Saturday, February 12, 2005

“Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness after the flesh,” the author of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes wisely admonishes us. And of no thing is that more true than books of translation and commentary about the Bible itself. Yet there are exceptions to every rule and Robert Alter’s wonderful new translation and accompanying commentary to the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses or Jewish Torah, is most certainly a case in point.

A dark age of bureaucratic arrogance and mediocrity enveloped the field of biblical translation from the 1880s onwards when the dire Revised Standard Version and a host of even worse ones replaced the glorious 1611 King James Version in the churches of the English-speaking world. Better days began to dawn in with the appearance of the lucid and lightly styled Catholic New American Bible in 1970 and translations over the past two decades, while never measuring up to the extraordinary beauty and brilliant clarity of the KJV, have at least been energetic and stimulating rather than leaden.

Mr. Alter’s work, however, is in a class by itself. Over the past 25 years, this professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley has established himself as the grandmaster of style, translation and literary criticism par excellence in the English-speaking world in such definitive studies as “The Art of Biblical Poetry” and “The Art of Biblical Narrative.” His vast new work is the worthy fruition of a lifetime’s outstanding labors.

What Mr. Alter has always understood is that the formative texts of the Old Testament are as rich in word-play and complex literary coding and style as any of William Shakespeare’s greatest plays and that the ultimate challenge of any translator ought to be to convey all that subtle and precise richness and elegance of style into English — or any other language.

The great scholars of the King James Version, living in one of the greatest eras of literary excellence in any culture in recorded history understood this very well. They also understood the vital need for humility in approaching any text for translation, especially the biblical ones. And ever since the RSV slouched on to the scene more than 120 years ago, this cardinal requirement has been cavalierly forgotten by English-speaking scholars — until Mr. Alter.

In his earlier books he repeatedly emphasized, following the pioneering German language studies of Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber, the importance of leitmotifs, or recurring key words, in the Hebrew text. Even the ubiquitous simple Hebrew phrase “v” — literally meaning “and” but also carrying many other potential meanings such as “then” or “next”, depending on context — had its significance erased because so many generations of translators were determined to “tidy up” the biblical text and thereby ironed out thousands of subtle but clearly intended meanings.

Before Mr. Alter, only Everett Fox among major modern translators of the Bible grasped the cardinal importance of tight fidelity to the original text and the need to seek a “literally literal” translation to recapture its primary meaning in another language. But Mr. Fox’s translation while true to the minute detail of the Torah lost its over-all spirit by being conveyed in a truly weird English that makes James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and even “Finnegan’s Wake” seem as accessible as a supermarket tabloid by comparison.

Mr. Alter does not fall into that trap. His translation is a marvel of clarity that recaptures the easily accessible, straightforward, usually terse brevity of the Hebrew original as no other does. Even the most familiar tales in world religion and culture regain a stunning originality and immediacy in Mr. Alter’s hands.

Here is his rendering of the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22:10: “And Abraham reached out his hand and took the cleaver to slaughter his son.” Seven verses later, in Genesis 22:17, God adds to his blessing of Abraham the famous phrase “Your seed shall take hold of its enemies’ gate.” In his commentary, Mr. Alter dryly notes that now Abraham has finally proved himself fully worthy of God’s promise, “One might note that here for the first time a future of military triumph is added to the promise.”

Mr. Alter echoes the greatest of all the traditional Jewish commentators on the Pentateuch, the 11th century Rabbi Solomon Isaac, better known as Rashi, in the masterfully tight yet precise style and detail of his voluminous commentary. When Jacob at the end of Genesis 32 emerges from his long, fierce night struggle with the mysterious Divine Stranger, “limping on his hip,” Mr. Alter notes: “He bears his inward scars as he lives onward — his memory of fleeing alone across Jordan, his fear of the brother he has wronged, and before long, his grief for the beloved wife he loses, and then for the beloved son he thinks lost.” The recurring life-pattern and evolving destiny of one of the most complex characters in biblical literature is lightly limned in a single sentence.

Mr. Alter also refreshingly demolishes those who would reduce the cosmic dimensions of the most spectacular events in the Bible to the hysterical exaggerations of a few simplistic Bedouin nomads. Discussing his rendering of the Ninth Plague of Egypt — “a darkness one can feel” — he celebrates “the force of the hyperbole, which beautifully conveys the claustrophobic palpability of absolute darkness (which) is diminished by those who try to provide a naturalistic explanation for this plague (or indeed, any of the others).”

There is even a hint of Erich von Daniken in Mr. Alter’s refusal to smooth over or interpret away one of the strangest stories in the Bible, the appearance of the mysterious “Nefilim” in Genesis 6:4. “The only obvious meaning of this Hebrew term is ‘fallen ones’, perhaps those who came down from the realm of the gods,” he writes.

And in the mysterious disappearance of Enoch who is never described as actually dying, he notes, “This is one of several instances in the early chapters of Genesis of a teasing vestige of a tradition for which the context is lost.”

But if anyone has cause to celebrate contexts regained, it is the readers of Mr. Alter’s great work. This is by far the finest translation-commentary of the Pentateuch in the English language of modern times. It is a towering achievement that cannot be recommended too highly.

Martin Sieff is chief political correspondent for United Press International.

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