and," with very little syntactic subordination or the accompanying subordinate conjunctions such as "because," "although," or "since" that specify the connection between clauses. (In some cases, however, there are clues of context or grammar that give this same Hebrew particle the sense of "but," and in those instances translators are obliged to render it as "but.") My guess is that the King James translators followed the Hebrew parataxis not chiefly out of a stylistic decision but because they thought that if this is the order in which God put the Hebrew words, that order should be reproduced in English. In the Hebrew, parataxis is very much an artful vehicle, generating imposing cadenced sequences of parallel clauses and often exploiting the lack of causal explanation of the relation between clauses to create thought-provoking ambiguities. This was not a normal way to organize language in English, but it would become a strong literary option after 1611. Most of this has been thrown out the window in the modern English versions, impelled by the misconception that modern readers cannot make sense of parataxis and that everything in the biblical text needs to be explained.
There is another aspect of style for which the King James translators came to a happy solution that has been almost universally jettisoned by their modern successors. Biblical narrative makes do with a very small vocabulary. My own inference is that there was a conventional understanding that only a certain limited vocabulary could be used for narrative prose. One principal reason for this inference is that there are many terms that appear in poetry but never in prose. In biblical narrative, for example, there is only one word for light, 'or, together with a cognate, ma'or, that means "source of light" or "lamp." Biblical poetry, on the other hand, exhibits a whole handful of more elaborate or elevated words that would be the equivalents of such English terms as "brilliance," "radiance," or "effulgence." Telling a story rather than composing a poem in ancient Hebrew, you evidently were expected to refrain from such highfalutin language and restrict yourself to the primary term 'or. By and large, the King James translators respected this stylistic practice whereas their modern successors have been impelled either to translate repeated terms differently according to context or to improve on the original by substituting a fancy and purportedly literary term or an explanatory one for the homespun Hebrew word.
Let me illustrate this lamentable trend in Bible translation with two verses from Genesis (7:17–18). Here is the King James Version: "And the flood was forty days upon the earth; and the waters increased, and bare up the ark, and it was lift up above the earth. And the waters prevailed, and were increased greatly upon the earth; and the ark went upon the face of the waters." All this should be perfectly intelligible to the modern reader, with only the archaic form of two verbs a little strange. Now I will cite, in order, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish translations done in the second half of the twentieth century. The Revised English Bible: "The flood continued on the earth for forty days, and the swelling waters lifted up the ark so that it was high above the ground. The ark floated on the surface of the swollen waters as they increased over the earth." The New Jerusalem Bible: "The flood lasted forty days on earth. The waters swelled, lifting the ark until it floated off the ground. The waters rose, swelling above the ground, and the ark drifted away over the waters." The Jewish Publication Society: "The Flood continued forty days on the earth and raised the ark so that it rose above the earth. The waters swelled and increased greatly upon the earth, and the ark drifted upon the waters."
It should be noted that all three modern versions do away with the parataxis of the Hebrew, introducing subordinate clauses ("so that ...") and participial phrases where the original has independent clauses. In this fashion, the grand rhythm of parallel utterances is turned into something commonplace. I would especially like to direct attention here to the choices made for two verbs. The King James Version, faithfully following the Hebrew, has "the flood was forty days upon the earth" and "the ark went upon the face of the waters." To the modern translators this evidently seemed too simple, and so instead of "was" they use "continued" or "lasted," and instead of "went" they give us "floated" or "drifted." Such substitutions seriously compromise the beautiful dignity of the Hebrew with its adherence to a purposefully simple lexicon of primary terms. (The stylistic power of such simplicity was keenly understood by Hemingway, who of course was strongly influenced by the King James Version.) The actual picture of what is happening with the ark is also somewhat altered by these translators in their desire to "improve" it for the modern reader. One might perhaps infer that the ark was drifting, or drifting away, but the Hebrew does not actually say that, and this leads readers to the conclusion that Noah's ark was rudderless, which may or may not have been the case. In any event, the grand simplicity of "the ark went upon the face of the waters" is entirely lost. There is a sense that the modern biblical scholars who produced these versions drew on a literary experience limited to middlebrow magazine fiction, and so they labored under the illusion that they were making the Flood story more vivid for modern readers by introducing such locutions as "swollen waters" (a phrase that might appear in a conventional short story about the Mississippi flooding) and the ark drifting away. These translations are also informed by what I would characterize as a rage to explain the biblical text. Elsewhere, I might add, the impulse to explain through translation has still more dire consequences because it becomes an explanation to make the Bible conform to modern views or modern ideologies. In the present instance, the translators, apprehensive that readers might not understand what happens when the rain comes down and the waters go up, bearing the ark on their surface, spell out the mechanical steps of the process in explanatory subordinate clauses — "so that it was high above the ground," "until it floated off the ground," "so that it rose above the earth." This is manifestly not how the biblical writers chose to tell their stories.
This celebration of the achievement of the King James Version requires some serious qualification. There are two problems with the 1611 translation that are scarcely its fault. The English language, of course, has changed both lexically and grammatically in the course of four centuries. Apart from students of Renaissance literature, not many readers today will know, for example, that "froward" means "perverse" or "contrary," and that "ward" means "prison" or "custody." There is not much to be done about such difficulties except annotation, something Herbert Marks has provided in his splendid Norton Critical Edition of the King James Old Testament. The other pervasive problem with our canonical English version is that the seventeenth-century translators, for all their learning, had a rather imperfect grasp of biblical Hebrew. At times they get confused about the syntax, and they repeatedly miss the nuance, or even the actual meaning, of Hebrew words. Usually this is a matter of being slightly off or somewhat misleading, as when, following the Vulgate, they transpose concrete Hebrew terms into theologically fraught ones — "soul" for nefesh, which actually means "essential self," "being," "life-breath," or "salvation" for yeshu'ah, which means "rescue," "getting out of a tight fix." Sometimes, alas, there are real howlers. In the mysterious covenant between God and Abram in Genesis 15, the 1611 version reads "an horror of great darkness fell upon him," because they have taken an adjective, hasheikhah to be the noun it formally resembles. The Hebrew actually says "a great dark horror fell upon him," with no suggestion that Abram our forefather was afraid of the dark. Still more egregiously, in Job 3:8 we encounter cursers of the day "who are ready to raise up their mourning." The Hebrew in fact says "raise up Leviathan." The King James translators misread the mythological beast lewayatan as the rabbinic word for "funeral," lewayah, not distinguishing between biblical and rabbinic Hebrew, and overlooking the fact that the word as they incorrectly construed it would have an inappropriate feminine possessive suffix. Such errors are probably understandable because Hebrew was a book language for them, cultivated for barely a century by Christian humanists. By contrast, the great Hebrew commentators of the Middle Ages, such as Rashi and Abraham ibn Ezra, were immersed in Hebrew, thought in Hebrew, and — in the case of ibn Ezra — wrote poetry in Hebrew, and consequently had a much firmer command of syntax, grammar, and lexical nuance.
There is also a stylistic issue with the King James Version. It may be a little surprising to say that its treatment of poetry is by and large less successful than its representation of narrative prose. I would argue that this is often the case even when the lines of verse exhibit persuasive force, as they famously do in Psalms. Let me cite an instance that most English speakers know by heart, from the twenty-third psalm: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil." This is grand, but the grandeur is nothing like the Hebrew. Instead of eight words and thirteen syllables, gamki 'elekh begei' tsalmawet lo' 'ira r'a, we are given seventeen words and twenty syllables. The power of biblical poetry inheres in its terrific compactness. The King James translators, attached to a more orotund and expansive Jacobean rhetoric, rarely produce English equivalents of this compactness. The English line from Psalms is a memorable line of poetry, but, stretching from margin to margin on the page, it reads more like a line from Walt Whitman (who of course was profoundly influenced by the King James Psalms) than like a line of ancient Hebrew verse. The underlying problem, I suspect, is that the King James translators, though they had an impressive feel for English, approached biblical Hebrew as a language to be deciphered from the printed page, and they often did not seem to hear it.
Here is a line of poetry from Job (3:11) that instructively illustrates both the remarkable stylistic strength and the weakness of the King James Version. The first half of the line — lines of biblical poetry usually show two inter-echoing halves, or "versets" — could scarcely be improved on: "Why died I not from the womb?" The Hebrew is lamah lo' merjehem 'amut. As a translator, I envy the freedom of the King James collaborators to use a compact syntactic inversion, "died I not," whereas, working in the twenty-first century, I felt constrained to adopt the clumsier "did I not die." But in the second half of the line, alas, the translation unravels: "Why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly?" These fifteen words — all but one monosyllabic but nonetheless arhythmic — represent three words, eight syllables, in the Hebrew: mibeten yatsa'ti we'egwah. The meaning of the Hebrew is there, but the poetry gets lost in the verbiage. My own approximation of the Hebrew is "from the belly come out, breathe my last." For the three final words, "expire" would have been rhythmically preferable, but it seemed to me too abstract and Latinate for the diction of the poem. As elsewhere, there is both gain and loss in translation choices.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Art of Bible Translation"
Copyright © 2019 Robert Alter.
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Table of Contents
Autobiographical Prelude ix
Chapter 1 The Eclipse of Bible Translation 1
Chapter 2 Syntax 27
Chapter 3 Word Choice 45
Chapter 4 Sound Play and Word Play 65
Chapter 5 Rhythm 82
Chapter 6 The Language of Dialogue 103
Suggested Readings 123