Robert Alter's Translations

In case you missed it, I recently added a video lecture to the site featuring Robert Alter. He has written a considerable number of popular level books on reading the Bible as literature and is considered by many to be the premier scholar in this area. He is probably best know for his books the Art of Biblical Narrative and the Art of Biblical Poetry; however, his translations and commentaries have been growing in popularity.

I wanted to comment briefly on his translations because people sometimes ask me about which translations are best to read. I always recommend to people comparing translations if they are studying, but choosing one translation if they are simply reading.  Alter’s translations would be good choices for both of these occasions and I will point out one feature to explain why.

When translating Hebrew into English much of the poetic art is lost.  For instance, things like alliteration, words beginning with the same sound, and assonance, roughly the repetition of vowel sounds in words that are near to one another, often drop out.  In his translations, Alter attempts to render words in English in such a way that readers are clued in to the fact that these types of things are happening in the Hebrew.  As an example, in Genesis 1.2 the words often translated something like “formless and void” contain assonance; therefore, Alter translates them as “welter and waste” (which is really alliteration, but it still serves to clue the reader in to the fact that something is going on in a literary sense).  This in itself makes his translations well worth having.

If all of this sounds interesting, be sure to check out the video that I link to above.  Or, if you are simply interested in reading more check out these titles: