The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

Jan 15, 2021

A word of praise for Robert Alter's The Art of Bible Translation (and a note on Hebrew literary style in Bible translation)

Here at Baptist Theological Seminary, I have the privilege, along with my father (30+ year missionary to Japan) and Kathy Ann Birnschein (graduate of SIL, with her thesis on the Hmong language) of spearheading our Master of Arts in Bible Translation. With that in mind, I would like to offer a word of praise for Robert Alter's recent book, The Art of Bible Translation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019), which now is one of the required textbooks for our class "Translation Issues in Greek and Hebrew."

Dr. Alter has just finished his massive, 3-volume The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, and he "gets" discourse and literary style, especially in Hebrew (to be fair, one of the downsides is that the book has virtually nothing on Greek). Consequently, Alter's discussion of translating the Old Testament in The Art of Bible Translation definitely favors a more literal style (I realize the word "literal" can be overdone; but this does not invalidate the basic idea it represents--a topic for a later post). In fact, sometimes I felt Alter was  perhaps just a bit too harsh on modern translations in general, and his own translations can occasionally trend towards the wooden side (think NASB on steroids), but this is due to his zealousness for reflecting the literary style of the Old Testament. His book provides and excellent discussion of alliteration, chiasm, and puns, all relevant elements of Old Testament Hebrew that are generally neglected in modern treatments of the topic. In a nutshell, Alter's biggest beef with modern translation theory is that "Literary style is never studied, and the translators consequently proceed as if the Bible had no style at all, as if a translator were entitled to represent it in a hodgepodge of modern English styles" (12).

I remind the reader: literary artistry is inspired by the Holy Spirit just as much as individual words. Any translation that does not adequately reflect such artistry has not adequately reflected the actual text the Holy Spirit inspired. It may, of course, be impossible (try creating a translation that starts each verse of vv. 1-8 of Psalm 119 with "a", each verse of vv. 9-16 with "b", and so on, without tampering with the meaning of individual words). Consequently, this underscores why there can be no such thing as a "perfect translation": no translation, no matter how dependent it is on godly men and women, can perfectly translate the literary artistry of Hebrew into a different language. And so long as there is even a solitary literary effect (e.g., deliberate alliteration in a verse) from the Hebrew that is not reflected  in the English (or any other language), then by definition that translation cannot be perfect, for to claim that translation is perfect would be to deny that the Holy Spirit's literary artistry at a particular point possesses any significance.

By way of illustration: Psalm 119, which I mentioned above, in the Hebrew, begins every single line (verse, in English) with the same letter for clusters of 8 lines. So for Psalm 119:1-8, each line/verse begins with the Hebrew "aleph," verses 9-16 each begin with "beth," etc. As anybody who has ever tried alliterative poetry knows, this is much easier with some letters than with others. When we get to verse 49, and each line starts with "z" (the Hebrew letter zion), we have reached an incredible level of creativity, creativity that is inspired by the Holy Spirit and yet does not exist in any English translation (including the King James). Each verse in Psalm 119:49-56 in English does not start with "z," and for good reason! Doing so would have disrupted at least some of the sense of the verse itself. Yet I reiterate my point: no English translation can be perfect if it has not perfectly reflected the Spirit-inspired literary artistry of the Hebrew. To claim a perfect translation that does not alliterate in the same way is to claim that certain elements of what the Holy Spirit inspired actually do not matter, which would consequently mean that a perfect Bible can be obtained by human effort only while neglecting at least some of the Spirit's work. It's worth asking: what's the point of the Holy Spirit's inspiration in the first place if a perfect English Bible could be obtained that does not reflect all that the Holy Spirit has perfectly inspired in the Hebrew?

So back to Alter's book. My word of praise is that, ironically, this scholar from Berkeley, California cares more about the literary artistry of the Hebrew than many King James Only-ists, even though one of the strengths of the King James and other "essentially literal" translations is that they have paid attention to the literary artistry when possible (indeed, I will go a step farther: the King James, at least for its particular era, possesses the best balance of reflecting the Hebrew literary artistry when at all possible without obscuring the meaning of the verse in English; again, though,  it cannot be claimed to be perfect without downplaying the work of the Holy Spirit). Alter masterfully shows the importance of bringing out the discourse and artistry of the Hebrew into English translation; while I feel he goes too far sometimes, and is a bit too critical of others, nonetheless the book is a masterpiece, and excels in showing that meaning does not just reside in individual words.