Literary scholar Robert Alter’s three-volume set of the Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament) has been released after almost a quarter-century of work, all done by hand. Alter, 83, says he tackled the 3,000-page project because the Hebrew language has a “very high level of artistry”—and because the “existing English versions simply didn’t do justice to [its] literary beauty.”
While incorporating Hebrew rhythms, poetic structure and syllable use, Alter also removed references to Christ that occur in English translations. “In trying to be faithful to the literary art of the Hebrew Bible,” he says, “I certainly edged it away from being merely a precursor to the New Testament, which is a different kind of writing all together.”
A recent New York Times Magazine feature says Alter “has helped carve out a dignified place for the Hebrew Bible as the Hebrew Bible…and rescued it from second-class status” as books that were “primitive precursors to the enlightened New Testament.”
In a Bible Translation Comparison, Alter’s Work Includes Notable Changes
The King James Version of 1611 uses “magnificent language,” Alter says, but scholarship has shown that some of its translation work is in error—and that it doesn’t reflect certain traits of ancient Hebrew. Some experts also say the KJV has a Christian bias in the use of words such as soul.
Removing that word from his translation is one of Alter’s most notable decisions. “The Hebrew word translated very often as soul means something like life breath,” he says. “It’s a very physical thing, and there is no concept among the biblical writers in a split between body and soul.”
Psalm 23 also has new wording. Verse 5 is now “You moisten my head with oil” because the Hebrew verb that’s used doesn’t mean anoint. And in the story of Sarah giving birth to Isaac, Alter’s translation emphasizes that Sarah is being laughed at, which helps explain why she later lashes out at Hagar.
When compared to English, Hebrew is more compact and uses fewer syllables, so translating poetry posed a challenge. “Words squeeze together” in Hebrew, Alter says, so he often cuts words that seem unnecessary. The results sometimes sound a bit strange in English, due to his use of foreignization, a translation style that makes it clear text is originally from another language.
Alter’s Impact on Biblical Literary Scholarship
Alter, author of the influential 1981 book The Art of Biblical Narrative, has taught at the University of California, Berkeley, for more than five decades. His Hebrew translation attempts to restore the language’s “original colors and shadings,” which he says have “faded under the accumulations of theological and historical readings.”
During Alter’s upbringing as an American Jew in the Bronx, he fell in love with Hebrew—unlike many of his peers, who rebelled against having to learn the language. Despite the time and effort his translation required, Alter recognizes that future improvements are bound to be proposed. He envisions future scholars saying, “That’s awkward. I can see he’s trying to get the literal sense of the Hebrew, but it sounds goofy in English, and I can do better.”