The Art of Bible Translation

  • Review
By – June 24, 2019

The Art of Bible Trans­la­tion draws the read­er into Pro­fes­sor Robert Atler’s life­long fas­ci­na­tion with the lit­er­ary genius of the Bible. Fol­low­ing the pub­li­ca­tion of numer­ous Bib­li­cal trans­la­tions, com­men­taries, and close read­ings, Alter has turned his atten­tion to the process of trans­la­tion itself, its inher­ent chal­lenges, and the Bible’s lit­er­ary style as a whole.

Alter’s analy­sis is divid­ed into six chap­ters. The first explores the his­to­ry of Bible trans­la­tions, as well as the author’s own chal­lenges dur­ing his trans­la­tion efforts. He finds most trans­la­tions insuf­fi­cient, due to their insen­si­tiv­i­ty to the syn­tax, word choice, and rhythm of the orig­i­nal text. Sub­se­quent chap­ters tack­le these chal­lenges in greater detail, explain­ing why trans­la­tions con­tin­ue to miss the mark in cap­tur­ing the nuances of the orig­i­nal text. It is pre­cise­ly these nuances, Alter sug­gests, that make the Bible the remark­able lit­er­ary achieve­ment that it is.

The author lat­er con­sid­ers the crit­i­cal impor­tance of word choice and offers numer­ous exam­ples in which trans­la­tion inac­cu­ra­cies and incon­sis­ten­cy of dic­tion warp the mean­ing of the Bib­li­cal text. In his analy­sis of Exo­dus 19:9, Alter laments the com­mon trans­la­tion of God arriv­ing in a thick” or dense” cloud to present the Ten Com­mand­ments. Alter notes that the Hebrew uses a phrase in the con­struct state to describe this cloud. This state, com­mon in the Bible, sug­gests an inten­si­fi­ca­tion or emphat­ic height­en­ing” that the Eng­lish trans­la­tion cap­tures. He pro­pos­es ren­der­ing the trans­la­tion as an utmost cloud” because it describes an event that is unique or majes­tic, where­as a thick cloud” is some­thing that any­one could see on a rainy day.

Alter explores the Bible’s use of dia­logue and con­sid­ers it to be the vital cen­ter” of bib­li­cal nar­ra­tive. He sug­gests that most trans­la­tions fail to cap­ture the per­son­al­i­ty, nar­ra­tive, and social posi­tion of the speak­er. For exam­ple, when Joseph sends his broth­ers back to Canaan with food, the word shev­er is often trans­lat­ed as rations.” Alter objects to this trans­la­tion, and in its place writes pro­vi­sions,” which he regards as a bet­ter descrip­tion of the bun­dled food that ancient trav­el­ers would car­ry on long jour­neys. Rations,” on the oth­er hand, is a trans­la­tion more akin to what one would find in a soldier’s backpack.

Alter deft­ly illus­trates the impact a thought­ful trans­la­tion can have on bring­ing the nuances of the Bible to life, while also con­vey­ing the risks of a poor trans­la­tion. While at least a basic under­stand­ing of Hebrew would ben­e­fit in unpack­ing the author’s analy­sis, he is able to make his argu­ment clear to a pre­dom­i­nant­ly Eng­lish-speak­ing audience.

Read­ers are encour­aged to seek Bible trans­la­tions that uti­lize all means avail­able to cap­ture the mag­nif­i­cence of the orig­i­nal text. The author reminds us, how­ev­er, that even with the best inten­tions, any trans­la­tion of a great work will some­times prove to be a sor­ry thing.”

Jonathan Fass is the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy and Strat­e­gy at The Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion Project of New York.

Discussion Questions