A look at Robert Alter’s translation: The Hebrew Bible

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  • Wonderment

    A look at Robert Alter’s translation: The Hebrew Bible

    Three Volumes labeled as, "The Five Books of Moses"; "The Writings"; and "Prophets."

    Verse numbers appear in the margins. My take: Some view this as a plus, since this allows for continuous, undistracted reading. However, other people dislike this arrangement, finding it more difficult to determine where a text begins, or ends. I I prefer this last method with the numbers appearing right before the beginning of a verse, for quick reference.

    Goal of the translator:

    “There is, as I shall explain in detail, something seriously wrong with all the familiar English translations, traditional and recent, of the Hebrew Bible…. The present translation is an experiment in re-representing the Bible – and, above all, biblical narrative prose – in a language that conveys with some precision the semantic nuances and the lively orchestration of literary effects of the Hebrew and at the same time has stylistic and rhythmic integrity as literary English.” (p. xiii)

    “I thought it necessary to offer succinct explanations of some of the ancient Near Eastern cultural practices and social institutions that are presupposed by the narratives, for without an understanding of them it is sometimes hard to see exactly what is going on in the story.” (p. xii)

    “No previous English translation has made a serious effort to represent the elevated and archaic nature of the poetic language in contradistinction to the prose, though that is clearly part of the intended literary effect of biblical narrative.” (p. xxxv)

    Opinion: I welcome this effort highly, so long as accuracy is not affected.

    The New York Times Magazine brought up the account of Genesis 21:1-3, where Alter offers new insights on Sara’s old-age experience in child-bearing for the first time. In verse one, Alter says that “the Lord singled out Sara” instead of “the Lord visited Sara” of most versions, adding new layers of tension in this story. When Sara does give birth to her first child, Alter has Sara saying in poetic speech: “Laughter has God made me, / Whoever hears will laugh at me.” Alter retained the ambiguous Hebrew verbal construction. “More startling still, Alter has taken advantage of another ambiguity in the Hebrew’s prepositions and has Sarah directly say that her society is not laughing with but at her. After giving birth, she feels mocked, shamed and socially demoted. At the end of her life, when she should be reaping the rewards of seniority and respect, she fears that she has been turned into a punch line.” (Quote by NY Times Magazine)

    Footnotes: There are many footnotes throughout this Bible. Some cover as much as half-a-page. These deal with various subjects. I will give you an example. At Ezequiel 23:1-3 the main text says: “And the word of the LORD came to me, saying, ‘Two women were there, daughter of one mother. And they played the whore in Egypt, in their youth, they played the whore there. Their breasts were squeezed and there were their virgin teats fondled.’”

    The footnote reads: “As in ch. 16, Ezekiel takes the conventional metaphor of whoring as an image of idolatry (and also of alliances with foreign powers) and pushes it to a level of sexual explicitness as does no other biblical writer. Nowhere else in the Bible does one find this sort of direct reference to fondling breasts in sexual play, and nowhere else does one encounter an evocation of a concupiscent woman allured by the largeness of the male sexual organ (verse 20). There are passages in this prophecy where the allegorical referent of idolatry virtually disappears as the sexual foreground is flaunted. Ezekiel looks distinctly like a man morbidly obsessed with the female body and with female sexuality, exhibiting a horrified fascination with both. The word in the second verse of this, dad, is represented by some as ‘nipple,’ but on dubious grounds. It is a phonetic cousin of shad, the standard word for ‘breast.’ It occurs only here and Proverbs 5:19, where it does not seem to mean ‘nipple’ either. In any case, ‘fondling’ (the more general sense of the verb is ‘knead’) does not work well for nipples, although it is appropriate for breasts.”

    The Hebrew particle "waw"
    is rendered "and" repeatedly:

    “Since a literary style is composed of very small elements as well as larger structural features, an English translator must confront the pesky question of whether the ubiquitous Hebrew particle that means ‘and’ should be represented at all in translation. This is obviously not a problem when the waw simply connects two nouns – as in ‘the heavens and the earth’ – but what of its constant use at the beginning of sentences and clauses prefixed to verbs? The argument against translating it in these cases is that the primary function of the waw appended to a verb is not to signify ‘and’ but to indicate that the Hebrew prefix conjugation, which otherwise is used for action yet to be completed, is reporting past events (hence its designation in the terminology of classical Hebrew grammar as ‘the waw of conversion’). It is far from clear, as modern Bible scholars tend to assume, that the fulfillment of one linguistic function by a particle of speech automatically excludes any others; on the contrary, it is entirely likely that for the ancient audience the waw appended to the verb both converted its temporal aspect and continued to signify ‘and.’ But semantics aside, the general practice of modern English translators of suppressing the ‘and’ when it is attached to a verb has the effect of changing the tempo, rhythm, and construction of events in biblical narrative.” (pp. xxi,xxii) “The translator’s task, then is to mirror the repetitions [including the waw] as much as is feasible.” (p. xxviii)

    Alter cites a narrative sequence from Genesis 24 (Rebekah becoming the subject of a series of actions), where he compares his version’s use of the waw (“and”) with that of the Revised English Bible, beginning in the middle of verse 16. He writes: “The most striking difference between these two versions is that mine has fifteen ‘and’s’ corresponding precisely to fifteen occurrences of the particle waw in the Hebrew, whereas the Revised English Bible manages with just five.” He concludes: “The reiterated ‘and,’ then, plays an important role in creating the rhythm of the story, in phonetically punctuating the forward-driving movement of the prose.”

    Opinion: I think this is a good idea. Obtaining original Hebrew nuances through this convention is a plus in my view. Incidentally, the early editions of NWT (OT) addressed the need to disregard the so-called “waw-conversive,” and represent the particle waw throughout the Hebrew text using conjunctions or phrases. The NWT Committee wrote: “Thus, although waw (“and”) is very repetitious in Hebrew, we do not ignore it and leave it untranslated as if unnecessary or cumbersome or old fashioned in style, but [in order to avoid monotony] we express it by using transitional words or phrases with the sense that the Hebrew leads us to feel. We bring out the force of the waw in its relationship to the verb with which it is combined. So this simple word waw in the Hebrew is used to convey many a shade of meaning besides its mere basic meaning ‘and.’” (1953 edition, p. 18)

    One main difference between Alter’s and the NWT’s goal (in early editions, that is) in representing the Hebrew as closely as possible is that Alter generally does not stick to a pattern of drawing the distinctive force of the Hebrew perfect and imperfect verb forms throughout as the NWT does.

    Pronouns relating to "deity" are capitalized. In my opinion, a bad idea, for the most part. It is distracting, to say the least. And the Hebrew language did not differentiate between pronouns relating to “deity” or other. Why should we then? Isn’t Alter’s version designed to mirror the Hebrew closely?

    On the name of God: “The confidence of biblical scholarship that the original pronunciation was in fact Yahweh may not be entirely warranted.… In any case,‘Yahweh’ would have given the English version a certain academic-archaeological coloration that I preferred to avoid, and it would also have introduced a certain discomfort at least for some Jewish readers of the translation. I rejected the option of using ‘YHWH’ because it cannot be pronounced whereas the dimension of sound seemed to me vital to the translation. I have therefore followed the precedent of the King James Version in representing YHWH as the LORD, the last three letters in small uppercase to indicate that, like ‘adonai, it is an anomaly, a substitution for another name.”

    “Admittedly, any of the choices [LORD for YHWH; ‘elohim; El; Elyon; and Shaddai] I have described may be debatable, but in all of them my aim has been to name the deity in English in ways that would be in keeping with the overall concert of literary effects that the translation strives to create.” (pp. xxxix, xl) Alter did represent the Tetragrammaton in a few places, e.g.: Exodus 17:15,16, YHWH Nissi [italics], the LORD is My Banner." [...] "Yah's throne."

    Is fair to ask then: Should an “overall concert of literary effects” in the translation justify removing the divine name throughout Scripture? ‘Following the precedent of the King James Version in representing YHWH as the LORD’ is not the best model, since the substitute used does not properly represent the Hebrew Tetragrammaton (a personal name) as other scholars have acknowledged. For instance, the NIVIHEOT Interlinear (1987) says: “...According to Scripture, [Yahweh] is God’s special name, and it has no direct connection with the idea of lordship.” (Introduction, p. xxi)

    Let’s see what Robert Alter’s version of Malachi 3.16,17 says: “Then did the LORD-fearers speak together, each man to his neighbor, and the LORD hearkened and He heard, an a book of remembrance was written before Him for the LORD-fearers who value His name. And they shall become for Me, said the LORD of Armies, a treasure on the day that I prepare.”

    Do we really show ‘fear’ of God and ‘value God’s name’ by replacing it with surrogates? Jesus Christ apparently went against human tradition, for he said: “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world.” (Mark 7.13; John 17.6, NRSV) Let’s not forget, the Bible we have today is not a 100% faithful representation of the originals, since we mainly have copies written centuries after they were written.

    Bill Cetnar, the NWT and Dr. Goodspeed: According to an ex-Bethelite (Bill Cetnar), Dr. Goodspeed made the following comment in reference to a portion of the Hebrew Scriptures of the NWT (in 1954): “The grammar is regrettable”. (Bill Cetnar, Questions for Jehovah's Witnesses Who Love the Truth - Kunkletown, PA: W. I. Cetnar, 1983), 69) Cetnar writes of Goodspeed: "One reading he pointed out as especially awkward and grammatically poor was in Judges 14:3 where Samson is made to say: `Her get for me.…'" In this text, Samson asks his father (to get him a particular Philistine woman for wife), according to the NWT of 1953: “Her get for me, because she is the one just right in my eyes.” By 1961, the one volume revised edition, read: “Get just her for me...” And the NWT 2013 edition went further by simplifying Samson’s statement: “Get her for me, because she is the right one for me.”

    If Bill Cetnar reported the encounter with Dr. Goodspeed correctly, I would have to agree with Dr. Goodspeed. The way the NWT of 1953 rendered this verse back then, was very awkward in English, one could say, ‘regrettably.’ Should we be surprised? No. A stated goal for the early NWT editions was mentioned in the Foreword, 1953 edition: “The aim is to convey the flavor of the ancient Hebrew realm, its way of thinking, reasoning, talking, social dealings, etc. … So the reader will find quite a bit of idiomatic Hebrew.” Did Bill Cetnar ever tell you this?

    Applicable to this story, 64 years later, a prominent Hebrew scholar of our times (yes, Robert Alter), has rendered this verse very much like the early NWT editions did, namely, with the pronoun “her” at the start of Samson’s petition: "And Samson said to his father, 'Her take for me because she pleases me'" A footnote says: "because she pleases me. The literal sense is 'because she is right in my eyes.'" Why would he do that? Apparently, Alter saw a benefit of mirroring the Hebrew syntax here, instead of considering it ‘regrettable grammar,’ as Goodspeed allegedly did regarding the NWT’s choice of Judges 14:3. By the way, Dr. Goodspeed’s expertise was in the Greek department, not with the Hebrew language. As far as I know, Bill Cetnar did not report Goodspeed pointing out ‘Greek errors’ in the NT of the NWT.

    In Hebrew, the normal word order in a verbal sentence is first the verb, then the subject, and finally the object. Thus, when a different word order is used, it makes the part of speech that is placed first prominent. In this case, the direct object “her” was placed before the verb to focus attention on it. What this account shows is that the NWT translator was bent on reflecting the Hebrew style & rhythm as closely as possible, as stated in the Foreword of the Bible. If anything, it contradicts the perceived notion that the NWT translator was unable to read Hebrew.

    Ecclesiastes 1:2, "Vanity of vanities" becomes, "merest breath." ... "Merest breath, said Qohelet, merest breath. All is mere breath."

    Trinitarian dogma:

    Those wishing to find support for the trinitarian dogma in Bible translations will likely be disappointed that this version did not follow the tradition in some places. To name a few (emphasis added):

    Gen. 1:2, "breath" for "spirit":"and God's breath hovering over the waters." Footnote: "God's breath-wind-spirit."

    Spirit” here is being described as as a powerful force = “breath-wind,” instead of as a “person.”

    The “I am” phrase is not found in Exodus 3:14, "And God said to Moses, ''Ehyeh-'Asher-'Ehyeh, I-Will-Be-Who-I-Will-Be,' And He said, Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ' 'Ehyeh has sent me to you.'"

    Robert Alter footnotes that “the common rendering of ‘I-Am-That-I-Am’ cannot be excluded.” However, he states that ‘I-Will-Be-Who-I-Will-Be’ is the most plausible construction of the Hebrew...”

    Isaiah 9:6, "Mighty God" is translated as "divine warrior." This would make the often-heard claim that Jesus is ‘Almighty God’ a bit more difficult to sustain since this verse never made such claim in the first place.

    Alter footnotes: “The most challenging epithet in this sequence is ‘el gibor, which appears to say ‘warrior-god.’ The prophet would be violating all biblical usage if he called the Davidic king ‘God,’ and that term is best construed here as some sort of intensifier. In fact, the two words could conceivably be a scribal reversal of gibor ‘el in which case the second word would clearly function as a suffix of intensification as it occasionally does elsewhere in the Bible.”

    Habakkuk 1:12, The English Standard Version reads like so in this verse: “Are you not from everlasting, O Lord my God, my Holy One? We shall not die,” Alter’s version says instead: “Are you not of old, O LORD, my holy God? You shall not die!” (And the NWT: “O my God, my Holy One, you do not die.”)

    Some may prefer the ESV reading (We shall not die) over Alter’s version (and the NWT) which communicates that ‘God cannot die.’ The later concept can present a problem for Trinitarians, for they believe that God later ‘died’ in the form of Jesus Christ = Incarnation doctrine.

    However, Alter explains in a footnote: “The Masoretic Text shows ‘We shall not die,’ but this is a tiqun sofrim, a euphemistic scribal correction so as to eliminate the necessity of saying ‘God shall not die,’ when all know that death is not a category that applies to God.”

    Thus, any hint that God could conceivably ‘die’ was offensive to the Jews, who always thought of God as immortal, hence, the scribal alteration. This brings up the question: If the Jews objected so strongly to any suggestion that God could die, why would Christendom later insist on adopting this very same concept abhorred by Jews... of ‘God becoming man to die in the cross’ in order to save mankind? Was it a “deviation” of Christianity?

    In all, I welcome the release of this complete publication into the Biblical world in early 2019. It has a good number of features attractive to those seeking more Hebrew insight within Scripture, particularly, the special focus given to the literary merit of the translation, which may be its greatest accomplishment, and that I barely addressed. Many of the footnotes are interesting and informative. I hope the few samples above taken from The Hebrew Bible by Robert Alter can help you decide if this work is worth obtaining.

  • Earnest

    Many thanks for such an interesting and thorough review. I already have Alter's New Testament so will have to complement that.

  • Wonderment


    Thank you for your words of appreciation!

    You mentioned that you have "Alter's New Testament." What are you referring to?

  • careful

    Yes, thanks, Wonderment, for your work here. I'd love to comment at length but must go back to work. I have time, however, for a few thoughts.

    As for verse placement, the JB (and NJB?) have worked out a nice compromise, I think. They place the verse numbers at the end of the lines of text for the reason you stipulate and have a small raised dot within the text to indicate just where the verse ends/begins. It takes a little getting used to, but I like the compromise. Does Alter have such a dot?

    The "encounter" with Goodspeed was not an in-person one. Some ordinary Bethelite back in 1950 sent Goodspeed a copy of the NWTCGS right after it was released. By that time Goodspeed had retired from the University of Chicago and was living in Los Angeles. Surprisingly, he wrote back. I saw a copy of the letter once. It's kept in the Writing Dept. archives. Basically, he complimented the work and then added some criticisms. When the 1951 revision came out, Fred Franz had implemented most, if not all, of Goodspeed's corrections/suggestions.

    I'm not surprised that Cetnar only mentioned a criticism. The compliments were several, something that surprised me a bit, but then Goodspeed was known for being a pretty nice guy.

  • Earnest


    My mistake. I was thinking of David Bentley Hart's New Testament, which was mentioned here a year ago. I had read a review of Alter's translation here and one-man translations being so unusual I confused the two.

    I always do enjoy the depth of your posts and lack of agenda.

  • slimboyfat

    Thank you, excellent post, especially interesting about Judges 14:3.

    I saw this translation in the book shop a few weeks ago, but it was huge, and expensive. I’ll wait for a more compact edition. I already have Alter’s translation of Genesis, which is excellent.

  • Introvert 2
    Introvert 2

    good post, following

  • Wonderment

    Thank guys for your comments!

    careful, whenever you have a chance, could you provide us with more details about the Bill Cetnar / Goodspeed incident of decades ago. What you mentioned is very interesting, and I would like to know more about it, since this incident is all over the internet, used almost always as "proof" that the NWT translators were not up to the task of translating the Bible. Some of us would appreciate any effort you spend on this matter.

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