The Art of Bible Translation

Alter, Robert. The Art of Bible Translation.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019.  127 pp. $15, cloth.

When a musician stands next to a tone deaf person while singing, it can be an excruciating experience.  Robert Alter writes to confront English translations of the Bible which are largely tone deaf in his view.

The book would be more accurately titled, The Art of Hebrew Bible Translation, for Alter only treats the Hebrew text in keeping with his Jewish ethnic and religious perspective [note that his biblical verse numbering reflects Jewish tradition].  This book, like his earlier titles, The art of Biblical narrative (1981) and The art of Biblical poetry (1984), is informed by his primary career focus on comparative modern literature.  His work in translating the Hebrew scriptures culminated in his 3-volume, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary (2018).

Alter acknowledges the inherent difficulties of translation from the first page.  “The practice of translation, as I have learned from experience, entails an endless series of compromises, some of them happy, some painful and not quite right because the translator has been unable to find an adequate English equivalent for what is happening – often brilliantly – in the original language” (ix).  He begins with an examination of the King James version as the foundational English translation.   Through this he introduces some of his primary criticisms of translations.

One criticism is that English translations have a “rage to explain the biblical text,” (7), by which he means adding interpretive language which is not representative of the Hebrew or which goes beyond the simplicity of the Hebrew.  It is a valid point which is easy to establish from various translations.   Another criticism is that too often English translations make it sound as if scripture was originally written yesterday rather than reflecting its ancient pedigree.  He is not arguing for archaisms for their own sake as much as for language which reflects the nature and tone of the original.

[To read his list of Ten Commandments for Bible Translators, see]

Aside from the KJV, Alter compares the Hebrew primarily with these translations: JPS (Jewish Publication Society) Bible (2002), New Jerusalem Bible (1985), and Revised English Bible (1989) [NB: not the RSV].  He shows no awareness of nor interaction with translations such as the NASB (1971/1995), NIV (1984/2011), or the ESV (2001).  While one would not expect exhaustive comparisons of all English translations, some of the universal assertions he makes against English translations are actually untrue when it comes to the wording of those which he ignores (e.g., p.105 in connection with the translation of Esau’s dialog in Genesis 25, where the ESV proves him wrong).  Such omissions undermine the trustworthiness of some of his assertions.

Alter looks at five criteria for evaluating translations: syntax, word choice, sound and word play, rhythm, and the language of dialog.  In regard to syntax, one of his primary points of concern is with parataxis, “the ordering of words in parallel clauses linked by ‘and’” (4) which is so prevalent in the Hebrew narratives.  He also focuses on word inversion (syntactic fronting), which often is done for the sake of emphasis in the original. He berates most modern translations for largely ignoring these dynamics (while ignoring several translations).

Word choice is likely what most people think of when they consider Bible translation.  Alter makes some curious judgments in this chapter, such as saying that the Hebrew word nefesh should never be rendered in English as “soul”, as he claims “there is no biblical notion of the soul” (48).  His non-Trinitarian theology also comes to the fore in other claims.  He also tosses in diction as a criterion in this chapter, which would perhaps be more logical in the last chapter.  Some of the examples he burrows into in this chapter seem pedantic and bury the reader in needless detail to make his points.

The chapter on sound play and word play amounts to consideration of puns and alliteration, both of which he admits are very difficult to reflect in translations.  Some of the examples he gives from his own translations seem to prove his own point that trying to preserve such things end up being a negative trade off.  In the midst of this treatment he makes one of his central assertions: “My own contention is that meaning in the Bible or in any literary text cannot be reduced to lexical values, that it involves the communication of affect and can never be separated from the nuanced connotation of words and their dynamic interaction as they are joined through sound, through syntax, and through poetic or narrative context” (76).

Rhythm is a consideration that most casual readers of the Bible pay little attention to, and if Alter is to be believed, the same is true for most translators. He states, “Rhythm is the beating heart of literary prose, and as in the relation of the heart to the human body, arhythmia [sic] can be life-threatening to the writing” (84).  This is a bit of overstatement perhaps, and it is an almost impossible quality to retain in a translation. His examples from Melville and Shakespeare may not be helpful in making his point for many readers.  Perhaps the rhythmic cadences of rap music would be a more immediately recognizable example in English, but such plebian intonations would be alien to Alter’s generation.  He does make an apt point when he says, “The dimension of sound would have been all the more urgent for the first audiences to whom these texts were addressed, who would of course not have read them silently but rather would have listened to them” (102).

Though he focuses on dialog in the prior chapters, it takes center stage in the last chapter.  This is where his background in comparative literature is particularly helpful.  Unlike a Greek epic poem, most of the important matters in the Old Testament are presented through dialog.  As with other criteria, he claims that modern English translations drain biblical dialog of its vitality by trying to regularize it too much or by being insensitive “to the nuances of language that would be appropriate for ancient speech” (115). Like the rest, this chapter is weakened by ignoring many English translations which actually do a decent job of reflecting such considerations (eg, his treatment of the story of Jephthah’s daughter on pp.116-117 fails to note that the ESV does indeed reflect the Hebrew dialog well).  There is no concluding chapter; merely a one-page summary of some points at the last.

Reformed scholarship focuses on the inspiration and authority of scripture, which is necessary.  It is also attuned to text-critical and lexical issues when it comes to translation.  But apart from those who are involved in creating English translations, many who interact with English renderings of scripture consciously or unconsciously assume that translating the Hebrew and Greek is a somewhat mechanical process.  Technologies like Google Translate add to such a misconception.  Anyone who has studied languages other than their own knows that learning another language ultimately means learning to think in a different way.  Idiomatic phrases, poetic language, and other aspects of language do not translate readily with computer-generated tools. This work is a helpful corrective to that notion.

In spite of its omissions of common English translations and its repetitive and somewhat preachy tone, Alter’s book is a worthwhile read for anyone who interacts with the original languages of the Bible, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.  Though the crisis of translating is not as bleak as he suggests, it is a helpful reminder of the challenges of translating God’s Word into English or any other language in such a way that is as faithful to all aspects of the original languages as possible.

Kenneth McMullen
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte