Sunday, September 2, 2007

Q&A Robert Alter

First appeared in the Boston Globe.

ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS OF the Hebrew Bible -- most notably the King James version -- have been key not only for the believers who look to them for instruction and inspiration, but to the evolving literary and cultural sensibility of the West. It's no wonder, then, that the radical approach to translating biblical texts that Robert Alter has taken -- first in "The Five Books of Moses" (2004) and now in "The Book of Psalms" -- has been greeted with responses ranging from delight to irritation.

Alter aims to reproduce the rhythmic energy of the Hebrew texts in an English that adheres as closely as possible to the meaning and style of the original. Alter's Genesis, for example, begins: "When God began to create . . ." The word "began" is key: Creation, for God, is a work in progress. It's a powerful reading that can easily jolt someone wedded to older versions.

As Alter explained when I called him in Berkeley, where he has taught literature since 1967, he was drawn to biblical translation almost despite himself, propelled by a sense that recent translations were badly flawed. Often, translations lacked sensitivity to English literary values, modeling themselves on the lingo of "high-school textbooks, bureaucratic directives, and ordinary conversation." And almost always, according to Alter, translators simply failed to recognize that the Hebrew Bible, whatever its religious content, was a collection of masterpieces composed by authors who took "writerly pleasure" in their work.

The Psalms, he writes, are among the oldest of biblical texts, dating from the late Bronze Age and reflecting a worldview that can often feel "quite alien to modern people." In addition to rescuing and protecting, the God of these poems is routinely expected to execute terrible acts of vengeance.

IDEAS: John Updike, in his review of "The Five Books of Moses," wondered who would read it, since, after all, "millions of believers, Christian and Jewish, already have their versions, with cherished, trusted phrasings."

ALTER: In fact, I get very enthusiastic responses from seriously religious readers.

IDEAS: Jews and Christians?

ALTER: Jews and Christians. Even if your interest in the Bible is overridingly religious, you get a much better handle on what the writers are actually saying -- the sometimes paradoxical, contradictory nature of things they say -- if you follow how the narrative and poetry works.

Some e-mails report that Bible study groups in synagogues are using my text. I got an e-mail from a nun saying she was grateful for "The Five Books of Moses" and hoped I would go on to translate the Psalms -- which, as it happens, I wound up doing -- since they were so important in her devotions.

And I find that people who don't have a religious stake in the Bible feel that its greatness as literature is brought home to them by what I've done. I was almost flabbergasted by the enthusiastic response of people like Seamus Heaney to the "The Five Books of Moses."

IDEAS: Did you grew up with Hebrew?

ALTER: I had the classic American bar mitzvah, which meant I could read the Hebrew alphabet and knew about 100 words. Then I got into a Hebrew class for kids who had just finished their bar mitzvah. Then, in my mid-teens, I went to a Hebrew-speaking summer camp, where I got fluency in the modern language.

IDEAS: Why did you get so strongly drawn to the Bible as literature when you did, in the 1970s?

ALTER: Since my late teens I've been fascinated with biblical narrative -- why it seems so great and yet also so simple. I couldn't explain that. Then, in the late '70s, when I was writing regularly for Commentary, the idea popped into my head that maybe I could say something about biblical narrative.

I wrote a piece arguing that biblical scholars lacked any sort of literary approach, and got a shower of letters. Then I wrote a second article, and my book "The Art of Biblical Narrative," all the time thinking, this isn't my field, I'm going to get this out of my system. But I found the intrinsic literary and intellectual interest of the biblical stories and poems so compelling that I've kept working at it ever since.

IDEAS: You've written that reading the Bible "helped shape our collective lives, and it may still have a vital task to perform." That's a bit mysterious. What do you mean?

ALTER: I think certain modes of imagination by which we conceive who we are, the nature of the human animal, once they get started in the culture, maintain a certain momentum and continue to shape us.

IDEAS: Why, in "The Book of Psalms," do you pretty much eliminate all reference to "sin"?

ALTER: My goal in this experiment is, in modern English that's readable and that is poetry, to take the Psalms back to the mind-set, the verbal texture of the original.

So, because of the social, legal, and political framework of the Psalms, I prefer words like "crime" and "wrongdoing" instead of "sin." The wrongdoers are conspiring, maybe trying to kill, maybe fixing the legal system against someone. Those acts need words more oriented to society and less to God and man.

IDEAS: What is God to the Psalmists? When they write about thirsting or yearning for God, what do they mean?

ALTER: In the Psalms, they're thirsting for the being they conceive of as having consciousness and as caring about humankind. They're searching for the being that has created them, holds them to a certain standard of ethical behavior, and at the same time sustains them through the terrors and hardships of life.

IDEAS: Aren't we very far away from that worldview, from believing we really have that kind of pact with a God?

ALTER: Putting it personally, I find that because of what happens in the world, to people around me, and in events like the Holocaust, I really can't sustain belief in a personal God, a God who intervenes, who rewards and punishes, as the Psalmists do. And I should underline that there are some biblical books which did not accept this view, either, most notably Job, which seems to be directly debating it.

IDEAS: Let's come back to Updike for a minute. One thing that exasperated him about "The Five Books of Moses" was, he wrote, "The sheer amount of accompanying commentary and philological footnotes." That feature is shared by your Psalms, where commentary is on the same page as translated text.

ALTER: Yes, Updike huffed and puffed about the commentary: Why do we need commentary? The King James version didn't have it.

I would propose that's a particularly Christian way to look at the Bible. The idea of vernacular Bibles, beginning with Luther, was that the reader would have an unmediated relation to Scripture. But the way a traditional Jew in a synagogue or yeshiva sees and engages with the text is different. The standard rabbinical Bible has a small lozenge of the biblical text, all in Hebrew, in the middle of the page. Opposite are two different Aramaic translations. Along the margins and underneath you have Rashi, Abraham Ibn Ezra, and other commentators.

These commentaries, by the way, don't agree with each other; they're a sort of running debate around the text. I find it very enlivening.

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