The Five Books of Moses: A Trans­la­tion with Commentary

  • Review
By – September 24, 2012

After Everett Fox pub­lished his trans­la­tion of the Torah [The Five Books of Moses (Schock­en 1995), reviewed in Jew­ish Book World, Vol. 14 no. 1 (Spring, 1996), 7 – 8], Robert Alter com­ment­ed that Fox’s sig­nal lim­i­ta­tion is his monog­a­mous attach­ment to the Hebrew, often at the cost of the Eng­lish… What it lacks is an answer­ing Eng­lish sense for the styl­is­tic ele­gance and pre­ci­sion, the sheer mag­ic of words and sounds, of the ancient Hebrew” [The New York Times Mag­a­zine; Octo­ber 22, 1995]. With the pub­li­ca­tion of Alter’s own trans­la­tion of the Torah, read­ers can see what his sin­gu­lar com­bi­na­tion of Hebra­ic schol­ar­ship and lit­er­ary acu­ity has wrought. 

The present work prof­its par­tic­u­lar­ly from its cho­sen for­mat of trans­la­tion and com­men­tary, which gives the author the oppor­tu­ni­ty to engage in an exeget­i­cal ver­sion of kere and ketiv by pro­vid­ing a dif­fer­ent treat­ment of the text in each medi­um. For example: 

* Ambigu­ous pronom­i­nal ref­er­ences can be retained in the trans­la­tion while resolved in the notes. [Cf., e.g., Gen­e­sis 44:22 and 46:29.]

* Slav­ish fideli­ty to the Hebrew (as in the case of leitwörter) can be dis­pensed with in the trans­la­tion and still called to the reader’s atten­tion in the com­men­tary. [Cf. Alter and Fox to Gen­e­sis 32:21.]

* Trans­la­tions of rare or unusu­al words or expres­sions can be jus­ti­fied in the com­men­tary with­out inter­rupt­ing the flow of the nar­ra­tive in trans­la­tion. [Cf. the trans­la­tion of ma’akhelet (Gen­e­sis 22:6) as cleaver,” con­jur­ing up an image far more ter­ri­fy­ing than the ordi­nary knife,” and account­ing, there­fore, for Isaac delib­er­ate­ly ignor­ing it in the very next verse!] 

* Puns and oth­er plays on words can be explained in the com­men­tary with­out requir­ing the trans­la­tion to per­form styl­is­tic acro­bat­ics. [Cf. Gen­e­sis 4:25.]

* Trans­la­tions made accord­ing to a pro­posed emen­da­tion of the text can be explained in the notes, along with the cor­re­spond­ing ref­er­ence to the Mas­soret­ic ver­sion. [Cf. Gen­e­sis 10:10; Fox trans­lat­ed accord­ing to the Mas­so­rah and cites the emen­da­tion in a note.] 

All in all, Alter was right. His own ren­di­tion of the Torah is more felic­i­tous, Fox’s greater fideli­ty to the Hebrew often com­ing at the expense of lit­er­ary felic­i­ty (cf. their respec­tive trans­la­tions of the poet­ic Deuteron­o­my 32), but I admire that greater fideli­ty and would not set it aside, per se.

Moshe Sokolow, Ph.D., is the Fanya Gottes­feld-Heller Pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion at the Azrieli Grad­u­ate School, Yeshi­va University.

Discussion Questions