The Art of Bible Translation

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Robert Alter
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , March
     152 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


A scholar of the European novel who turned his attention to the Hebrew Bible mid-career, Robert Alter remains one of the most well-known early proponents of literary criticism applied to the Bible. After penning The Art Of Biblical Narrative and The Art of Biblical Poetry in the 1980s, Alter turned his efforts to translating the Bible in accordance with his perceptions of its subtleties of literary form. After just more than two decades, Alter has completed his work (The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, W. W. Norton, 2018). Coinciding with his translation, this brief book, The Art of Bible Translation, explains his translation philosophy and some of the nuances which he attempted to render in English.

Alter aims for a Hebraicizing translation that conveys some of the feel and tone of the Bible’s original language: “From the beginning my translation was impelled by a deep conviction that the literary style of the Bible in both the prose narratives and the poetry is not some sort of aesthetic embellishment of the “message” of Scripture but the vital medium through which the biblical vision of God, human nature, history, politics, society, and moral value is conveyed” (xiii).

In short, the content of the Bible is inseparable from the form of biblical languages, just as a painting’s meaning is found both in its subject matter and its formal aspects—its color, texture, line, composition, and so forth. Alter’s chief antagonist is thus the philosophy of “dynamic equivalence” (e.g. Eugene Nida), which holds that the message of the Bible should be rendered in the most colloquial, easily understood idiom of the target language.

Against almost all modern English translations, both Jewish and Christian, Alter has two near-allies. The first is the King James Version, which he praises for its “inspired literalism” (3) and elevated idiom (32). The second is Everett Fox, whose English translations of the Torah (1997) and the Former Prophets (2014) attempt to convey the style and idiom of the Hebrew. Though Alter and Fox agree on the importance of conveying Hebraic form in the English Bible whenever possible, they frequently disagree on the specifics of how to do so. Though Alter does not state this clearly, it seems no coincidence that dynamic equivalence was created by Christians translating the Bible for global evangelism, while Fox and Alter draw from the Jewish tradition’s deep connection to the Hebrew language. Thus, the New Testament and its translation are outside of Alter’s purview in this book.

In his typically sparse citation style, Alter’s chapters review the matters of syntax (chapter 2), word choice (chapter 3), wordplay and soundplay (chapter 4), rhythm (chapter 5), and dialogue (chapter 6), which Alter alleges most translations today do not even attempt to render. Alter draws on his knowledge of Hebrew, such as when he writes of the significance of rhythm in both poetry as well as prose (91), features which he accuses other translators of overlooking. Elsewhere he relies on his familiarity with English literature, as, for example, when he seeks to “create an appropriate kind of diction” in an English Bible (52), for both the narrators and speaking characters.

Translators, Alter argues, must always compromise. He triumphs over his renderings that carry Hebrew nuances into English idiom; yet he confesses that he laments passages that he could not convey to his satisfaction. For example, in Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard (5:1–7), the prophet’s speech denouncing Israel’s failure to live up to God’s standard of justice relies on a rhetorically powerful pun. God hopes for justice (mishpat) and righteousness (tsedaqah), but Israel delivers a blight (mispaḥ) and a scream (tse’aqah). Alter deploys the English word-pairs “justice-jaundice” and “righteousness-wretchedness” to convey this wordplay (78). In doing so, he is forced to violate another one of his guiding principles: a preference for short Anglo-Saxon words over lengthy Latinate words in keeping with the concision and rhythm of Hebrew. Alter laments: “all translations are imperfect things” (102). Yet one can see he has tried.

On two points, however, I wish Alter had shown more nuance or expanded his case. I completely agree that English translations should attempt to convey the ambiguity and concision of parataxis, the biblical prose style of minimizing syntactic connectors between clauses and sentences. In paratactic narrative, the relations between events and characters are inferred or interpreted between the lines by the reader. Many biblical translators add such clausal connectors—“so that,” “just as this happened,” and so forth—to clarify the story. Alter says this does injustice to the nuance of the Hebrew and makes a wordy and clunky tale. I notice, however, that one way Alter avoids adding words is through use of punctuation. Yet he does not make this explicit. For Fox, creative use of punctuation and line breaks are a known hammer in his translator’s tool-belt; I would have liked Alter to elaborate on this more.

More importantly, at times, I wonder if Alter overstates his case. In crafting his opening argument for why his translation is necessary, Alter proclaims that “it is still inconceivable for a course to be offered in prose style or narrative conventions in any of the major institutions where there are programs in Hebrew Bible” (12). I attend such an institution; I have taken one such seminar and am slotted to take another next semester. On the same note, the biblical translations he criticizes, such as the NRSV (1989), the Jerusalem Bible (1966), and the JPS Tanakh (1985), do not reflect biblical study in our own time. In both his critiques, Alter perhaps underestimates the influence his own work has had on the field.

Certainly this book is a gem, worth spending time with for anyone interested in the Bible, Hebrew language, or the specific translation challenges of the Bible. As with his other books, Alter brings the reader into the Hebraic world of the text and keeps abstruse translation theory to a minimum, crafting an enjoyable tome.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jonathan Homrighausen is a doctoral student in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Duke University.


Date of Review: 
March 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert Alter is Professor of the Graduate School and Emeritus Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.