How translation obscured the music and wordplay of the Bible
by Robert Alter
An essential fact about the Hebrew Bible is that most of its narrative prose as well as its poetry manifests a high order of sophisticated literary fashioning. This means that any translation that does not attempt to convey at least something of the stylistic brilliance of the original is a betrayal of it, and such has been the case of all the English versions done by committee in the modern period.
It might be objected that the books of the Bible are, after all, fundamentally religious texts, not works of literature but, for reasons we cannot altogether fathom, this tiny Israelite realm, though rather crude in comparison with its larger and more powerful ancient Near Eastern neighbours in regard to visual art and material culture, produced writers of genius who chose to express their vision of the new monotheistic worldview in artful narrative and finely evocative poetry. If a translation fails to get much of its music across, it also blurs or even misrepresents the depth and complexity of the monotheistic vision of God, history, the realm of morality, and humankind.
But, a reader might wonder, isn’t the first responsibility of a translator of the Bible to get the meanings of the words right? Although this is of course true, getting the meanings right in a language removed from us by more than two and a half millennia often means paying close attention to the narrative and poetic contexts in which the words occur. That is something biblical scholars simply do not do. Also, as any literary reader is well aware, considering connotation as well as lexical denotation and taking into account the level of diction or linguistic register of any given Hebrew term is equally important.
One small but telltale manifestation of the artistry practised by the biblical writers is their fondness for meaningful word play and sound play. Here are three examples of how I tried, in translation, to preserve their effect.
At the very beginning of Genesis, before God speaks the world into being, the Earth is said to be, in the English of all the modern versions (except the one by Everett Fox), following the precedent of the King James Bible with only minor adjustments, ‘unformed and void’. This is a fair representation of what the Hebrew means but not at all of how it sounds. The Hebrew is tohu wavohu. The first of these two words is a well-known term that usually indicates something like ‘emptiness’, ‘trackless expanse’ or even ‘futility’. The second word could well be a nonce-word coined as a rhyme with tohu. The effect is rather like ‘helter skelter’ or ‘harum scarum’ in English, where the rhyming of bracketed terms reinforces the sense of things confused, intermingled, moving at reckless speed. I thought this important to reproduce somehow in English, and not being able to come up with a workable rhyme, I settled for alliteration, translating the paired terms as ‘welter and waste’. This solution is perhaps not perfect but, as a rule, a translator is constrained to settle for a reasonable approximation.
The prophet Isaiah, like any great poet, commands a variety of formal tools – powerful rhythms, striking imagery, pointed literary allusions (in his case, to earlier biblical texts). Isaiah is particularly fond of sound play that verges on punning. In order to convey with force the perversion of values in the kingdom of Judah, he often juxtaposes two words that sound rather alike but are opposite in meaning. In this way, Isaiah shows forth in language the flip of virtuous to vicious, good to evil.
A relatively simple instance is the first line of poetry in 1:23. A literal translation would be: ‘Your leaders [or governors or noblemen] are wayward.’ But the Hebrew expresses this twist from positive to negative through sound play: ‘Your leaders’ is sarayikh, and ‘wayward’ is sorerim, a kind of echo effect with the strong alliteration of s-sounds and r-sounds. I represent this in English, with a weaker alliteration, as ‘Your nobles are knaves,’ getting at least some of the feel of the Hebrew.
A still greater display of virtuosity is evident in the last poetic line of 5:7. The literal sense is: ‘And He hoped for justice and, look, a blight, / for righteousness and, look, a scream.’ This might sound straightforward but blunts the sharp point of the crucial Hebrew nouns. The word for ‘justice’ is mishpat; for ‘blight’, mispah. In the second half of the line, ‘righteousness’ is tsedaqah, and ‘scream’ is tse‘aqah, a difference of a single consonant. I felt that some English equivalent of the sound play was imperative lest Isaiah’s moral castigation lose its bite. I rendered the whole line as follows: ‘And he hoped for justice, and, look, jaundice, / for righteousness, and, look, wretchedness.’ I was quite happy with the first half of the line because jaundice, after all, is a kind of blight. My solution for the second half of the line was a bit imperfect: the two nouns used had a few too many syllables for the rhythm of the line, and ‘wretchedness’ is not exactly the same thing as ‘a scream’ and loses the note of violence of the Hebrew term.
Nevertheless, translation, as I discovered again and again in the course of my work, entails a long series of compromises because full equivalence is rarely an option. Some of the compromises are happy ones, some a little painful for the translator. What you repeatedly have to do in this kind of labour is to sacrifice one particular effect in order to preserve another that seems to you more important. In this line from Isaiah, I permitted myself some licence in the second half (for righteousness, and, look, wretchedness), contrary to my general practice of hewing to the literal sense of the Hebrew. I also took on some rhythmic ungainliness in the two English nouns because the reversal of values inscribed in the two like-sounding antonyms was so essential to what some would call the prophet’s message. As far as I am aware, no previous translator has attempted to create an equivalent for the sound play here of the Hebrew.
To some, such echo-effects in word play might seem an odd illustration of the literary art of the Bible, but I think this is one of those instances in which the anomalous or extreme case actually typifies the whole. The Hebrew writers repeatedly revelled in the expressive possibilities of their medium, working inventively and sometimes surprisingly in their stories and poems with rhythm, significant repetition, narrative point of view, imagery, shifts in diction, the bending of language in dialogue to represent actual speech or the nature and location of the speaker, and much else. Because these writers continually tapped the distinctive resources of the Hebrew language for these ends, not all of it is readily transferable to another language. But I am convinced that a good deal of it is. Translators of the Bible have rarely understood the need or made the effort to convey the literary dimension of the Hebrew works. That is what I have undertaken to do, whatever the imperfections, in my translation of the Hebrew Bible.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
About the Author:
Robert Alter is professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of more than 20 books, most recently The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary (2018).