On Reading Alter's The Five Books of Moses

I have in the past used Alter’s translations not just of the Five Books of Moses, but also of the Psalms and David Story, especially when studying a particular passage.  (Incidentally, I see that there is also a translation of the Wisdom Literature forthcoming).  But, I recently decided to read through his translation of the Five Books of Moses along with the notes.

My first impression is that the volume is at the same time very helpful but will take a lot of getting use to.  The translation I think is helpful because it is in my opinion very literal, but literal in a good way.  Where there are literary devices in Hebrew, Alter attempts to use a comparable literary device in English.

A clear example of this is his translation of tohu vavohu in Genesis one.  There is a rhyming to this.  Alter is unable to conjure a rhyme, but he does use the alliteration in “welter and waste” to indicate that there is something going on here in the Hebrew.  In these kinds of cases he normally make a comment on what is going on.

But alas, the translation’s strength is also what will make it somewhat difficult reading for those of us who grew up speaking English.  Alter also tries to preserve the repetitions in Biblical Hebrew.  When I learned grammar I was taught not to keep using the same word over and over again.  This is not the case in Biblical Hebrew.  Repetition is a prominent feature of the language.

The clearest example of this is in Alter’s translation and probably the most difficult to get past is his treatment of the conjunction vav.  In the majority of cases Alter translates it as “and.”  For those familiar with Biblical Hebrew, you know that’s a lot of “and”s.

On the one hand, I think it’s a fantastic volume to have, especially when comparing English translations if you are dealing with something difficult in the Hebrew text.  On the other hand, I don’t think the translation will gain wide readership.

Comments: