For 24 years, literary scholar Robert Alter has been working on a new translation of the Hebrew Bible and — "this may shock some of your listeners," he warns — he's been working on it by hand.
"I'm very particular — I write on narrow-lined paper and I have a Cross mechanical pencil," he says.
The result is a three-volume set — a translation with commentary — that runs over 3,000 pages.
Working solo for so long on a project of this magnitude can take its toll, he says: "If you keep going verse by verse, looking at the commentary and wrestling with difficult words and so forth, you can get a little batty."
Alter says it was the "very high level of artistry" in the language of the Bible that drew him to the massive undertaking. "The existing English versions simply didn't do justice to the literary beauty of the Hebrew," he says.
As he worked, Alter found himself removing "Christological references" in the existing English translations.
"In trying to be faithful to the literary art of the Hebrew Bible I certainly edged it away from being merely a precursor to the New Testament — which is a different kind of writing all together," he says.
Take, for example, the word "soul" — you won't find it in Alter's translation.
"That's because the Hebrew word translated very often as 'soul' means something like 'life breath,' " Alter explains. "It's a very physical thing and there is no concept among the biblical writers in a split between body and soul. So I got rid of the soul."
He also changed the wording in Psalm 23 — "thou anointest my head with oil," is what you'll find in the King James translation. "But the Hebrew verb does not mean 'to anoint,' " Alter says. "The word that's actually used by the psalmist means 'to make luxuriant' — something like that. It's a very physical word. So after wrestling with other alternatives ... I ended up saying 'you moisten my head with oil.' "
Alter also tried to imitate the rhythm of the original — which was a challenge because Hebrew is a much more compact language than English.
"Words squeeze together," Alter says. For example, in English it takes three words to say "he saw him." But in Hebrew it takes just one. "You know it's 'he' in the way the verb is conjugated, and then there's a little suffix at the end of the verb that tells you it's 'him.' "
Alter also tried to steer clear of words with a lot of syllables — you don't find many of those in biblical Hebrew, he says — and he omitted words that felt extraneous.
Alter points to one example in Psalm 30: The King James translation uses the phrase "What profit is there in my blood?" Alter removed "is there" to leave: "What profit in my blood?" Which he says is much closer to the rhythm of the Hebrew.
Alter always makes an audio recording of his work before handing it off to the transcriber — that way he hears everything out loud.
Of course, some day down the road another translator will come along and attempt to improve on his work.
"A translator of a great work is delusional if he or she thinks that there aren't places where the translation falls down," Alter says. He imagines this future translator will say: "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 than that."
Kevin Tidmarsh and Jerome Socolovsky produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There's a new translation of the Hebrew Bible, or what Christians call the Old Testament. The three-volume set runs over 3,000 pages. It was a solo project by literary scholar Robert Alter. It took him 24 years to finish it. And he admits, at times, it was a real challenge.
ROBERT ALTER: If you keep going verse by verse, looking at the commentaries and wrestling with difficult words and so forth, you can get a little batty.
MARTIN: Fortunately, he says he had other literature to occupy his mind.
ALTER: Nabokov and Stendhal and Flaubert and Dickens and so forth. And I kept doing those things. That kept me sane in a way.
MARTIN: I talked to Alter about why he decided to treat the Bible as a work of literature rather than as a religious text.
ALTER: The main reason is I'm a literary guy. And the Hebrew Bible - it has low points, like, as any writer has certain low points. But on the whole, it reflects a very high level of literary artistry. And what I found was that the existing English version simply didn't do justice to the literary beauty of the Hebrew.
MARTIN: Christians, of course, think of the Hebrew Bible as the Old Testament, as somehow valuable only in that it is the precursor to the New Testament.
ALTER: That's right.
MARTIN: Some reviewers are saying that this translation is valuable because it liberates the Hebrew Bible from the New Testament. Was that part of the intention behind it? And if so, what did you have to do to make that happen?
ALTER: In trying to be faithful to the literary art of the Hebrew Bible, I certainly edged it away from being merely a precursor to the New Testament, which is different kind of writing altogether. I would also say that in certain ways, I found myself, in the effort to be faithful to the original, cleaning up the Christological references in the existing translation. I'll give you two examples. I don't use the word soul at all. I don't think I use it a single time. And that's because the Hebrew word translated very often as soul means something like life breath. You know, it's a very physical thing. And there is no concept among the biblical writers in a split between body and soul. So I got rid of the soul.
Perhaps the piquant example, which every listener I think will be familiar with, is the 23rd Psalm - so thou anointest my head with oil in the King James. Everybody does that, including the moderns, but the Hebrew verb does not mean to anoint. The word that's actually used by the psalmist means to make luxuriant - something like that. It's a very physical word. So after wrestling with other alternatives, some of which were ill-advised - you always do that as a translator - I ended up saying you moisten my head with oil. You know, it feels good because you rub good olive oil into your head...
ALTER: ...Into your hair.
MARTIN: It's a nurturing - yeah.
MARTIN: So did you often need to speak aloud when doing this, to hear how it felt on your tongue, in your mouth, as you were saying these words?
ALTER: I have a very peculiar way of writing. I write - this may shock some of your listeners - by longhand.
MARTIN: You translated the Hebrew Bible by longhand?
ALTER: I did.
MARTIN: Come on.
ALTER: (Laughter). So I'm very particular. I write on narrow-lined paper, and I have a Cross mechanical pencil. They should give me a few free ones because I really endorse them.
MARTIN: You think? Yeah, let's see if we can make that happen.
ALTER: (Laughter) OK.
ALTER: And before I hand the scrawl to the transcriber, I make an audio recording of it. So I do read everything out loud.
MARTIN: I wonder if you could talk a little about the - I guess mechanics is the right word. Hebrew is a more compact language than English.
ALTER: Ah, yes. You touch on an essential point. Words squeeze together. That is, and he saw him, which is three or four words in English, is one word in the Hebrew because you know it's he in way the verb is conjugated. And then there's a little suffix at the end of the verb that tells you it's him.
In addition, there are not a lot of polysyllabic words in Biblical Hebrew. So one thing I do is that I avoid words with many syllables. Usually, those are the words - you probably know - that come from Greek or Latin origins. And then I simply get rid of words that seem extraneous. In Psalm 30, the speaker, who has almost died, apparently from an illness, says in the King James version, what profit is there in my blood? That doesn't quite sound like a line of poetry - actually, a half-line of poetry. And what I did was I used the same words, but I dropped the is there - so what profit in my blood, which actually has the same rhythm as the Hebrew (speaking Hebrew). So I do that again and again.
MARTIN: I suppose it is inevitable that someone else will attempt to do this down the road, probably many years from now. What guidance would you give that person? What would you hope that that person could improve upon?
ALTER: Well, I think a translator of a great work is delusional if he or she thinks there aren't places where the translation falls down. Let's hope this translator is many, many decades down the road.
MARTIN: (Laughter) Of course.
ALTER: This translator, who will be more resourceful with the English language than I am, will say, 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 than that.
MARTIN: Robert Alter - his new translation of the Hebrew Bible is available now. Thank you so much for talking with us.
ALTER: It's been a pleasure, really.
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