Found in translation: giving voice to those who wrote ‘Hebrew Bible’
In his work on many books, Robert Alter aims to translate not just the poem but the poet
Strong as Death is Love: A Translation with Commentary
W W Norton & Company
In the years after the second World War, a generic literary figure emerged. This was the translator. Travel and the aftermath of war had combined to turn a bright light on the necessity for cultural exchange. Texts previously shut away in foreign languages now became available. In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s a visible industry emerged. Through small presses and new publications essential writers – Eugenio Montale, Anna Akhmatova, Anna Swir, Christa Wolf and many others – were conveyed to new audiences. “Translators are the shadow heroes of literature,” wrote Paul Auster. And so it appeared.
And then a strange thing happened. As the conversation about new voices in different languages grew louder the conversation about the translator fell into confusion. What was the exact definition of the role? Were translators simply vendors and sifters of words? Mediators between cultures? Something more? Something less? The questions appeared to hang in the air and then vanish. With the result that an essential figure slipped into the shadows even though what George Steiner said remained true: “Without translation, we would be living in provinces bordering on silence.”
These issues and omissions are brought into focus by this book, Strong as Death is Love, Robert Alter’s latest volume of biblical translation. They are also part of what makes him such a remarkable figure. Born in the US, he has been a scholar and professor since the 1960s, working between the departments of Comparative Literature and Hebrew Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. He has written and lectured as a comparatist, on Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin, publishing a book on modernism called Necessary Angels. He has been a leading translator of Yehuda Amichai. And yet these commitments are almost bleached out by his signature project: translating the Hebrew Bible.
For almost two decades Alter has pushed ahead, bringing out volumes of this translation with dizzying speed. In 1999 it was The David Story, a translation of the first books of Samuel, offering the powerful narrative of a Biblical anti-hero. In 2004 it was The Five Books of Moses; in 2007 The Book of Psalms; in 2009 The Book of Genesis. With hardly time to draw breath in 2010 he added The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. And now comes this new title. Strong As Death is Love covering the books of Ruth, Esther, The Song of Songs, Jonah and Daniel. All the volumes carry as their sub-title A Translation with Commentary.
And the role of the translator? In an interview Alter said, “I want to try to convey in English what I think were the actual values and mind-sets of the ancient Hebrew writers, which is also, in the poetry, inseparable from the concreteness of their language and the compactness and rhythmic force of the poetry they wrote.”
With these words Alter is making a remarkable claim, important not to miss. A difficulty of poetic translation in our time has been the tendency to translate the poem, but to make little comparable effort to translate the poet. Alter clearly intends to do both. In so doing, it becomes clear that one of the great rewards of his work is a re-definition of the translator’s role.
And yet with this new volume his task just got a little harder. Strong as Death is Love is an annotated volume of translation of five books of the Bible mentioned above.
“The short books presented here,” he writes in his introduction, “are artful and innovative literary works.”
But they are also what is described as late Biblical books. They will be, he suggests, far more modern texts to our eye than the earlier ones: “The temporal distance between the sundry strands of Genesis or the Book of Samuel and these late Biblical texts is comparable to the distance between Shakespeare and John Updike. ”
There is more to that distance than time. The fact is many people know a phrase, a fragment from at least one of these books, as they might not from, say, The Book of Samuel. Unlike those more remote books, these are the ones that collide and collude with popular memory. These are the ones likely to trespass on a half-sentence, a remembered phrase that a reader has held on to all their lives. To intrude on a cherished image including, I might add in this context, my own.
I remember a childish summer spent in Kent in a room with a framed painting of a younger and older woman, gesturing helplessly towards each other in a cornfield. Under it were the wrenching, beautiful words from the King James Bible: “Whither thou goest, I will go.” I knew nothing about tribes, or territories. But for me the words themselves became a form of knowledge, lasting long into my life. And this, in a sense, is what Alter has to contend with: with these translations, he is driving through a territory of prior cultural possession.
He does so with authority and clarity. His eloquent, context-providing introductions are masterly and approachable. Each of the translations of the five books begins with an explanation of the text called To the Reader. This is especially helpful with the first book here: The Song of Songs, from which the title of the book is taken. Alter proves to be a lucid, articulate guide to this mysterious, erotic masterpiece, half-known by many people but often merely excerpted by a few phrases.
“Little is known about the origins of these poems,” Alter states, as once again he reaches for the identity of the poets as well as the poems. “These poets are finely aware of the long tradition of Hebrew poetry.”
He then adds as summary: “These are among the most beautiful love poems that have come down to us from the whole ancient world.” The translation itself is clear and haunting.
His treatment of the Book of Ruth is similarly inviting. The story of Ruth – maybe the loveliest and most simplified in the Bible – narrates the experience of Ruth and Naomi, a young widow and her mother-in-law.
Ruth, who becomes the great-grandmother of David, accepts her mother-in-law Naomi’s Israelite faith. The crude image I saw as a child conveys the moment when Ruth tells Naomi of her acceptance. “Charm is not a characteristic that one associates with biblical narrative,” writes Alter, “but this idyll is charming”.
It is also far more accessible after reading his notes, placed comfortably under the page of translation. “For wherever you go I will go,” says Ruth in this text – a more plainspoken turn of translation by Alter than the King James version. But with the follow-up – “wherever you die I will die” – just as powerful. And this is characteristic. In each of the Biblical books in this volume a balance of explanation, translation and commentary is offered. In each of them the reader is made a partner in an adventure of scholarship and clarification which is both rare and exemplary.