Found in Translation – By John Hobbins

John Hobbins on Robert Alter’s translation with commentary of Joshua-2 Kings

alter, robert - ancient israel
Robert Alter, Ancient Israel. The Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013, 852pp., $35.00

Robert Alter has been Englishing the Hebrew Bible to wide acclaim for quite some time. A professor of comparative literature and Hebrew at the University of California at Berkeley, Alter is an accomplished reader of Hebrew literature of all periods. His standing as a literary critic made him a natural choice to join Frank Kermode as co-editor of The Literary Guide to the Bible (1987). Pen of Iron: American Prose and The King James Bible (2010) traces the impact of the KJV’s style and lexicon on authors as various as Melville, Hemingway, and Cormac McCarthy.

Alter’s involvement in the methodological debates of biblical scholarship dates to the 1980s — see his The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981), The Art of Biblical Poetry (1985), and The World of Biblical Literature (a collection of mostly earlier essays published in 1992). Should we grasp the art of a text “as is” before we excavate it for literary antecedents or information about the history of the religion of Israel? Should we read the Bible as literature before we read it as theology? Alter’s forcefully argued positions of 30 years ago repay study to this day.

Since the 80s, Alter has gone on a 20-year run of translating and commenting on the Bible. His translation with commentary of Genesis appeared in 1996; of 1-2 Samuel, The David Story, in 1999. The entire Torah was published in 2004 as The Five Books of Moses. The Psalms came out in 2007; The Wisdom Books — Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes — in 2010. Ancient Israel, a translation with commentary of Joshua-2 Kings, appeared in 2013.

Alter the commentator deserves as much attention as Alter the translator. He practices what amounts to alta divulgazione scientifica — highbrow popularization of specialized knowledge. The strengths of his commentary are its wealth of short, pithy formulations, rich descriptions of translation issues, and historical and literary discussions.

The Bible and biblical scholarship need popularizers who are masters of the subjects they treat. Alter is an eloquent popularizer, though not along the lines a Bibelwissenschaftler might have hoped. He is not exactly biblical scholarship’s Carl Sagan — his interests and the traditional interests of biblical scholars overlap only in part. Of this he is acutely aware. He depends on historical-critical commentaries, but he has not written one. He is cognizant of the theories that dominate the academic study of the Bible about how the religion of ancient Israel was textualized, but he leaves the theories largely to one side.

Rather, as Alter points out in The David Story, the purpose of his commentary is to “serve the story,” “highlight its literary force,” and offer “a kind of analytic supplement to the translator’s effort at fashioning an English style that might in some degree answer to the finely wrought Hebrew.”

Alter’s commentary in Ancient Israel succeeds in these intents. Moreover, its points of elaboration make it more engaging than a typical historical-critical commentary by a professional biblical scholar. The reason is simple. As Haim Nachman Bialik famously said, reading the Bible in translation is like kissing a bride through a veil. Alter’s concentration on the physiognomy of the text and on transferring that into English serves to lift a corner of the veil for those who cannot kiss the bride on her lips.

Translation matters. A translation is the only window through which most readers contemplate the biblical text. Bible translation and explanation of translation choices are Alter’s well-chosen means by which to illuminate the story recounted in the Hebrew text for the general reader. Alter would nonetheless have served the story better if he had depended on the best and most pertinent scholarship to a greater extent. Robert G. Boling’s commentary on Joshua is a good resource. Richard Nelson’s commentary on Joshua would have been even better for Alter’s purposes. He makes no references at all to secondary literature in his comment to Judges, and very few indeed in his comment to 1-2 Kings. It would not have hurt his cause if he had interacted with Phyllis Trible on Judges’ texts of terror, with Meir Sternberg’s analysis of Judges 4-5, or Yair Zakovitch’s essay on 1 Kings 21. If Alter had attended to the insights of other competent readers of the text more often, if he had paid more attention to ancient historical contexts and literary difference across the story’s preserved ancient versions, his commentary would have been richer.

Courtois - David and Goliath
David and Goliath by Guillaime Courtois. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

It seems fair to say that as year has been added to year, Alter has distanced himself more and more from the debates and concerns of the guild of academic biblical scholars. If in consequence Alter’s commentary on biblical literature were to have gained in originality and sparkle, it would have been a fair trade. The opposite is the case.

Alter’s 1999 commentary on 1-2 Samuel benefited much from the research that went into it. His text-critical choices are thoughtful. He often advanced the discussion vis-à-vis the 1980s scholarship of Bar-Efrat, Fokkelman, and Polzin, Alter’s natural dialogue partners given their shared commitment to the investigation of the Bible as literature.

But he incorporated his 1999 discussion of 1-2 Samuel into Ancient Israel without updating it to reflect the present status quaestionis. In the case of Joshua, Judges, and 1-2 Kings, the commentary is not even as informed or engaged as his fifteen-year-old discussion of Samuel. The enormous amount of text-critical work on these books over the past several decades receives no attention from Alter. This is a disappointment. Engagement would have enriched his commentary to no small degree.

There is no doubt about the value of non-Masoretic ancient witnesses to biblical literature, not just at the level of small differences in wording but also in terms of grand literary strategies and fine-tunings of tradition of undeniable literary sophistication. Emmanuel Tov’s introduction to the field, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, mentions numerous examples. A subset is treated in a recent work of popularization by T.M. Law, When God Spoke Greek. Alter had ready access to this material but chose to ignore it, an unfortunate decision, since he does sometimes excel at the meticulous comparison required to evaluate divergent text editions. Its scarcity here is thus all the more regrettable.

The point is easily demonstrated.

Basing their analysis on the Masoretic text, some scholars understand the ending of Joshua (24:29-31) — with its final legitimation of Joshua and three burial accounts, those of Joshua, Joseph, and Eleazar, along with the narrative of fulfillment of the land promise in the main body of the book — as evidence that the book functions as the literary capstone of Genesis-Deuteronomy. The Torah is in fact a literary torso.

Alter’s commentary on the same passage is bold in its own way. He points out that the ending of the book of Joshua preserved in the Septuagint — which casts a shadow over the preceding conquest and anticipates the reversals recounted in Judges (9:55; 2:13; 3:7,12,14) — coheres better with Joshua’s proximate concluding remarks (Joshua 24:19-20) than the narrative conclusion of the book of Joshua preserved in the Masoretic text. For Alter, the sense of an ending, the coming to terms with the past at the end of the edition of the book of Joshua preserved in the Septuagint, is superior to the same in Joshua as found in the Masoretic text. The ending preserved in the Septuagint integrates the book of Joshua into the structure of the Primary History (Genesis-2 Kings) in a compelling way.

The tragedy of Joshua’s conquest, in terms of the larger point of the Primary History, an etiology of the rise and fall of ancient Israel, was not its brutality but its ultimate reversal. The repeated military catastrophes to which Israel is subject are due to Israel’s proclivity to deprive herself of her original charism, faithfulness to her God, and said God’s peculiar instructions. Domination by third parties is the inevitable result of Israel’s assimilation to the ways and means of its neighbors. A leitmotif of the Primary History, this same theme recurs at the book of Joshua’s conclusion preserved in the Septuagint, right where one might have expected it.

W.W. Norton & Company is the publisher of Alter’s volumes of Bible translation and commentary. We expect a lot from the publisher in matters of editorial detail: who has not used the Norton Critical Editions of classics to great benefit? If introductions, indexes, and maps bore you, skip to the next section. The following comments focus on matters of interest to “slow” rather than “fast” readers. In matters of editorial craftsmanship, Ancient Israel is not as successful as The David Story, though Norton published both. The difference in fact is gaping.

The David Story, the translation with commentary of which is incorporated without change in Ancient Israel, contains an index that serves as a guide to Alter’s interaction with the scholarship of the 80s. Alter’s text-critical reviews of alternatives in the Masoretic text, Qumran manuscripts, and the Septuagint are also indexed. Ancient Israel is without indices, without a bibliography, and without a section titled “For Further Reading.” Yet these are helps which assist specialist and non-specialist alike.

The David Story has a nice map titled, “Principal Sites of the David Story.” Slightly reworked and relabeled — improperly — “Principal Sites in Ancient Israel,” it appears in the volume under review, as if it could serve as the go-to map for the entire volume. It cannot.

Ancient Israel also lacks an introduction to Alter’s method and rationale of translation. Nor is the volume situated within the larger corpus of Alter’s translation project. In its finely pitched “To the Reader,” The David Story took pains to introduce “The Text,” “The Translation,” and “The Commentary.” The reader of Ancient Israel is not so fortunate. No introduction to these aspects of the volume is offered. It is as if we were offered a palace of splendor, but no longer pass through entrance after entrance to access the throne room. Our ability to appreciate the king of glory is thereby lessened.

The fabulous “Cast of Characters” found in The David Story is missing in Ancient Israel. There are roughly 60 individuals in 1-2 Samuel about whom one must know a thing or two in order to make sense of the narrative. The chief wives and sons of David, not to mention his nephews by his sister Zeruiah: what parts do they play in the unfolding story? The three generations of Eli: can you describe them? The members of the house of Saul and the house of David who drive the narrative to one tragic conclusion after another: who are they?

An account of “ancient Israel” is ill served by a lack of attention to its cast of characters. The smallness of their number in a particular textual unit is in proportion to the paradigmatic weight of the characters in question. Joshua 1-12’s cast of four characters, Joshua, Rahab, the Gibeonites, and Achan, all represent ideal types. The opposite is the case with the majority of the cast of 60 in 1-2 Samuel. They simply are who they are. The contrast is striking, which makes the omission of a “Cast of Characters” in the new volume all the more regrettable.

A work of translation is the end-result of a series of compromises — to put it more colorfully, the result of a series of pacts with the devil. Despite its faults, Alter’s translation always repays careful study. Always.

His does not stand apart from other translations on the most basic level. It always requires checking against the Hebrew and against itself. Let’s take an example. If you know Hebrew, now is the time to crack open your Tanakh.

Joshua 1:3-9 is chock full of themes and phraseology that first occur in Deuteronomy. As the examples below demonstrate, Alter doesn’t translate identical expressions in identical contexts in identical fashion across Deuteronomy and Joshua. Recurrence is one of the chief tropes authors of literature in all times and places deploy. A lack of recurrence in a translation is a significant weakness.

There are also instances in which Alter’s translation is simply defective or, by my lights at least, unsuccessful in capturing key nuances of the Hebrew. In the following, I supplement the translation with text in brackets where Alter’s translation is defective. I italicize examples of inconsistency. I bold and italicize translation loci that deserve another look.

Alter (Hobbins)

Alter tends to translate word-for-word and is not afraid to move away from hallowed translation equivalents that have long gone mute. The end result is sometimes brilliant and sometimes odd.

To my taste, Alter’s translation choices with respect to the language of oath and promise mark an improvement over traditional translation choices. At this point in the history of the English language, “vow” seems a better one-word translation choice for the act of making an oath than “swear.” (Alter in fact waffles here.) The same applies to “charge” in the sense of a charge to keep, as opposed to “command.”

Features of Alter’s translation deserve objection. The semantic weight of the explicit pronoun in Hebrew — a marked feature that adds emphasis — is left untranslated in Joshua 1:6 (“you will make … inherit”). In Deuteronomy 31:7-8 on which the Joshua passage depends, a strategic explicit pronoun is thrice left untranslated (“you will come”; “you will grant … in estate”; “He will be”). Below I have offered a translation of these passages where I have tried to capture the nuance of the Hebrew.

In Deuteronomy 31:7, the Masoretic consonants and vocalization suggest the awkward and otherwise unattested idiom “come with.” Some translations slightly emend and revocalize the text to yield the preferable reading “bring” + direct object marker (REB; the newly revised NAB; cf. Deuteronomy 31:23). Yet Alter retains the improbable Masoretic reading.

In Deuteronomy 31:8, Alter fails to translate a phrase. I supply it in brackets.

In Deuteronomy 11:24/Joshua 1:5, “No man will withstand you” or “thwart you” would be clearer than “stand up before” or “against you.”

In Deuteronomy 31:7/Joshua 1:6 neither “grant in estate” nor “make inherit” fit the context particularly well, though these meanings are associated with the Piel form of this verbal root (cf. Joshua 14:1). Here we have the Hiphil, often meaning “give possession of,” as here.

“Let go of you” is Alter’s attempt to capture the sense of an idiom in Deuteronomy 31:8/Joshua 1:5. “Drop you” in the sense of “abandon you” is the meaning of the Hiphil of the underlying verb + object. But the verb does not retain its literal sense in the usage under review, any more than “beat” is literal in “I beat him at basketball.”

In Joshua 1:9, on Alter’s first principles, one might have expected “take fright” instead of the awkward compound “be terror-stricken.” One of the most commendable features of Alter’s translation is his attempt to translate words and idioms of a particular size in Hebrew with words and idioms of the same size in English. In this instance, he has not applied his own principles.

My biggest beef with Alter’s translation is its treatment of Hebrew syntax. More often than not, it makes no sense to translate the syntax of the source text woodenly, while otherwise remaining oblivious to the structuring it accomplishes. Yet Alter does that very thing. Here is my attempt to translate the syntax in the examples at hand.

Be strong and be stout! It is you who will bring this people to the land the Lord vowed to their fathers to give to them; it is you who will give them possession of it. And it is the Lord who marches before you; it is He who will be with you. He will not let you fail and he will not leave you; you must not fear and you must not tremble. (Deuteronomy 31:7-8)

No man will withstand you all the days of your life; as I was with Moses, I will be with you. I will not let you fail and I will not leave you. Be strong and be stout! It is you who will give this people possession of the land I vowed to their fathers to give to them. … Have I not charged you, ‘Be strong and be stout!’? Do not take fright and do not tremble! (Joshua 1:5-6, 9)

In my translation of Joshua, the structuring force of the explicit pronouns is retained in translation: “It is you,” “it is the Lord,” “it is He.” In Alter’s translation, it is not.

In Alter’s translation, a syntactic operator in the Hebrew is consistently glossed by “for.” Count the number of times Alter uses “for” as a connector of clauses. Too often to count! But that is Biblish. We don’t express ourselves that way. One-to-one translation with “for” gives the text a heaviness it does not have in the Hebrew. The syntactic operator is often better expressed by punctuation or left implicit in English. Not “Be strong and stalwart, for you will make …” Rather, “Be strong and be stout! It is you who will give … .”

I do not want to give a wrong impression. Alter’s translation is in a class by itself in case after case.

Second Samuel 6:20-23 is the conclusion of a delicious pericope that spans all of chapter 6. Alter’s rendition of the chapter is superior in many specifics. “As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David,” a neglected Michal, the younger daughter of Saul who had become David’s wife and once saved him from her father, “looked out through the window and saw King David leaping and whirling before Lord” (2 Samuel 6:16). In fact, “David was whirling with all his might before the Lord, girt in a linen ephod” (6:14) — the equivalent, in terms of coverage, of a Scottish kilt. Michal’s scornful reaction and David’s counter-reaction are justly famous.

“And Michal daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and she said, “How honored today is the king of Israel who has exposed himself today to the eyes of his servants’ slavegirls as some scurrilous fellow would expose himself!”

Alter’s translation is elegant except for “scurrilous fellow,” a phrase that falls flat on Michal’s lips. For anyone who has had to watch Disney flicks with his children the past 20 years, the natural translation is: “as some street rat might expose himself.”

David’s retort is fabulous. Virtually every English translation messes with the source text’s syntax and information structure. Doing so fails to communicate its use of juxtaposition as opposed to subordination and the semantic freight of its repeated fronting of specific elements. Alter, on the other hand, hews to the syntax and information structure of the source text in this instance to remarkable effect.

“And David said to Michal,

‘Before the Lord, Who chose me instead of your father and instead of all his house, to appoint me prince over the Lord’s people, over Israel, I will play before the Lord!

And I will be dishonored still more than this and will be debased in my own eyes!

But with the slavegirls about whom you spoke, with them let me be honored!’”

The paragraphing here is mine. The wording of the underlying Hebrew is literary genius. The force of its diction rebounds across the entire story of David. Alter succeeds in capturing its force better than other existing English translations.

It is a pleasure to ponder the Primary History of ancient Israel from Genesis to Second Kings. Alter’s translation with commentary on Joshua-2 Kings is a wide-open window onto a great part of that narrative, particularly its Masoretic edition. It is best used in conjunction with Alter’s The Five Books of Moses and The David Story (for what was left out of Ancient Israel).

At the same time, specialists and non-specialists alike will check Alter’s translation and commentary against other translations and standard reference works. The Jewish Study Bible (2004); The HarperCollins Study Bible Revised Edition (2006); and The Catholic Study Bible Revised Edition (2011) contain helpful notes and essays and three flowing translations prepared by excellent teams of scholars — the JPS Tanakh, NRSV, and NABRE, respectively.

To be sure, the only way to get bare-naked with the Bible is to learn Hebrew and Greek. For the fully-clothed, a book like Ancient Israel is not exactly the next best thing. But it is an engaging step in the right direction.

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