LOS ANGELES (Reuters) — It’s the most magisterial opening sentence in English literature: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”
But now a major revisionist translation of the Bible would have the cosmos begin with a more conversational clause: “When God began to create heaven and earth ….”
And where the King James translation of Genesis has the earth beginning “without form, and void,” the new translation of the Hebrew Bible says that the earth was “welter and waste.”
Biblical scholar Robert Alter’s major new English translation of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible — alternately called the Five Books of Moses, the Torah or Pentateuch — has drawn critics to the barricades and others to applaud returning the work to its original Hebrew meanings and majestic repetitions.
Mr. Alter, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, says since he has never found a biblical translation that he likes or would recommend to his comparative literature students, he decided to make his own, starting with the story of Genesis and ending with the death of Moses.
He argues that past translations either get the Hebrew wrong or mangle the Bible’s syntax, or they lose the power of the work or are so up-to-the-minute that they become too conversational to be accurate or interesting.
He was determined to get back into the book every single “and” that other translators left out, saying that part of the book’s majesty is built by its use of repetitions.
The 1611 King James version, the most famous book ever written by a committee (and the best-seller of all books), reaches poetic heights, but Mr. Alter says it’s fraught with “embarrassing inaccuracies” and often substitutes Greek or Latin words and Renaissance English tonalities and rhythms for biblical ones.
But critics are unhappy with some of Mr. Alter’s “tonalities and rhythms” as well. “Reading through this book is a wearying, disorientating and at times revelatory experience,” says John Updike in a New Yorker magazine review of Mr. Alter’s 1,063-page translation of “The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary.” He complains about page after page of footnotes that explain obscure points.
Mr. Updike takes exception with some of the translation. For example, he prefers the King James version, in which “the spirit of God moved upon the face of the water” to Mr. Alter’s version: “God’s breath hovering over the waters.”
Mr. Alter says he used the phrase “God’s breath” rather than the “spirit of God” for a reason: “The Hebrew word means life’s breath, a constant moving of oxygen in and out. The body-soul split of early Christianity is something not imagined in the early Hebrew.”
Mr. Alter says his task was to find the English equivalents of the Hebrew. “Hebrew is filled with concrete images. For example, the King James translates the famous lines of Ecclesiastes as ‘vanity of vanities … all is vanity’ but the closest word in English to the Hebrew is “vapor, vapor, all is mere vapor.”
He is especially pleased with restoring all the “ands” in a passage in which Abraham’s servant is sent on a mission to find a wife for Isaac and encounters Rebekah:
“And she came down to the spring and filled her jug and came back up. And the servant ran toward her and said, ‘Pray, let me sip a bit of water from your jug.’ And she said, ‘Drink, my lord,’ and she hurried and tipped down her jug on one hand and let him drink. And she let him drink his fill and said, ‘For your camels, too, I shall draw water until they drink their fill.’ And she hurried and emptied her jug into the trough, and she ran again to the well to draw water and drew water for all his camels.”
The 15 “ands” manage to build a picture of what Mr. Alter calls “the closest anyone comes in Genesis to a feat of ‘Homeric heroism’ — especially when one considers how much a camel drinks.
“I began this translation as a kind of dubious experiment asking, ‘Is there some [method] of getting biblical Hebrew into modern English in a way that would be readable but not be too contemporary sounding and reproduce many of the stylish effects of the Hebrew?’ ”