The Art of Bible Translation draws the reader into Professor Robert Atler’s lifelong fascination with the literary genius of the Bible. Following the publication of numerous Biblical translations, commentaries, and close readings, Alter has turned his attention to the process of translation itself, its inherent challenges, and the Bible’s literary style as a whole.
Alter’s analysis is divided into six chapters. The first explores the history of Bible translations, as well as the author’s own challenges during his translation efforts. He finds most translations insufficient, due to their insensitivity to the syntax, word choice, and rhythm of the original text. Subsequent chapters tackle these challenges in greater detail, explaining why translations continue to miss the mark in capturing the nuances of the original text. It is precisely these nuances, Alter suggests, that make the Bible the remarkable literary achievement that it is.
The author later considers the critical importance of word choice and offers numerous examples in which translation inaccuracies and inconsistency of diction warp the meaning of the Biblical text. In his analysis of Exodus 19:9, Alter laments the common translation of God arriving in a “thick” or “dense” cloud to present the Ten Commandments. Alter notes that the Hebrew uses a phrase in the construct state to describe this cloud. This state, common in the Bible, suggests an “intensification or emphatic heightening” that the English translation captures. He proposes rendering the translation as an “utmost cloud” because it describes an event that is unique or majestic, whereas a “thick cloud” is something that anyone could see on a rainy day.
Alter explores the Bible’s use of dialogue and considers it to be the “vital center” of biblical narrative. He suggests that most translations fail to capture the personality, narrative, and social position of the speaker. For example, when Joseph sends his brothers back to Canaan with food, the word shever is often translated as “rations.” Alter objects to this translation, and in its place writes “provisions,” which he regards as a better description of the bundled food that ancient travelers would carry on long journeys. “Rations,” on the other hand, is a translation more akin to what one would find in a soldier’s backpack.
Alter deftly illustrates the impact a thoughtful translation can have on bringing the nuances of the Bible to life, while also conveying the risks of a poor translation. While at least a basic understanding of Hebrew would benefit in unpacking the author’s analysis, he is able to make his argument clear to a predominantly English-speaking audience.
Readers are encouraged to seek Bible translations that utilize all means available to capture the magnificence of the original text. The author reminds us, however, that “even with the best intentions, any translation of a great work will sometimes prove to be a sorry thing.”
Jonathan Fass is the Chief Operating Officer of Jewish Family Service in Stamford, CT.