I don’t think there is one definitive way to translate anything. There is always more than one legitimate way to say it. Publishing a translation of the whole Hebrew Bible is a Herculean endeavor, but there’s grace here. What I’m looking for when I open a Bible translation isn’t perfection, but insight and fresh expressions. So far, Alter has not disappointed. At this point, I’ve only read Genesis 1–11, but I want to offer a few examples of why I’m enjoying his work.
His rendering of Genesis 11:9 might not be original — in fact, it is very similar to Eugene Peterson’s — but it is fresh.
Therefore, it is called Babel, for there the LORD made the language of all the earth babble. And from there the LORD scattered them over all the earth.
עַל-כֵּן קָרָא שְׁמָהּ בָּבֶל כִּי-שָׁם בָּלַל יְהוָה שְׂפַת כָּל-הָאָרֶץ וּמִשָּׁם הֱפִיצָם יְהוָה עַל-פְּנֵי כָּל-הָאָרֶץ
His English is clear while at the same time giving a sense of the wordplay in Hebrew. His commentary on this point is interesting as well:
The Hebrew balal, to “mix” or “confuse,” represented in this translation by “baffle” and “babble,” is a polemic pun on the Akkadian “Babel,” which might actually mean “gate of the god.” As for the phonetic kinship of “babble” and balal, Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (1966) notes that a word like “babble” occurs in a wide spectrum of languages from Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit to Norwegian, and prudently concludes, “of echoic origin; probably not of continuous derivation but recoined from common experience.”
I find his style of expression throughout the first eleven chapters to be enjoyably formal — not stilted, not overly colloquial.
A friend and I were just discussing earlier this week how repetitive Hebrew prose is. Words, phrases, clauses, even whole scenes are repeated, and it really helps the vocabulary to stick. In light of that conversation, when I read Alter’s comments on Genesis 11:4 this evening, I had to snap a picture and send it to him. Genesis 11:4 is where humanity says, “Come, let us build a city and a tower …” Here are Alter’s comments:
Come let us. As many commentators have noted, the story exhibits an intricate antithetical symmetry that embodies the idea of “man proposes, God disposes.” The builders say, “Come, let us bake bricks,” God says, “Come, let us go down”; they are concerned “lest we be scattered,” and God responds by scattering them. The story is an extreme example of the stylistic predisposition of biblical narrative to exploit interechoing words and to work with a deliberately restricted vocabulary. The word “language” occurs five times in this brief text as does the phrase “all the earth” (and the “land” of Shinar is the same Hebrew word as that for earth). The prose turns language itself into a game of mirrors.
That last sentence is the type that makes you set the book in your lap and just stare and think. What more could you ask for from a translation or commentary?
Concise Commentary Where I Want It
I didn’t really buy this set for the commentary, but much to my surprise I find Alter offers helpful comments in places where I have questions. In my experience, study Bibles are usually cluttered with too much commentary. When I actually want a comment about something, their notes are usally sparse because the word count is spent commenting on things I’m not interested in. Well, so far that is not my experience with Alter. He comments on portions of the text I am interested in, and when he does so the notes are sufficiently substantial.
I’ve always struggled to find an adequate way to render the serpents words in Genesis 3:1. I remember discussing this with a friend after community group one evening. I’ve never been comfortable with “Did God really say …” I’ve always thought “really” obscured the meaning of אַף. Here’s Alter’s rendition:
Now the serpent was most cunning of all the beasts of the field that the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, “Though God said, you shall not eat from any tree of the garden—” And the woman said …
וְהַנָּחָשׁ הָיָה עָרוּם מִכֹּל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל-הָאִשָּׁה אַף כִּי-אָמַר אֱלֹהִים לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִכֹּל עֵץ הַגָּן וַתֹּאמֶר הָאִשָּׁה
As E. A. Speiser has noted, the subordinate conjunction that introduces the serpent’s first utterance does not have the sense of “truly” that most translators assign it, and is better construed as the beginning of a (false) statement that is cut off in midsentence by Eve’s objection that the ban is not on all the trees of the Garden.
He doesn’t read the serpent’s words as a question at all. This would be another example of aposiopesis in the opening chapters of Genesis. This is the literary technique where someone is cut off midsentence to create a sudden tension. I mentioned it here in reference to God’s words in Genesis 3:22 and Cain’s words in Genesis 4:8.
His translation of אַף as “though” is at least intriguing.
Delight to Look at and Hold
Finally, the volumes are beautifully produced. Each has its own unique artwork, the pages have just the right thickness and gloss, and the font is appropriately sized. It’s a delight to read and hold.
Almost every time I sit down to read Alter I walk away having found at least one expresssion or comment to be refreshing. It’s not perfect, but what translation is. Insight is the requirement, and for me it’s here.