Rabbi A. James Rudin: Robert Alter’s Translation of the Hebrew Bible Is a Majestic Achievement

Robert Alter and his translation of the Hebrew Bible. Alter photo courtesy of UC Berkeley

Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser and the author of “Pillar of Fire: A Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise.” He can be reached at jamesrudin.com.The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of BCNN1.

As others have said, translating from one language to another is like kissing through a handkerchief: It’s close, but not the real thing. 

This is especially true when it involves translating the sacred Hebrew Bible, a text that millions of people believe is the literal word of God and whose “newest” additions to the canon are at least 1,900 years old.

How difficult is such a task?

Imagine that 1,900 years from now, in 3919, a future translator came across a sentence about politics that someone might write today: “Many ardent supporters are dancing in the end zone because they believe the senator hit it out of the park with yesterday’s speech.  As a result, they happily assert, the ball is now in someone else’s court.”

To understand this mix of metaphors demands a familiarity with contemporary football, baseball and basketball terminology. They’d need to know that “the park” in this case does not mean a public area set aside for relaxation, flowers and trees, but rather a sports stadium. The translator of the distant future would also need to know that the word “court” in this context denotes an athletic arena, and not a place to adjudicate legal issues, nor does it mean an ingratiating description of gaining the favor of someone. Only then could an authentic translation even begin.

Though not the first, the most famous translation of the Bible into English is the revered and still widely used King James Version that 47 members of the Anglican Church completed in 1611. Since then, there have been a myriad of translations for specific groups of readers, including young children, teenagers, Catholics, Protestants and Jews.

When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered near Jerusalem in 1947, some scholars believed the ancient Hebrew language parchments would provide the world with new, previously unknown texts of the Bible. That did not happen, and the continuing cascade of both good and bad biblical translations has continued, but none has displaced the soaring language of the KJV.

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Source: Religion News Service