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Getting the Bible back to its roots

Reuters, USA
Nov. 18, 2004
www.cnn.com

ReligionNewsBlog.com • Friday November 19, 2004

New Pentateuch translation from original Hebrew meanings

LOS ANGELES, California (Reuters) — It is considered the most magisterial opening in English literature: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”

But now a major revisionist translation of the Bible would have the cosmos begin with a more conversational clause: “When God began to create heaven and earth … “

And where the King James translation of Genesis had the earth begin “without form and void,” the new translation of the Hebrew Bible says that the earth was “welter and waste.”

Biblical scholar Robert Alter’s major new English translation of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible — alternately called the Five Books of Moses, the Torah or Pentateuch — has some critics manning the barricades while others are applauding his efforts to return the work to its original Hebrew meanings and majestic repetitions.

A professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Alter says since he has never found a biblical translation that he liked or could recommend to his comparative literature students, he decided to do his own, starting with the story of Genesis and ending with the death 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.

‘Concrete images’

“Reading through this book is a wearying, disorientating and at times revelatory experience,” said noted author John Updike in a review of Alter’s 1,063-page translation of “The Five Books of Moses” (Norton) for the New Yorker magazine in which he complained about page after page of footnotes that often explain obscure points.

Updike also took exception to some of the translation. For example, he is a lot happier with the King James version in which “the spirit of God moved upon the face of the water” than with Alter’s version of the same sentence: “God’s breath hovering over the waters.”

Biblical scholar Robert Alter decided to translate the Torah himself after he couldn’t find a translation that satisfied him.

But Alter, in an interview with Reuters, said he used the phrase “God’s breath” rather than the “spirit of God” for a simple reason: “The Hebrew word means life’s breath, a constant moving of oxygen in and out. The body-soul split of early Christianity is something not imagined in the early Hebrew.”

Alter said his task was to find the English equivalents of the Hebrew. “Hebrew is filled with concrete images. For example, the King James translates the famous lines of Ecclesiastes as ‘vanity of vanities … all is vanity’ but the closest word in English to the Hebrew is ‘vapor, vapor, all is mere vapor.’ “

Washington Post reviewer Michael Dirda said that some Bible translations are so simple-minded that Adam and Eve might as well be called Dick and Jane, but “Alter will have nothing to do with (such) dumbing-down.

“This makes reading his version of the Torah … thrilling and constantly illuminating: After the still, small voices of so many tepid modern translations, here is a whirlwind.”

Alter said he was especially pleased with restoring all the “ands” back in a passage where Abraham’s servant is sent on a mission to find a wife for Isaac and encounters Rebekah:

“And she came down to the spring and filled her jug and came back up. And the servant ran toward her and said, ‘Pray, let me sip a bit of water from your jug.’ And she said, ‘Drink, my lord,’ and she hurried and tipped down her jug on one hand and let him drink. And she let him drink his fill and said, ‘For your camels, too, I shall draw water until they drink their fill.’ And she hurried and emptied her jug into the trough, and she ran again to the well to draw water and drew water for all his camels.”

The 15 “ands” manage to build a picture of what Alter calls “the closest anyone comes in Genesis to a feat of ‘Homeric’ heroism” — especially when one considers how much a camel drinks.

Alter added: “I began this translation as a kind of dubious experiment asking, ‘Is there some (method) of getting Biblical Hebrew into modern English in a way that would be readable but not be too contemporary sounding and reproduce many of the stylish effects of the Hebrew?’ “

Some critics think he found the way. And how.

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