Monday, October 25, 2004

ROBERT ALTER'S NEW TORAH TRANSLATION is reviewed by John Updike in the New Yorker. Excerpt:
He sees Biblical Hebrew as a �conventionally delimited language, roughly analogous in this respect to the French of the neoclassical theatre� and significantly though indeterminately distinct from the vanished vernacular of three thousand years ago. (The vernacular vocabulary, according to the Spanish Hebrew scholar Angel S�enz-Badillos, must have exceeded the Bible�s�a lexicon �so restricted that it is hard to believe it could have served all the purposes of quotidian existence in a highly developed society.�) Alter has set himself to create a corresponding English��stylized, decorous, dignified, and readily identified by its audiences as a language of literature,� with a �slight strangeness,� �beautiful rhythms,� and other qualities (suppleness, precision, concreteness) that �by and large have been given short shrift by translators with their eyes on other goals.� Why should not Alter�s version, its program so richly contemplated and persuasively outlined, become the definitive one, replacing not only the King James but the plethora of its revised, uninspired, and �accessible� versions on the shelf?

Several reasons why not, in the course of my reading through this massive tome (sold sturdily boxed, as if to support its weight), emerged. The sheer amount of accompanying commentary and philological footnotes is one of them. The fifty-four churchmen and scholars empowered at a conference at Hampton Court in January of 1604 to provide an authoritative English Bible had a clear charge: to supply English readers with a self-explanatory text. When they encountered a crux, they took their best guess and worked on; many of the guesses can be improved upon now, but no suggestion of an unclear and imperfect original was allowed to trouble the Word of God. Alter�s more academic and literary commission allows him to luxuriate in the forked possibilities of the Hebrew text, in its oldest forms written entirely in consonants, and without punctuation.

Updike spends most of the second half of the review telling us why he thinks the Pentateuch has a strong start, but it deteriorates into a weak finish, which seems to me to be neither here nor there in terms of Alter's translation.

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