Robert Alter on Why Modern Bible Translations Should Stay in the King James Stream

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It’s hard to think of another biblical scholar on the planet quite like Robert Alter. He earned a doctorate in English literature from Harvard in 1962, but Hebrew language study was central to his Jewish identity, and he was fluent in Hebrew by the age of 20. In 1967 he went to UC Berkeley, where he has been ever since, serving as professor of Hebrew and comparative literature (now, at the age of 84, emeritus).

Until the 1980s, most of his work was on Western literary novels. But then, he explains, “I wrote a feisty piece complaining that Bible scholars spent all their time hunting down Akkadian loanwords hidden in the text, but they didn’t know how to read a story. They study all kinds of useful things. Historical facts, archaeology—they pick up a couple of ancient languages, Akkadian and Egyptian. But one thing that is never studied is style.”

In 1981, he wrote a revolutionary book entitled The Art of Biblical Narrative, bringing the tools of literary analysis he had honed working on literary novels to uncover the literary intentions and designs—the artistic genius—of the biblical text.

In 1996, Alter published a translation of the book of Genesis, with commentary. His translation work culminated in 2018 with the publication of his three-volume, magnum opus: The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary.

His most recent book is The Art of Bible Translation, in which he reflects on the his understanding of how to do translation well, including chapters on word play, rhythm, syntax, and the like.

One of his arguments is that modern translations have made a misstep by not remaining within the historic stream of the King James Bible tradition.

Here is his explanation of what he means.


The King James Bible . . . remains an imposing achievement, yet . . . it has its drawbacks.

But why have English translators in our age fallen so steeply from this grand precedent?

To begin with, I would note a pronounced tendency among them to throw out the beautiful baby with the bathwater. Those companies convened by King James, their modern successors assume, got it altogether wrong.

We must now

start from scratch,

swerve away sharply from all that they did,

treat biblical syntax in an informed way that can speak to modern readers,

represent biblical terms with what we understand to be philological precision according to their shifting contexts,

and

make things entirely clear for people who want to know what the Bible is really saying.

This impulse is misconceived on two grounds.

First, the Bible itself does not generally exhibit the clarity to which its modern translators aspire: the Hebrew writers reveled in

the proliferation of meanings,

the cultivation of ambiguities,

the playing of one sense of a term against another,

and this richness is erased in the deceptive antiseptic clarity of the modern versions.

The second issue is the historical momentum of the commanding precedent created by the King James Bible. It has been such a powerful presence for four centuries of English readers that a translation of the Bible that proceeds as though it simply didn’t exist becomes hard to read as a version of the Bible that has any literary standing.

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