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the Complete Review
the complete review - translation

The Art of Bible Translation

Robert Alter

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To purchase The Art of Bible Translation

Title: The Art of Bible Translation
Author: Robert Alter
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2019
Length: 129 pages
Availability: The Art of Bible Translation - US
The Art of Bible Translation - UK
The Art of Bible Translation - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : solid overview; interesting, insightful perspective

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 26/11/2018
Wall St.Journal . 15/3/2019 Eric Ormsby

  From the Reviews:
  • "Meticulous and occasionally cranky, Alter provides a refreshing look into the complex work of translating the Bible." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Several decades in the making, Robert Alter finally completed and published his well over three thousand page, three volume The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary (W.W.Norton; Amazon / Amazon.co.uk) at the end of 2018; the Introduction to that monumental work, and the commentary, obviously cover a lot of Alter's thinking -- generally and very specifically -- about translating the Bible, while this stand-alone volume conveniently gathers his thoughts more generally about ... well, 'the art of Bible translation'.
       The volume begins with an 'Autobiographical Prelude', in which Alter explains how he came to translate the Hebrew Bible, followed by the six chapters proper of the study. First is an introductory one on 'The Eclipse of Bible Translation', followed by chapters on specific aspects of translating it (style, word choice, sound/word play, rhythm, and dialogue). As he notes at the conclusion of his introductory prelude, features of style in the Bible are something that does not appear to have been adequately studied or written about; indeed, "no such study really exists, and that in itself is a symptom of the problem that these chapters seek to address".
       English does have a canonical translation -- the King James Version (1611) -- and Alter is an admirer of it, even as he also points out its continued outsize influence, for better and worse. In contrast to many of the modern versions, he finds a literary grandeur there -- effective also because there was a willingness to make compromises and leave some of what was obscure obscure. Part of his issue with more recent translations, with their scholarly approach, is that:

The general commitment, however, to elicit clarity from much that is obscure has the unfortunate consequence for translation of introducing clarifications that compromise the literary integrity of the biblical texts.
       As he notes:
First, the Bible itself does not generally exhibit the clarity to which its modern translators aspire: the Hebrew writers reveled in the proliferation of meanings, the cultivation of ambiguities, the playing of one sense of a term against another; and this richness is erased in the deceptive antiseptic clarity of the modern versions.
       Alter makes clear that his approach is very much a literary one, and that he approached the Bible as a literary work, rather than primarily a religious text. He complains about modern translators' tin literary ears -- noting that they don't seem up to speed with contemporary authors and hence also contemporary literary style(s), coming at the work instead from an academic vantage point and thus also too often dryly academic in their renderings, and certainly not capable or willing to go a more creative and/or poetic route. He is flummoxed by certain tics, such as the strained avoidance of parataxis and repetition, finding these modern translators:
egregiously failing to recognize that repetition is an essential element of the sophisticated art of biblical narrative
       In the chapters focusing on specific aspects of style, Alter gives examples and notes how he (and others) have tried (or failed) to work with these. Something like sound and word play are a great challenge, not to mention puns ("there are many of them in the Bible"), and he explains the extent to which he could incorporate them in his version. Other things, like rhythm or word choice also can be problematic, but he seems to suggest most modern translators just haven't been trying hard enough (or have been misguided in not focusing more on these).
       Alter points to diction as something modern translators have done a very poor job at (in contrast to the King James Version), and usefully hammers home how language basics of syntax, word choice, and rhythm are essential to a translation that is meant to capture the Hebrew original.
       A nice analogy he comes up with is:
Let us suppose that the manuscript of Moby-Dick falls into the hands of a zealous copyeditor. He thinks it's a pretty good story, but that he can improve it, perhaps make its language a bit more dignified. [...] This would manifestly be a case of a conventionally decorous and unimaginative editor disastrously getting in the way of a bold and original writer, which is by and large what happened with modern English renderings of the language of the Bible. After our interventionis editor was finished with Moby-Dick, one would still be able to recognize the outlines of a strange and interesting tale about a monomaniacal one-legged sea captain in pursuit of a great white whale, but the magic of Melville's great novel -- its mesmerizing iambic cadences reminiscent of Shakespeare and Milton, its powerful alliterative constellations, its echoes in rhythm as well as in diction of the King James Bible -- would be gone. This is more or less the general effect of modern translations of the Bible.
       Alter makes a good case for striving to capture the literary qualities of the Bible in translating it -- while also acknowledging the difficulties in doing so with a text that is so ancient (i..e far removed from the contemporary in practically every way). Some readers may feel he underplays the theological aspect; many readers, after all, take this particular text very seriously and are more drawn to the scholarly approach that hunts for exact meaning (though, of course, Alter's argument is also that the Bible is, and is meant to be, a text full of ambiguities -- and that it's better to try to convey that in translation ...).
       All in all, The Art of Bible Translation is a nice succinct look, with many helpful examples, at contemporary Bible-translation (mainly into English, with Alter only briefly looking elsewhere as well) -- and a short annotated bibliography of 'Suggested Readings' does point interested readers to some of the other literature on the subject.
       In highlighting questions of style that are too often overlooked or considered secondary, Alter usefully reminds readers that the Bible is (also) a literary text and can (and arguably should) be treated as such as well. Certainly, there's a lot of food for thought here, both for the more theologically-focused as well as for those whose primary interest is translation.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 March 2019

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The Art of Bible Translation: Reviews: Robert Alter: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American literary scholar Robert Alter was born in 1935

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© 2019-2022 the complete review

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