A new translation of the Bible.

I read in this CNN article today that a scholar named Robert Alter has brought forth his own translation of the Tanach (the five books of Moses):

His argument is that past translations either get the Hebrew wrong or mangle the Bible’s syntax or lose the power of the work or even are so up-to-the-minute that they become too conversational to be accurate or interesting.

He was also determined to get back into the book every single “and” that other translators left out, saying that part of book’s majesty is built by its use of repetitions.

The 1611 King James version, perhaps the most famous book ever written by a committee, may reach poetic heights, but Alter says it is fraught with “embarrassing inaccuracies” and often substitutes Greek or Latin words and Renaissance English tonalities and rhythms for biblical ones.

Why do I find this fascinating?  I was raised in Conservative Judaism and lived in Israel, where I studied the Tanach in Hebrew and developed my own feeling for what the Hebrew meant.  I’m very curious to see how he translates things.  Even though I don’t take the Bible as truth, I hold it to be a historical work of art.  It opens a window on a lot of ancient history in that it reflects the life and beliefs of the people who wrote it.  So I’ll be very interested not only to read this new translation, but to see how it’s received among the people who regard it to varying degrees as “God’s word.”  Who’s going to decide how to translate God’s word?

16 thoughts on “A new translation of the Bible.

  1. Translate?

    The original Ivrit works just fine.  Added, all the play-on-words, etc make translations—well—inferior.

    I look at the various scrolls as ancient, ancient composites of oral traditions.  Much of tanach is meant to be spoken, not read.

    One day, within our grandchildrens’ lifetimes, language will be an easy thing to learn.  When that era arrives the stories in ivrity (oral traditions) that we’ve managed to save over the millenia will gain a new life and a contemporary purpose.

    The books will be “opened.”


  2. Have any of you seen the original ancient Braille version of the Old Testament?…bigbro

  3. There’s a good review of Alter’s translation, by John Updike, in the Nov. 1 New Yorker.  Updike says, basically (anyone interested should read the article-it’s fascinating), that although intriguing, the new translation bogs down in footnotes and sacrifices poetry to (Alter’s idea of) literalism.

    Compare, for instance (I hope no one gets copyrighteous on my ass) the opening verses of Genesis.  First Alter’s version:

      When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, “Let there be light.”  And there was light.

    Now King James (my personal favorite, and Darwin’s):

      In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
      And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.  And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
      And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

    As Updike says, Alter is more concise, but his syntax goes off the rails.  I for one prefer the work of the committee (but being and atheist, I guess my vote doesn’t count).

    Translation in general is deep waters.  Any sufficiently deep consideration of the issues around translation forces one to confront the meaning of meaning, and the meaning of being human.

    Rob Adams- language will be an easy thing to learn in our grandchildren’s lifetimes?  Whatever makes you think that?  I’d be willing to make a rather large bet that my grandchildren will never learn Ivrit, but I guess (I hope) I won’t be around to collect…

    Bigbro- no, but I heard the ASL one.

  4. I personally find the Biblical translation done by Megadeath a lot easier to follow….bigbro

  5. Interesting that Alter leaves out “face” of the deep, as the Hebrew clearly says “al p’nai t’hom.”  (Please forgive my transliteration, Rob.)

    But being an INTP, I like to nitpick with language.  I’ll probably enjoy reading the footnotes for that very reason.

  6. Thanks for the learned commentary, GM.  I’m surprised Alter wasn’t more literal here- maybe Updike erred in ascribing an attempt at “absolute fidelity” to him.  Alter himself said his translation aimed for an English “stylized, decorous, dignified, and readily identifiable by its audiences as a language of learning”, with a “slight strangeness”.

    You enjoy footnotes?  Here’s one, from Deuteronomy:

    “The second of the two Hebrew words here, we’oyveinu pelilim, is a notorious crux, evidently already a source of puzzlement to the ancient Greek translators….If one notes that pelilim rhymes richly with ‘elilim, “idols,” and if one recalls this poet’s verbal inventiveness in coining designations for the nonentity of the pagan gods, “would-be gods” is a distinct possibility.”

  7. Paul the letter writer:

    There is a theory that Paul the letter writer who was struck blind off his ass had a frontal lobe epileptic seizure. While there is also a theory that lightning did the trick…..fred call aka bigbro

    Was Saint Paul struck blind and converted by lightning?

    Bullock JD.

    Department of Ophthalmology, Wright State University, School of Medicine, Dayton, Ohio.

    In the Bible, St. Paul (Saul of Tarsus) was struck blind by a light from heaven. Three days later his vision was restored by a “laying on of hands.” The circumstances surrounding his blindness represent an important episode in the history of religion. Numerous theories have been proposed to account for this event which has been the subject of interest of theologians, philosophers, artists, and physicians. A lightning strike could explain all of the features of this episode. The proposal of a theory which correlates St. Paul’s symptoms with contemporary scientific knowledge makes his recovery of vision and conversion no less miraculous or religiously significant since the theory demonstrates that, indeed, the event may have occurred exactly as stated in the Bible.

  8. Why will our grandchildren be able to grasp languages far easier than ourselves?  They’ll be better, improved versions of our present selves.

    Yes.  Yes.  Yes.  Go ahead.  Call my expectations too hight and too fast.  Or, one who has watched Gattaca too much (like, once), or was read BraveNewWorld before sleep as an (alpha, thank you) infant(i wasn’t).

    Imagine a day when the teenagers at the family party are not only healthier, but smarter, more creative, and better looking than the generations before them—and in extremely noticeable ways and mannerisms.

    That day is very, very near.
    (Remember this post in 30 years, if you’re capable.)


    One day people will merely touch a computer to interface with it, remembering keyboards like we butter churns.  And men will eat standing up.

  9. One of the problems with translations is they tend to become transliterations. Translating the words from one culture to another seldom catches the real meaning as seen from the world-view of the culture. I was in Brasil in the early 60’s when the military took over the country from Juao Gullart. It was a total revolution with not one shot fired, not one casuality. They had the right show of power at the right time at the right place and it was all over. The Potuguese word for this was “jaito”. You can’t translate that into English – if there’s a revolution, someone will die. But then again, since the Jews seem to use their scripture more as a starting point for an argument, perhaps a new translation would be just the thing for modern Jews. grin

  10. rob adams-  Ok, I’ll bite.  Whatever makes you think that our grandchildren will be better, improved versions of our present selves?  Gattaca and Brave New World don’t have much predictive power, if you ask me, any more than the Popular Science magazines of the fifties, that had us flying personal aircraft from place to place in gleaming cities under domes of crystal by 2000…

    leguru- for a fascinating look at the problems, and the joys, of translation, check out “Le Ton Beau de Marot” by Douglas Hofstadter.  He talks about exactly this issue, that translations necessarily become transliterations, but says they can still be worthwhile when well done, literature in their own right.  The book is based around a 16th century French poem by Marot and its translation into modern French, English, Russian, Rap… wonderful stuff.

  11. I’ve always found bible translations to be an interesting thing…the “NRSV” version is possibly the “best” modern english translation, if best is taken to mean accurate translation of the original language to modern language without bias. However, it’s no “fun” to read…it feels like an academic text.

    The NIV is also a very good translation, but tends to be a bit conservative in it’s translations for my tastes.

    But there are some who swear that the KJV is the “true” translation, and the only one that ‘mericans should be using. I won’t try to explain this…there is a (suprisingly) calm article at http://www.chick.com/information/bibleversions.

    I will say that the KJV is the most fun (i.e. literary) version to read.

    (BTW, for those of you who belive Christianity is evil, the chick tract site provides huge amounts of ammunition for you; as a thinking Christian, this site keeps me up nights.)

    I think it depends on what you are reading it for…


  12. JethricOne- I used to find the ChickTracts entertaining, and we were once assigned one to refute in an upper division Paleo class, but I guess I’m chicked out- they are so pathetic, they’re depressing.  I do collect them in German, however, to send to my friends in California who are learning the language and are otherwise unlikely to come across words such as “righteous”…

  13. Hostettler mounting campaign to change the name of Interstate 69

            By August Wayne, THG News

    John Hostettler, the Congressman representing the 8th district of Indiana, has been convinced by local religious groups to introduce legislation in the House that would change the name of an Interstate 69 extension to a more moral sounding number.

    There are plans to extend the interstate from Indianapolis through southwestern Indiana all the way through Texas into Mexico in the coming years.  While most believe this highway will be good for the state’s economy, religious conservatives believe “I-69

  14. “The hermit turns his back on the world and will have no truck with it. But one can do more than that; one can try to re-create the world, to build up in its stead another world in which its most unbearable features are eliminated and replaced by others that are in conformity with one‘s own wishes. But whoever, in desperate defiance, sets out upon this path to happi­ness will as a rule attain nothing. Reality is too strong for him. He becomes a madman, who for the most part finds no one to help him in carrying through his delusion. It is asserted, how­ever, that each one of us behaves in some respect like a paranoiac, corrects some aspect of the world which is unbear­able to him by the construction of a wish and introduces this delusion into reality. A special importance attaches to the case in which this attempt to procure a certainty of happiness and a protection against suffering through a delusional remolding of reality is made by a considerable number of people in common. The religions of mankind must be classed among the mass­-delusions of this kind. No one, needless to say, who shares a delusion ever recognizes it as such

  15. (umm…  I’ll leave the “I-69” non-sequitor to others.  It’s a pretty boring subject, in my oppinion.)

    Transliterations bore me to death.  I think, in a generation or two, they’ll be a thing of the past.  In the past not only because our children’s children will be better thinkers, but also the media will allow for many sorts of fonts (like now, but more easily) and the inclusion of sound with thoughted-text.

    Why will ignorance of language be a thing of history in a few hardy generations?
    [ The medium will be richer… ]
    In a world where video, sound and text (thought) will reach our brains directly, without the need of a medium language not only becomes markedly easier to learn, but a lot easier to witness.  No more archiac transliterations, thank G-d (and also the likes of Microsoft).

    [ Is Gattaca prescient ? ]
    You bet.  Genetic engineering is just around the corner.  Never mind society’s fears of manipulating the human gene pool, or genome.  Do any of you, seriously, think the People Republic of China, or even Russia, would give up the chance for stronger soldiers, or those immune to smallpox or sundry toxins?  Of course not.

    The day is coming when the kids in the mall are not only better looking than us, but noticeably smarter and jam packed with tons of improvements of our older version selves.

    Call me a pop-sci loon.
    But, as i said, remember this post in 30 years, if you’re still capable.


  16. As Jesus said to Pilate, when asked if He was a pop-sci loon…

    The kids in the mall are noticeably better looking that me, because I’m old and decrepit- but they aren’t any smarter than I was at that age.

    In a world where video, sound and text (thought) will reach our brains directly, without the need of a medium language not only becomes markedly easier to learn, but a lot easier to witness

    You need to do some serious reading of actual scientific literature about neurology and just how far we are from this kind of interfacing.  Possible in principle- sure.  In my grandchildren’s lifetime?  Doubt it.

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