Monday, January 18, 2016

Alter on Berkeley

EAST MEETS WEST: How Berkeley Made the Old Testament New (Robert Alter, Boom). Excerpt:
In the mid-1970s, I became interested in biblical narrative, having had a good grounding in biblical Hebrew as well as in the modern language. Berkeley graduate seminars on the Bible in those years were exclusively devoted to the Book of Leviticus because the scholar who was then professor of the Hebrew Bible was engaged in what would prove to be a three-thousand-page commentary on Leviticus. He would allow nothing to deflect him from his sacerdotal subject.

My students of modern Hebrew literature complained, and so I devised for them a new course—conceivably, the first of its kind anywhere—on the poetics of biblical narrative. I had a relatively large group, about ten students, many of them quite gifted and with serious literary interests, and together we soon developed an excited sense that, even though this was the Bible, we were exploring new territory. My own work for the seminar and beyond it led me in the next few years to produce The Art of Biblical Narrative in 1981 and to launch a kind of second scholarly career that complemented the one I continued to pursue in writing about the European and American novel.

A dozen years later, again in a wholly unanticipated way, the study of biblical narrative and biblical poetry induced me to begin an experiment in translating the Bible. Since adolescence I had always read the Bible in Hebrew and had been deeply moved by the compact power of its poetry and by the subtlety, elegant precision, and evocative rhythms of its narrative prose. When an editor at W.W. Norton proposed that I might do a Norton Critical Edition of a book of the Bible, I responded, perhaps imprudently, that one could make a fine Norton Critical Edition of Genesis, but that because there was something wrong with all the existing English versions. I would have to do my own translation. After some discussion, we agreed that I would write a new English translation of Genesis instead of the critical edition. But, as I got into the project, I also found that I was producing a commentary.
Iconic photo. More on Robert Alter's now nearly complete translation of the Hebrew Bible is here with many links.