Between December 2018 and June 2020, I read Robert Alter's translation of the Hebrew Bible in its entirety. My method, from Genesis through Ezra, was to read two or three verses in the Hebrew, read Alter's translation, and then read his notes on those verses. I read Nehemiah and Chronicles only in the translation. This is not a good way to see the forest, but it does give one a close view of a lot of trees.
It goes without saying, and I personally have no standing to say it, but it would be inexcusable not to say: Alter's translation is an extraordinary accomplishment, both as scholarship and as literature. The translation is a work of meticulous literary craftsmanship. The notes discuss every difficult issue that arises in translating this library of difficult texts; they are extensive, detailed, erudite, and wide-ranging, drawing on everything from Babylonian mythology to twentieth century literature.
This reading project of mine had at least one useful outcome: I had the z'khut to find a number of outright errors in the translation, which I emailed to Prof. Alter --- my small contribution to Biblical scholarship. Prof. Alter tells me that he will pass them onto his publishers so that they can be corrected in future printings. If you wish to see the errata list, to correct your own copy, email me.
What particularly struck me, in this reading, were the many different kinds of choices that have to be made in translating the Bible, and the many different criteria for making them. When does the translator emend the wording of the Hebrew text, with or without the support of other ancient texts? When do they rearrange the order of verses? What do they do with words (e.g. many of the animal and plant species, precious stones, musical instruments and musical notation in Psalms etc.) when there is no information whatever as to their actual denotation? What do they do about words, like "lion", that have multiple terms in Biblical Hebrew (synonymous, as far as anyone knows) but only one in English? How should the text be punctuated? What should be done when the literal translation is inappropriate — misleading or unintentionally comical?
Should the translation preserve stylistic features, such as assonance, alliteration, word repetition or sentence structure? If the text is cryptic or difficult — "crabbed", as Alter often says — should the translation also be? What should be done about euphemisms or vulgarisms? If a passage is repeated with variants (e.g. Psalm 18 and 2 Samuel 22) should the translations reflect the variations, or should the translation be the same? What deference should be paid to classic translations or liturgical interpretations?
What do the translators do with texts that seem to indicate a polytheistic viewpoint? What do they do with texts that are believed by scholars to refer to entities or events from Canaanite or Babylonian pagan mythology? When a text is offensive to a current reader — explicitly misogynistic or homophobic or racist or genocidal — may the translator nudge it toward something more acceptable?
At a higher level, what is the translator trying to accomplish, for what kind of reader? What is the translator aiming at? Suitability for religious practice? Ease of reading? Literary beauty? Scholarly precision? Conveying the flavor or spirit of the original to the modern reader?
What I have done below, for the benefit of friends who might like to get a flavor of Alter's translation and his method, is to present some examples that particularly struck me of texts where Alter engaged with these kinds of issues. A few of the examples have been included, not for the translation, but for a comment that I found especially insightful or thought-provoking or characteristic.
These examples mostly are from the Writings, for two reasons. I have only a handful of examples from the Pentateuch, because, as of the time of writing (June 2020), my copy of volume 1 is locked in my office out of my reach, due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Thanks to my niece Ruth Davis for looking up the few that I do have.) I have few examples from the Prophets, because it did not occur to me to keep systematic records of these until I had reached the book of Habbakuk, so my examples from earlier in the Prophets are instances that have stuck in my memory or discussed with friends by email when I ran across them.
I will begin with two general comments, then turn to specific texts.
Recommendation: For a reader who wants to try out Alter's translation. I particularly recommend the poetical books of Psalms, Job, and Song of Songs; the translations here are particularly beautiful and striking, and the discussion in the notes particularly extensive and illuminating. In Psalms, Alter includes in his comments an overall analysis of the structure and characteristics of each of the psalms.
Rabbinic interpretations of Pentateuch. As explained above, I cannot give individual examples from the Pentateuch. However, in general it struck me that, in his comments in Pentateuch, Alter very often quotes the medieval commentators Rashi and ibn Ezra (occasionally in the later books as well); and rarely if ever quotes the Midrash or other rabbinic interpretations from the Talmudic period. (He does cite the Midrash Rabba in a couple of comments on verses in Ruth and Esther.)
In discussing individual texts I will give:
Following traditional practice, I abbreviate the names of God in quoting the Hebrew text.
I begin by discussing Alter's translations of the Hebrew word נפש and then move on to other verses, in sequential order.
The Hebrew word נפש is usually translated "soul". Alter explains that he has avoided that translation, because it "suggests a body-soul split alien to biblical thinking." "Nefesh", according to Alter, fundamentally means a person's breath; by metonymy it can mean their neck or throat or breath or, alternatively the center of their being.
However, the number of different ways in which Alter translates "nefesh", depending on the circumstance, is remarkable: (Thanks again to my niece Ruth Davis for looking up the examples from the Pentateuch.)
תוצא הארץ נפש חיה למינה
Let the earth bring forth living creatures of each kind
אך בשר בנפשו דמו לא תאכלו
But flesh with its lifeblood still in it you shall not eat.
ונפשו קשורה בנפשו
For his life is bound to the lad's.
נפש כי תחטא בשגגה
Should a person offend errantly ...
טמאים לנפש אדם
defiled by a human corpse
ואהבת את ד' אלוקך בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך ובכל מאדך
And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your being and with all your might.
With all your being. The Hebrew nefesh means "life-breath" or "essential self." The traditional translation of "soul," preserved in many recent versions, is misleading because it suggests a body-soul split alien to biblical thinking.
1 Samuel 18:1
ונפש יהונתן נקשרה בנפש דוד ויאהבהו יהונתן כנפשו
And Jonathan's very self became bound up with David's and Jonathan loved him as himself.
Jonathan loved him as himself. It is noteworthy that throughout the narrative David is repeatedly the object but never the subject of the verb "to love" --- in this chapter, Jonathan, the people, and Michal are all said to love David.
This observation of Alter's is very striking once he points it out; but I had never seen it or noticed it before. --- ESD
My life He brings back
My life He brings back. Although "He restoreth my soul" is time-honored, the Hebrew nefesh does not mean "soul" but "life-breath" or "life". The image is of someone who has almost stopped breathing and is revived, brought back to life.
אל תתנני בנפש צרי
Do not put me in the maw of my foes.
the maw of my foes. Here "nefesh" "life-breath" shows a secondary meaning — the throat or gullet through which breath passes.
עששה בכעס עיני נפשי ובטני
My eye is worn out in vexation, my throat and my belly.
My throat and my belly. Because of the physicality of the whole line, with "eye" on one side and "belly" on the other, the anatomical sense of nefesh as "throat" seems plausible, with the line moving down vertically from eyes to throat to belly.
They pushed down my neck They pushed down my neck. ... The most compelling sense of nafshi here is not "my life" or "me" but "my neck" because the whole context is one of physical entrapment — the net and the pit.
צמאה לך נפשי
My throat thirsts for You
My throat thirsts for You. The multivalent nefesh could conceivably mean "being" (King James Version, "soul"), but the parallelism with "flesh" suggests the anatomical sense of the word. The speaker's longing for God is so overwhelmingly intense that he feels it as a somatic experience, like the thirsty throat of a man in the desert, like yearning flesh.
ברכי נפשי את השם
Bless, O my being, the LORD
Bless, O my being, the LORD. The speaker's invocation to his inner self or essential being (nefesh) to bless the LORD is an unusual rhetorical move in Psalms, repeated in the next Psalm as well.
ענו בכבל רגלו ברזל באה נפשו
They tortured his legs with shackles
his neck was put in irons.
his neck was put in irons. Literally, "his neck came into iron." The Hebrew nefesh refers here to the neck (a complementary parallel to the shackled feet) and certainly does not mean "soul".
Song of Songs 1:7
הגידה לי שאהבה נפשי
Tell me, whom I love so,
whom I love so. Many translations, following the King James Version, render this as "whom my soul loves", but the Hebrew nafshi does not mean "my soul". Rather, it is an intensive alternative to the first-person pronoun. Since English does not have intensive personal pronouns, this translation here and elsewhere compensates by adverbial intensification, "so".
This translation is a particular favorite of mine. -- ESD
Song of Songs 5:6
נפשי יצאה בדברו
my breath left me when he spoke.
עיני עוללה לנפשי
My eyes have dealt ill to me
כל עמל אדם לפיהו וגם הנפש לא תמלא
All a man's toil is for his own mouth, yet his appetite will not be filled.
טוב מראה עינים מהלך נפש
Better what the eyes see than desire going round.
Better what the eyes see than desire going round. The evident sense is that one is better off simply enjoying what one sees — let us say, a beautiful woman — than embarking on the dangerous and potentially frustrating path of trying to fulfill desire. Although the King James Version's "the wandering of the desire" has a nice ring and has been adopted by many modern translations, the Hebrew halokh means "to go" or "to go about", not really "to wander", and it is surely intended to echo the halokh in the phrase "get [or go] around among the living" (verse 8). Because Qohelet also uses "to go" as a euphemism for dying, and because nefesh means "life-breath" as well as "appetite" or desire, C.L. Seow construes this phrase to mean "the passing of life".
1 Samuel 18:3
ויכרות יהונתן ודוד ברית
And Jonathan, and David with him, sealed a pact.
And Jonathan, and David with him, sealed a pact. This is one of the most significant instances of the expressive grammatical pattern in which there is a plural subject with a singular verb, making the first member of the plural subject the principal agent: the initiative for the pact of friendship is Jonathan's, and David goes along with it.
2 Samuel 18:18
אין לי בן בעבור הזכיר שמי
"I have no son to make my name remembered"
Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom, with reference to both its David figure and its Absalom figure, beautifully catches the pathos of those words.
The occasional references to later literature in Alter's notes — Kafka, Bialik and Judah ha-Levi are three others I happen to remember, but there are quite a few more — are always pleasant to encounter. --- ESD.
1 Kings 19:11-12.
ויאמר צא ועמדת בהר לפני ד' והנה ד' עובר ורוח גדולה וחזק מפרק הרים ומשבר סלעים לפני ד' לא ברוח ד' ואחר הרוח רעש לא ברעש ד': ואחר הרעש אש לא באש ד' ואחר האש קול דממה דקה
And He said, "Go and stand on the mountain before the LORD, and, look, the LORD is about to pass over, with a great and strong wind tearing apart mountains and smashing rocks before the LORD. Not in the wind is the LORD. And after the wind an earthquake. Not in the earthquake is the LORD. And after the earthquake — fire. Not in the fire is the LORD. And after the fire, a sound of minute stillness." King James: And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.
JPS 1985: "Come out," He called, "and stand on the mountain before the LORD." And, lo, the LORD passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind — an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake — fire; but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire — a soft murmuring sound.
This famous passage is a favorite of mine and of my late mother's; and I don't think that Alter's translation does it full justice. Putting the whole expression in quotation marks as a prediction or explanation of God's rather than as (implicitly) an experience of Elijah's significantly weakens it, it seems to me. Admittedly it is a better fit for the present tense in עובר which the other translations have to cast into the past tense. And, for the climactic pianissimo, "still small voice" is beautiful and memorable, even haunting; "soft murmuring sound" is suitably gentle; "sound of minute stillness" is, by comparison, pedestrian. I think the King James still takes the prize on this one. --- ESD
כי צו לצו צו לצו קו לקו קו לקו זעיר שם זעיר שם
For it is filth-pilth, filth-pilth,
a little here, a little there.
For it is filth-pilth, filth-pilth, vomit-momit, vomit-momit. Wildly divergent interpretations have beeen proposed for these words. The literal sense would seem to be "precept precept, line line". But if precepts are at issue here, they are precepts that have been turned into gibberish by these drunkards. The phonetic kinship between tsaw precept or command, and tso'ah, filth or excrement, and between qaw, line, and qi', vomit, is surely not accidental. The translation seeks to convey both this correspondence and the effect of gibberish.
King James: For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little.
JPS 1917: For it is precept by precept, precept by precept, Line by line, line by line; Here a little, there a little.
This is, certainly, the strangest translational choice in Alter. I can't think it's successful. Even if you buy that the verse is deliberate gibberish, there are different kinds of gibberish, and the Hebrew is not gibberish with made-up words. And even if you buy that the phonetic kinship that Alter describes is not coincidental, I doubt that it is the most important aspect of the verse to convey. --- ESD
ברוך כבוד ד' ממקומו
"Blessed be the LORD's glory from his place."
One often proposed emendation reads instead of barukh "blessed", berum "in the rising of", which yields not a line of dialogue but a narrative report about the divine chariot. This emendation is encouraged by the fact that in paleo-Hebrew script the letters mem and kaf look fairly similar, so a scribe could easily have erred. The emended reading flow more smoothly into the next verse and a half reporting the ascent of the divine chariot, but the Masoretic Text has been retained in this translation because it has become prominently enshrined in the Hebrew liturgy.
It is striking that Alter would defer to the liturgy in deciding whether to accept a textual emendation. --- ESD
באה הצפירה אליך
The gyre has come round against you
the gyre. The Hebrew tsefirah is a rare term. It has been most plausibly linked by both medieval and modern commentaries with a root that indicates something round, here perhaps a cycle of time. Because of the unusualness of the Hebrew term, this translation uses 'gyre' (the same element one finds in 'gyroscope'), a word famously deployed by the poet W.B. Yeats for an apocalyptic turn in the cycle of time.
King James: The morning is come unto thee.
JPS 1917: The turn is come until thee.
English standard version: Your doom has come to you.
JPS 1985: The cycle has come around for you.
I love Alter's translation here. There is something very Borgesian in having Isaiah allude to Yeats. --- ESD
ונינוה היתה עיר גדולה לאלוקים
And Nineveh was a great city of God's
a great city of God's. The Hebrew has been variously understood as "a great city to God", "a great city before God", and even as "a super-great city" (with 'elohim serving merely as an intensifier). But this preposition l' often means "belonging to" in biblical Hebrew (including many inscriptions on pottery, seals, and the like). That meaning makes sense in terms of the theology of the book: Nineveh, like everything else in the world, is God's possession, and thus God is appropriately concerned about the behavior of its inhabitants and their fate.
I find this a very beautiful translation. --- ESD
הבנהרים חרה ד' אם בנהרים אפך אם בים עברתך
With Neharim is the LORD incensed, against Neharim Your wrath, against Yamm Your fury.
Neharim.../Yamm. Although in other contexts these two words can mean, respectively, "rivers" and "sea" (the usual plural of the former is neharot) here they hark back to Caananite mythology, where they figure as different names for the primordial sea monster that must be subdued by Baal (in Israelite literature, by YHWH).
כי מה טובו ומה יפיו דגן בחורים ותירוש ינובב בתולות
How goodly and how lovely
the young men like new grain
and the virgins like lush wine.
lush: The Hebrew uses a verb, yenoveiv that means something like "to bring forth produce".
King James: For how great is his goodness, and how great is his beauty! corn shall make the young men cheerful, and new wine the maids.
New International Version: How attractive and beautiful they will be! // Grain will make the young men thrive, // and new wine the young women.
JPS 1985 translation: How lovely, how beautiful they shall be, Producing young men like new grain, Young women like new wine!
ונסתם גיא הרי כי יגיע גיא הרים אל אצל ונסתם כאשר נסתם מפני הרעש בימי עזיה מלך יהודה
And the valley of My mountains will be blocked, as the valley of the mountains reaches as far as Azal, and it shall be blocked as it was blocked in by the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah.
shall be blocked. The Masoretic Text reads wenastem "and you shall flee", but the strong scholarly consensus is that the word should be revocalized to read wenistam, as it does in some Hebrew manuscripts and in three ancient versions.
הנחמדים מזהב ומפז רב ומתוקים מדבש ונפת צופים
More desired than gold,
than abundant fine gold
and sweeter than honey
quintessence of bees.
quintessence of bees. Both halves of this compound term for honey nofet and tsufim mean "honey". As elsewhere in biblical usage, when two synonyms are combined, as here, in a construct form ("x of y"), the semantic effect is to create a hyperintensification — the sweetest of imaginable honeys. The English equivalent offered here may sound like a turn of phrase one might encounter in the poetry of Wallace Stevens, but it offers a good semantic match for the Hebrew.
אלה ברכב ואלה בסוסים ואנחנו בשם ד' אלקינו נזכיר
They—the chariots, and they—the horses,
but we—the name of the LORD our God invoke.
They—the chariots, and they—the horses. The whole line is a neat instance of a strong periodic sentence in which the verb that gives everything meaning — "invoke" — is withheld until the very end. "They" are the enemy of the Israelite king, who foolishly "invoke" or depend on their chariots and horses, instruments of power that are no match for the name the LORD.
King James: Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we will remember the name of the LORD our God.
JPS 1985: They [call] on chariots, they [call] on horses, but we call on the name of the LORD our God.
ד' הושיע המלך יעננו ביום קראנו
O LORD, rescue the king.
May He answer us on the day we call. O LORD, rescue the king. The Masoretic cantillation marks place a full stop at "rescue", thus turning "king" into a vocative in apposition with "LORD". This construction, however, produces an uncharacteristically unbalanced line (two beats in the first verset and four in the second). In keeping with all the indications in the poem that this is a royal psalm, it makes better sense to have "the king" here at the end as the direct object of the verb "rescue". One should note that the psalm exhibits a neatly concise envelope structure, beginning "answer you on the day of distress"and here concluding with "answer us on the day we call".
בנאות דשא ירביצני על מי מנוחות ינהלני
In grass meadows He makes me lie down,
by quiet waters guides me.
makes me lie down. The verb used here, hirbits, is a specialized one for making animals lie down; hence the sheep-shepherd metaphor is carefully sustained.
Alter preserves the inverted word order of the Hebrew. --- ESD
דוברי שלום עם רעיהם ורעה בלבם
who speak peace to their fellows
with foulness in their hearts.
who speak peace to their fellows with foulness in their hearts. The transition between the end of the first verset and the beginning of the second is marked in the Hebrew by a pun: "re'eihem" (their fellows) and ra'ah (literally "evil"). The translation choice of fellows/foulness is an attempt to replicate this effect.
כשל בעוני כוחי
Through my crime my strength stumbles
Through my crime. The translation follows the Masoretic text, which has ba'awoni here. But the Septuagint and the Peshitta read be'onyi, "in my affliction". There are no other confessions of wrongdoing in this Psalm.
שקר הסוס לתשועה וברוב חילו לא ימלט
The horse is a lie for rescue
and in his surfeit of might he helps none escape.
King James: An horse is a vain thing for safety; neither shall he deliver any by his great strength.
JPS: 1985: horses are a false hope for deliverance; for all their great power they provide no escape.
ברצח בעצמותי חרפוני צוררי
With murder in my bones, my enemies revile me
With murder in my bones. This shocking phrase is what the Hebrew actually appears to say. The King James Version, with no warrant, puts a sword in the bones. Others seek to relate the noun to a root that means "crush", but in fact the verbal stem r-ts-h everywhere means "to murder". It is best to take this as an arresting expression of the imminent threat of death. The speaker can feel the murder that others wish to perpetrate on him in his very bones at the moment his enemies revile him.
כמו חלב ודשן תשבע נפשי
As with ripest repast, my being is sated.
ripest repast The literal meaning of the Hebrew here is "suet and rich food" (King James Version "marrow and fatness") but that scarcely works in English as poetry.
ותשקמו בדמעות שליש
and made them drink a triple measure of tears.
triple measure The Hebrew says "a third" — evidently a third of some very large unit of measure. Because in English the use of the fraction would suggest smallness rather than large quantity, this translation turns the number three into a multiplier.
King James: and givest them tears to drink in great measure.
בקרב אלוהים ישפוט
in the midst of the gods he renders judgement
in the midst of the gods. The efforts of traditional commentators to understand 'elohim as "judges" are unconvincing. God speaks out in the assembly of lesser gods and rebukes them for doing a wretched job in the administration of justice on earth.
וינחם אל מקום חפצם
and He leads them to their bourn.
their bourn. This rather antiquated English term reflects a high-poetic locution for "destination" in the Hebrew, which is literally, "the realm of their desire."
King James: so he bringeth them unto their desired haven.
JPS 1985: and he brings them to their desired haven.
Alter has an occasional weakness for using obscure English words even in translating common Hebrew words --- ESD
אשרי תמימי דרך ההולכים בתורת השם
אשרי נצרי עדותיו בכל לב ידרשוהו
אף לא פעלו עולה בדרכיו
אתה צויתה פקודך לשמור מאוד
אחלי יכונו דרכי לשמור חוקיך
Happy whose way is blameless
who walk in the Lord's teaching.
Happy who keep his precepts
with a whole heart they seek him.
Yes, they did no wrong
in His ways they have walked.
You ordained your decrees
to be strictly observed.
Would that my ways be firm
to observe your statutes.
way ... / teaching. The lines are rhythmically compact, usually having three accented syllables in the first verset and two in the second. The translation tries wherever possible to replicate this rhythm, but often there is one extra accent in the English.
I've quoted above only a small part of a very long comment of Alter's on the psalm. I cite this example, because it is really a rather heroic undertaking for a translator to conform to this meter through this entire 176-verse psalm; on the whole, it seems to me, Alter carries it off very successfully. --- ESD
קדמתי בנשף ואשועה
I greeted the dawn and cried out,
greeted. The Hebrew verb here, qidem and also in verse 148, can equally mean "to anticipate", "to go before". Hence the King James Version renders it as "prevent", using that English verb with precisely this meaning, which is now obsolete.
Notable that Alter takes the time and trouble to explain the King James. --- ESD
נפשי לאדוני משומרים לבוקר שומרים לבוקר
My being for the Master —
more than the dawn-watchers watch for the dawn.
My being for the Master — / more than the dawn-watchers watch for the dawn. Previous translators here have all supplied a predicate here ("is eager," "is turned to," or King James Version's "waiteth", duly italicized to show that it is merely implied in the Hebrew.) But the power of the line in the original is precisely that the anticipated verb ("wait" having appeared with its synonym "hoped" in the preceding line) is choked off; my inner being, my utmost self — for God more than watchmen watch for the dawn. (The Hebrew noun boqer also has the more general meaning of "morning", but in this context of watchmen through the night awaiting the first light, "dawn" is strongly indicated.) Previous translators render the four Hebrew words, mishomrim laboquer shomrim laboquer as a simple repetition (for example, the New Jewish Publication Society, "than watchmen for the morning, watchmen for the morning"). But shomrim can be either a verbal noun ("watchmen") or a plural verb ("watch"). The line becomes more vivid and energetic if the second occurrence is understood as a verb: more than watchmen watch for the dawn, I watch — elliptically understood — for the LORD. The force of the image is evident: the watchmen sitting through the last of the three watches of the night, peering into the darkness for the first sign of dawn, cannot equal my intense expectancy for God's redeeming word to come to me in my dark night of the soul.
אם אשכחך ירושלים תשכח ימיני
Should I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand wither.
may my right hand wither. The Masoretic text reads "may my right hand forget [tishkah]". This is problematic, because there is no evidence elsewhere for an intransitive use of the verb "to forget" — hence the strategy of desperation in the King James Version in adding, in italics, an object to the verb "her cunning". But a simple reversal of consonants yields tikhhash, "wither". The loss of capacity of hand and tongue is linked with the refusal of song, for the right hand is needed to pluck the lyre and the tongue to sing the song.
Alter is not the first to translate this "wither", and I had seen it before, but had not known the justification. --- ESD
אל תתן ד' מאויי רשע זממו אל תפק ירומו סלה
Do not grant, O LORD, the desires of the wicked
do not fulfill his devising
They would rise. selah
They would rise. At this point, continuing to the end of verse 11, the text shows numerous signs of mangling in scribal transmission. Attempts to reconstruct it have not been notably successful, though one might adopt the proposal of adding the negative 'al yielding, "Let them not rise." "They would rise" (a single word in the Hebrew) does not make evident sense in context, and the doubts about its textual authenticity are compounded by the fact that as one word with one accented syllable it does not scan and could not constitute a verset.
King James: Grant not, O LORD, the desires of the wicked; further not his wicked device; lest they be exalted. Selah
JPS 1985: O LORD, do not grant the desires of the wicked; do not let their plan succeed, else they be exalted. Selah.
לפני שבר גאון ולפני כשלון גבה רוח
Pride before a breakdown, and before stumbling, haughtiness
King James: Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.
JPS 1985: Pride comes before the fall, and haughtiness of spirit before failure.
אחבירה אתכם במילים
I would din words against you.
King James: I could heap up words against you.
JPS 1985: I would barrage you with words.
I have, occasionally, seen "dinning" as a gerund ("dinning in his ears") but "din" as a simple present seems to be rare. --- ESD
שק תפרתי עלי גלדי
Sackcloth I sewed for my scabs
scabs. Many interpreters, on the basis of Aramaic and Arabic cognates, understand this simply as "skin" (this is the sole occurrence of the noun geled in the Bible). But in rabbinic Hebrew the word means the scab over a wound, and that seems more directly relevant to Job's plight.
As far as I can see, this translation is original to Alter; the other translations I can find all use "skin". --- ESD
כי השפילו ותאמר גוה ושח ענים יושיע
ימלט אי נקי ונמלט בבר כפיך
When they sink low and you say "Pride"
who casts his eyes down He rescues.
He lets the guilty escape
he escapes through your spotless palms.
When they sink low and you say "Pride". Both this verse and the next are rather crabbed in the Hebrew and so the translation is conjectural. (To begin with, it is far from certain that the cryptic gewah means "pride" here.) The translation tentatively reconstructs the meaning as follows: the repentant Job encounters people fallen on bad times and condemns them for having been proud (as in "Pride before a breakdown" Proverbs 16:18). When these unfortunates then embrace humility ("who casts his eyes down"), God rescues them. Though they were guilty (the meaning of i-naqi in the next verse has been much contested), God enables them to escape from their disaster, granting them that favor because he takes into consideration the intervention on their behalf of the now blameless Job ("he escapes through your spotless palms"). All this is no more than an educated guess about the meaning of these two stubbornly obscure lines.
King James: When men are cast down, then thou shalt say, There is lifing up; and he shall save the humble person. He shall deliver the island of the innocent; and it is delivered by the pureness of thine hands.
JPS 1985: When other sink low, you will say it is pride; for He saves the humble. He will deliver the guilty; he will be delivered through the cleanness of your hands.
Other translations are very different. The speaker here is Eliphaz the Temanite, if that's at all helpful. --- ESD
Alter changes chapter breaks in a number of books of the Bible; and he changes the order of verses a number of times in the books of Psalms and Job. For example, in Psalm 107, he places verse 40 before 39; in Job 24, he places verse 9 between verses 3 and 4. (The translation shows the verses in the order that Alter considers proper, but the numbering on the side follows the standard numbering --- this can look a little confusing until one realizes what is going on, but actually works well.) His most extensive rearrangement is here: Verses 5-14 of Job 26 are moved to the end of chapter 25, thus transferring them from Job to Bildad the Shuhite. I won't quote the entire text or its translation, but here is Alter's note about it: --- ESD
CHAPTER 25. Bildad's speech as we have it in the received text — only six verses — is inordinately brief, less than a third the length of the other speeches in the debate, and a section or sections of it almost certainly have been displaced or lost in the process of scribal copying. This translation follows a common proposal in transposing 26:5-14 to Bildad's discourse here. Those verses, which are wholly devoted to a rhapsodic celebration of God's cosmic powers, are altogether implausible as part of Job's speech, though that is how they are assigned in the received text.
בחסר ובכפן גלמוד העורקים ציא אמש שואה ומשאה
In want and starvation bereft
they flee to desert land,
the darkness of desolate dunes
the darkness of desolate dunes. The Hebrew shows prominent alliteration and wordplay, 'emesh sho'ah umesho'ah. The last two words would literally mean something like "desolation and desolateness".
King James: From want and famine they were solitary; fleeing into the wilderness in former time desolate and waste.
JPS 1985: Wasted from want and starvation, They flee to a parched land, To the gloom of desolate wasteland.
יגיד עליו רעו מקנה על אף עולה
His roaring tells about Him
His zealous wrath over evil acts.
His roraing tells about Him. The translation of this cryptic verse is an educated guess, based on the surmise that this line is a continuation of the thunder imagery and that the rumbling of the thunder is heard as a manifestation of God's awesome power. The second verset in the original sounds like gibberish, an effect mirrored — intentionally? — in the King James Version for the entire line: "The noise thereof showeth concerning it, the cattle also concerning the vapour." This translation tries to rescue the verset from pure gibberish by emending miqneh "cattle" to meqanei "to be zealous", and revocalizing 'oleh ("going up"?) to 'awlah "wrongdoing" or "evil acts".
ויען ד' את איוב מן הסערה
And the LORD answered Job from the whirlwind
the whirlwind. Though the Hebrew se'arah probably means simply "storm", the translation choice — and the consequent phrase the Voice from the Whirlwind — have been so deeply embedded in the imagination of speakers of English after the King James Version that it seems wise not to tamper with it.
It is striking that Alter should defer to the King James Version here. Usually he does not, no matter how well-known the verse is.--ESD
Song of Songs 2:1
אני חבצלת השרון שושנת העמקים
I am the rose of Sharon
the lily of the valley.
rose .../lily. Like a good many items of Biblical flora, the identification of these two flowers remains uncertain, so it seems sensible to follow the traditional English equivalents here, which may be as good a guess as any.
Lacking any evidence one way or another, Alter here adopts traditional identification of natural kinds ... --- ESD
Song of Songs 2:3
כתפוח בעצי היער
Like a quince tree among the trees of the forest
quince tree. The traditional rendering of "apple tree" cannot be right, because apple trees were not cultivated in the ancient Near East. (The term used here would nevertheless become the standard word for "apple" in later Hebrew.) The Blochs opt for "apricot", which does make sense in regard to its succulence, but it remains conjectural. Quince, a harder fruit, has at least a metrical advantage. Quinces have been used in Greece and perhaps elsewhere in the Mediterranean, for many centuries to perfume bedsheets, and that association might be in play in the Song of Songs.
... but when the traditional translation is impossible in terms of botanical history, Alter turns to another translation; unavoidably, this is fairly arbitrary. Incidentally, one thing that Alter's notes do not provide is bibliographic information about the works he mentions, so if you are wondering who the Blochs are or where they proposed their translation --- well, at least in this case, you can easily Google it yourself. --- ESD
Song of Songs 2:5
כי חולת אהבה אני
for I am in a swoon of love.
I am in a swoon of love. The literal sense of the Hebrew is "lovesick", but that sounds too pathetic, or adolescent, in English. The King James Version "sick of love" sounds like a blunder or at least has become that for twenty-first century usage.
Song of Songs 2:8
קול דודי הנה זה בא
Hark! Oh, my lover is coming.
Hark! The Hebrew qol usually means "voice" or "sound", but it is also sometimes an interjection corresponding to "hark" in English. That sense may be more likely here because she would hardly hear the voice of her lover (unless he was shouting her name or yodeling) and the sound of his footsteps would scarcely be audible as he bounds over the mountains.
The translation is charming. --- ESD
אותי נהג ויולך חושך ולא אור
Me he drove off, led away —
darkness and no light!
[The triple acrostic] form leads to even more syntactic inversions in biblical Hebrew, with the object of the verb "fronted" at the beginning of many lines, but the poet exploits this pattern for expressive emphasis.
He hath led me and brought me into darkness, but not into light.
JPS 1917: He hath led me and caused me to walk in darkness and not in light.
JPS 1985: Me he drove on and on / in unrelieved darkness.
This is from Alter's comment on verse 3:1, but the fronting he describes is exemplified in verse 3:2. --- ESD
Qohelet's famous first words, which he will make a much repeated refrain and with which he will conclude the book proper, before the epilogue, are a prime instance of a metaphor serving the function of an abstraction. The King James Version rendered the initial words and all their recurrences as "vanity of vanities". The seventeenth-century translators obviously had the Latin version in mind, with "vanity" suggesting a lack of value, not self-admiration. This choice has actually been preserved, a little surprisingly, in one recent scholarly translation, C.L. Seow's Anchor Bible Ecclesiastes. At least a couple of other modern translators have opted for "futility" and Michael V. Fox, in his admirable analysis accompanied by a translation of the text, insists on "absurdity". The problem is that all of these English equivalents are more or less right, and abstractions being what they are, each one has the effect of excluding the others and thus limiting the Hebrew metaphor. The Hebrew hevel probably indicates the flimsy vapor that is exhaled in breathing, invisible except on a cold winter day and in any case immediately dissipating in the air. It is the opposite of ruah, "life-breath," which is the animating force in a living creature, because it is the waste product of breathing. If, then, one wanted to line up the abstractions implied by hevel, it would include not only futility, absurdity, and vanity, but at least insubstantiality, ephemerality, and elusiveness as well. Because of these considerations, this translation has chosen to reproduce the concrete image of the Hebrew, rendering hevel as "mere breath" ("breath" alone doesn't quite work in English) and representing the Hebrew superlative havel havalim as "merest breath".
This is from Alter's introduction to the book of Qohelet. -- ESD
and herding the wind
herding the wind. The verbal root of the first Hebrew word here generally means to tend a flock (and in the Song of Songs, to graze), so the common modern translation, "pursuit of the wind" is an interpretive liberty. Herding the wind, which of course cannot be herded (it goes round and round), is an effective enough image of futile activity, coordinated with "mere breath".
This strikes me as a perfect translation; both a literal translation and a very striking metaphor. As far as I have seen, it is original to Alter. --- ESD
כי כקול הסירים תחת הסיר כן שחק הכסיל
For like the sound of thorns beneath the pot, so is the laughter of the fool.
the sound of thorns. Most translations since the King James Version read "crackle" which is more vivid, but unfortunately is translation through embellishment. The Hebrew qol means simply "sound".
הכל לפניהם: הכל כאשר לכל מקרה אחד
All before them is mere breath. As all have a single fate ...
All before them is mere breath. The Masoretic text reads "All before them," followed by a full stop, and then begins the next verse with, "all". Neither "all before them" standing alone nor the second "all" make much sense. This translation follows the Septuagint and two other ancient versions in reading instead of the second "all" hakol "mere breath" hevel, a difference of one consonant. The sentence is then coherent.
לב חכם לימינו
A wise man's mind is at his right.
mind. The Hebrew literally means "heart", thought to be the seat of understanding, but the context puts an emphasis on cognition, not feeling, and one must avoid the comic error of Molière's physician despite himself, who places the heart on the right side.