How a Literature Professor Found Himself Translating the Entire Bible From Scratch

‘I kind of fell into it,’ says Robert Alter of his decades-long project of retranslating the Bible, ensuing from a request to write ‘about Genesis or Kafka’

Professor Robert Alter.
Jeremy Snowden / UC Berkeley

When John Wycliffe set out to create the first English translation of the Bible back in the 14th century, he did so with a sense of mission: a belief that he needed to bring the word of God to the masses. Not so Robert Alter, whose new English translation of the Hebrew Bible is being published by W. W. Norton more than 600 years later. “I kind of fell into it,” Alter admits to Haaretz.

Strictly speaking, Alter, 83, the author of a much-anticipated new translation of the Bible, isn’t even a Bible scholar. He holds an undergraduate degree in literature from Columbia University and a PhD in comparative literature from Harvard University. After finishing his doctorate, he returned to Columbia to teach the English novel.

>> In the bigynnyng: A brief history of the English Bible

At Columbia he began writing about modern Hebrew literature, possibly peeving his colleagues in the English department, since he had been hired to work on English literature, he concedes. “But that is what brought me to the attention of the newly founded department of comparative literature at [the University of California,] Berkeley, which was looking for someone to cover modern Hebrew literature,” Alter says. “They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

But beyond his interest in literature, Alter loves the Hebrew language. He began to study it while preparing for his bar mitzvah, including at the Jewish Theological Seminary and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His entry into the study of biblical narrative would begin 15 years into his career, with his sense that he had ideas to share.

“I wrote one article and thought it would be just one, but I got a big response, so I thought, well, I have a few other ideas,” he says. “So I wrote another article, and another article, and pretty soon I had completed a book on biblical narrative.”

“The Art of Biblical Narrative” was a blockbuster that won rave reviews and has been continuously in print since first published in 1981. Alter thought that would be that.

“At that point I said, well, I’m not really a Bible scholar. I got this out of my system and that’s it. I’ll go back to Shai [S.Y.] Agnon and Yehuda Amichai, Nabokov and Faulkner, and so forth,” Alter tells Haaretz. “But then I began to think about a book about biblical poetry. So I did that and found myself sliding down the slippery slope into biblical studies.”

The next station down that slippery slope proved to be the publishing house of W. W. Norton, which wanted to commission Alter to do a critical edition “about something from the Bible or Kafka.”

His response was that one could make a “really nice” critical edition of the Book of Genesis. But there was a snag. “There was,” Alter explained, “something wrong with all the translations.” If he was to take on the project, he would have to do his own translation from scratch.

And that is how his new translation of the Bible began.

Really? All the hundreds of different translations of the Hebrew Bible into English have something wrong? Including the celebrated translation published by the Jewish Publication Society in 1985? In his opinion, yes.

“The language of the Bible is quite beautiful – that is, both the narrative prose and the poetry are finely wrought literary artifacts,” Alter explains. “What I found was that none of the existing English versions, with the limited exception of the King James Version, does any justice to the literary artistry of the Hebrew.” The other translations fail to adequately convey – to the extent that any translation can – the power, subtlety and precision of the Hebrew, he says, and that was what he set out to accomplish.

It wasn’t long into his work that Alter broke dramatically with the conventional translations of Genesis. “The verse 1:16, on the creation of the celestial luminaries, includes the word lememshelet. That is usually translated as an infinitive, ‘to rule over,’ or in modern translations, ‘to govern,’ or, as the Jewish Publication Society terribly translated it, as ‘to dominate’,” says Alter.

“Now first of all, ‘memshelet’ is not an infinitive. It’s not limshol. It’s a verbal noun, and I wanted a verbal noun,” says Alter. He therefore elected to translate the verse as “the great light for dominion of day and the small light for dominion of night and the stars.”

Later, he realized there was “a more compelling reason” for his translation. “The author of the first chapter of Genesis told the story of Creation as a beautiful orderly progression, a kind of choreographed sequence. One of the ways he embodies this vision is in his wonderfully measured cadence. You can hear how it drives it all to a beautiful conclusion,” Alter explains. His belated epiphany was that his translation, “dominion of day,” emulates the Hebrew cadence of lememshelet hayom.

“You can’t always do that, but what you can do is make your English version satisfyingly rhythmic like the Hebrew,” he says. “I think that that makes my English version more satisfying than any of the previous English versions.”

Then there are the issues of sexuality and the body, where modern translations squirm, Alter notes: “They don’t quite know what to do with that. Every Hebrew speaker knows that there are three primary terms for indicating the act of sex in biblical Hebrew: lada’at, lishkav and lavo el [to know, to lie with, and to come to, respectively], which are all kind of dignified, poignant and frank terms. They are neither medical nor bodily, and they are just right for the decorum of biblical Hebrew. If you look at the JPS and the other translations you find either circumlocutions like ‘be intimate with’ or medical terms like ‘to have intercourse with,’ or terms that are way too modern, like ‘to make love.’

“One translation has Potiphar’s wife telling Joseph ‘make love to me’ [Gen. 39:7], which if you have a sensitive ear, sounds like something a modern woman would say to her lover or her husband, but it’s not what an ancient Egyptian aristocratic lady would say to her slave.” Alter translated her words as "Lie with me."

When Alter’s translation of Genesis came out, in 1996, the reviews published were very favorable, and perhaps more importantly, it sold well. He and his publisher decided that he should go on and translate the Pentateuch, the whole Torah. “The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary” was published in 2004 and was equally successful, though in this case there were some unfavorable reviews. Then he turned to translating the Psalms, which Norton published in 2007; then Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, published in 2010; the Former Prophets, Joshua through Kings, released in 2013; and the Song of Songs, Ruth, Esther, Jonah and Daniel, published in 2015.

The title page of a King James Bible, 1611. "Appointed to be read in churches."

Then he addressed his least favorite books of the Bible, including Chronicles – “the first few chapters are just a list of names, there’s nothing much you can do there” – until he had completed the entire Hebrew Bible. That took almost three decades.

“It’s simply monumental,” says Prof. Ilana Pardes, of the Hebrew University’s general and comparative literature department, of Alter’s translation. “It’s hard to believe that one man could achieve such a massive undertaking.

“The translation itself is simply phenomenal because Alter has a great sensitivity to the biblical text, the tools of the biblical text, its nuances, as well as a literary sensitivity that is definitely not possessed by many of those who had translated the Bible into English before him,” says Pardes, who herself writes about the Bible as literature. “Beyond his phenomenal command of biblical Hebrew, Alter is also someone who really knows British and American literature, which means his English has a kind of flexibility afforded by his knowledge of the different registers of the English language. In every respect this project fills one with endless amazement.”

But not everyone is as taken by Alter’s translation as Pardes. Adele Berlin, a prominent biblical scholar from the University of Maryland, says tersely, “Alter’s translation aims to convey the literary style of the Bible and it accomplishes that goal quite successfully.”

Prof. Edward Greenstein of Bar-Ilan University’s Bible department says he is following the example of Job – staying true to his truth – in speaking about how very little he thinks of Alter’s translation. Greenstein admits he isn’t impartial: His own translation of the Book of Job will be published by Yale University Press next fall. But his criticism goes beyond competitive rivalry.

“Alter doesn’t do any original research. He basically takes a few choice commentaries, as long as they are in relatively recent English or in Hebrew, and without himself going into any investigation just translates what seems right to him,” Greenstein says. “The point is his English is elegant, so people like it, but he makes a lot of mistakes. He puts ‘and’ in front of every sentence: When the Hebrew says vayomer, he writes ‘and he said,’ which I think is a mistake. The vav is a part of the verb form, a part of the preterite form, not the conjunction.”

Also, he notes, “Alter claims disappointment with other translations for failing to capture the nuance of the Hebrew poetry. But when he realizes that literal translations won’t be as elegant in English, and the lines won’t be the right length, he compromises,” Greenstein says. “In his translation of Genesis 49:6, he says ‘never sets foot,’ but of course there is no foot or leg there. It reads lo tavo nafshi… which literally says, ‘let my person not come.’”

Or take Genesis 37, where the Midianite traders pass by. “It says [literally] ‘they pulled Joseph out of the pit,’” Greenstein gives another example. “It isn’t clear whether the Midianites extracted him or if the brothers did. There’s a beautiful ambiguity there. He averts the ambiguity by translating ‘Midianite merchantmen’ – which sounds to me like people on a ship, not in a caravan – ‘pulled Joseph up out of the pit.’ So he smoothed it out, but he lost the alternative reading. This is not what I would expect from a serious scholar.”

There are parts where Greenstein concurs that Alter’s translation is an improvement. He likes his translation of the famous opening of Ecclesiastes (which is similar to his own translation): “Merest breath, said Kohelet, merest breath, all is mere breath.” The line is usually translated: “Vanity of vanities, says Kohelet, vanity of vanities.”

Alter isn’t surprised that some biblical scholars are hostile to his work: He is an outsider to biblical studies and has himself been biting about biblical scholarship.

“This in a way started even before my translation. When my book on biblical narrative came out, I thought it would ruffle some feathers in the Bible field because I rather vehemently criticized Bible scholars for spending all their time hunting down Akkadian loanwords and not knowing how to read the story,” he says. “It turned out that the reception in that field was better than I thought. Some people did object to what I was doing, but others actually liked it.”

He postulates that some hostility arises among some Bible scholars because of their connection to people involved in the existing translations by committee, particularly that of the Jewish Publication Society. “I happen to think that that translation is wretched. It has no sense of English style. It doesn’t really respect or try to convey the style of the Hebrew and even their philology is suspect. My notes may be critical of that work and I would suspect that that is why scholars like Greenstein would bristle at what I’ve done.”

Alter’s great achievement, in the mind of biblical scholar Everett Fox, who translated the Schocken Bible, another one-man translation of the Pentateuch, is that unlike other modern one-man translations, such as those of James Moffatt and Eugene Peterson, both of whom undertook to translate the “Old” and New Testaments for Christian publics – he keeps the reader’s focus on the nuances of the Bible’s language.

“His commentary is full of perceptive and helpful observations,” Fox tells Haaretz. “His volumes of translation remind us that despite the lofty language and memorable sonorities of the King James Version, the Hebrew Bible is in fact a very different document, unique in its directness and carefully crafted in its spare language.

“All Bible translation partakes of performance – recall the King James Bible’s title page comment, ‘appointed to be read in churches’ – and like any performance, Alter’s translation will ultimately be judged by its reception. It is true that one could quibble with particular usages, missed opportunities, and moments that fall short of capturing the force and artistry of the Hebrew,” Fox adds. “I myself am not a big fan of his practice of rendering the Bible’s use of the so-called ‘consecutive vav’ in most cases as ‘and.’ But these kinds of objections might be applied to all of us who toil in the field. What is important is that Alter has succeeded in alerting readers to the stunning artistry of the Hebrew Bible, as the vehicle which expresses the great and complex religious world of ancient Israel. In that regard, his now-completed work, in contrast to most other modern English translations, is a major step forward.”

Prof. Yair Zakovitch of the Hebrew University’s Bible department is another who holds Alter’s translation in the highest regard. “You have to appreciate this massive project in which a single person translated the entire Bible, a project that took many years,” Zakovitch explains. “If one compares it, for example, to the common English translation of the Jewish Publication Society, a translation done by a committee of translators, some of whom were good biblical scholars but not literary people, here we have a translation by a man whose main characteristic is that he has great literary sensitivity.

“Alter is a scholar from the field of general literature, who dealt with biblical literature, and wrote two terrific books on the subject, so that he is not only at home in the English language but also in Hebrew. This guarantees a translation with great literary sensitivity, clever perception of the language of the Bible, the spirit of the Bible, and the metaphors of the Bible, which you immediately sense when reading it,” Zakovich says. “Does it have errors? Sure, any work of translation is also interpretation, and I of course do not agree with every single one of his interpretations. But that doesn’t detract one little bit from the great value of his work.”