The first five books of the Bible, traditionally the work of Moses, and the core of Jewish law, retained authority in the Christian tradition and have probably been translated into more languages than any other book. English versions date back to the first stirrings of the Reformation in the fourteenth century. The invention of printing made it possible for Protestants to produce, against official Catholic opposition, the great series of sixteenth-century vernacular Bibles that culminated in the King James or Authorized Version of 1611 (hereinafter referred to simply as 1611).

By that time the English Church had seceded from Rome and the translators, fifty in number, were no longer nonconformists but for the most part bishops and other establishment clerics. Theirs proved to be the most influential and memorable of all the English versions, but its language was already old-fashioned, and because language changes over time, the desire to replace 1611 with a less archaic Bible has been and remains strong. Meanwhile scholarly understanding of the Hebrew and Greek texts has advanced and continues to advance, and translators must also take that new information into account.

Robert Alter, emphasizing the centrality of the Five Books in the Jewish tradition, quotes in his introduction these words from the Babylonian Talmud: “If Israel accepts the Torah, you will continue to exist. If not, I shall return you to welter and waste.” “This is surely an extraordinary notion to entertain about the cosmic status of a book,” says Alter, “imagining that the very existence of the world depends on it, and on Israel’s embrace of it.” Yet even as he makes this point he is tacitly inviting us to consider a question of translation. “Welter and waste” is his version of the words tohu wabohu, a modern replacement for “without form and void,” an expression that goes right back to the sixteenth-century English Bible. “Without form and void” was acceptable to the translators of the Geneva Bible of 1560, and their version is supported by a marginal gloss: “As a rude lump, & without any creature in it,” which seems admirable and may tempt us to think “without form and void” accurate as well as familiar.

Alter’s note explains that “tohu by itself means ’emptiness’ or ‘futility,'” and this was evidently understood by the sixteenth-century Hebraists. But he prefers to mint a new and effective though perhaps less literal expression. I notice that the version of Genesis by Mary Phil Korsak1 has simply “tohu-bohu,” which is not a translation at all, any more than “Elohim,” which means “God” but is throughout left by Korsak in this form. It is as if the search for accuracy and novelty has come full circle; an intention to preserve the numinous remoteness of the text might, as in Borges’s story of the Don Quixote translation, culminate in simple transcription.

Robert Alter’s deeply considered achievement brings to mind some of his heroic predecessors, the greatest of them being William Tyndale (circa 1494–1536). Tyndale first translated the New Testament and then tackled the Pentateuch (“The Five Books of Moses”), which was published in 1530. Only one copy of that edition survives. He encountered fierce ecclesiastical opposition, and finally was strangled and burned as a heretic. He had virtually no English model, and although he could read Luther’s German and the Latin of the Cath-olic Vulgate, he was determined to work from the original languages. His knowledge of Hebrew, though exceptional in his time, was by modern standards imperfect in some respects, but there is general agreement that, as S.L. Greenslade remarked in The Cambridge History of the Bible, he “grasped the essentials of Hebrew vocabulary and syntax and sufficiently understood the genius and idiom of biblical Hebrew.”

Almost as remarkable as his scholarship was his skill as a writer of English. At a time when English prose is thought to have been close to its nadir—when the language of government and the professions was still Latin—he wrote clearly and simply, with the aim of making the Bible intelligible to working people—to the plowman, as he himself said. His genius was such that the best part of a century later his text dominates 1611, even though that work was produced after the language had been transformed by the great writers of the Elizabethan period. Recent estimates claim that Tyndale’s share in 1611 is about 80 percent.2 Its presence still lingers on; now and again Alter declines to avoid what seems inevitably the right translation, as in Genesis 15:16, “for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full,” which he renders exactly as 1611 does; and occasionally the language is simply too famous to be changed, even if slightly inexact.

Robert Alter was well prepared for his task. His book The Art of Biblical Narrative was a preparation for his fine translation and commentary on 1 and 2 Samuel, The David Story. The version of Genesis included in the pres- ent volume appeared on its own some nine years ago, and there are also important studies of Hebrew prose and verse. A close interest in narrative, about which he writes with much originality, has not kept him from the study of the many dense nonnarrative pages in the Five Books, for example the pages devoted to genealogy.


This account of his writings says nothing of his work in more recent literatures: a critical biography of Stendhal, books on Kafka and Benjamin and Fielding and the picaresque; and he is always ready to bring his literary and critical skills to the work of biblical criticism. But it seems fair to regard the Hebrew texts as his primary field of interest. His knowledge of Hebrew is clearly profound, and he is skilled at determining which pieces of language were meant as verse, at explaining the narrative devices employed by the ancient authors, at disputing questions of vocabulary and syntax, at citing the opinions of medieval Jewish commentators as well as their successors. It would not be easy to name another person as well qualified for this task.

Traduttori, traditori, “translators, traitors” is a very old proverb, and the treachery is the more serious when it affects a sacred text. Translators have sometimes yielded to temptation and made versions favorable to their doctrinal prejudices. These may find support in words or passages that are obscure in the original—a famous instance is in Saint Jerome’s Latin translation (the Vulgate) which renders a Greek nonce word—i.e., a word used only once—that is usually translated “daily bread” as panem supersubstantialem, which makes the bread supernatural, as in the Eucharist. Luther translates the Hebrew word for “life” as “eternal life,” and for him “the deliverer of Israel” becomes “the Savior.” The English and German Bibles of the sixteenth century are, not surprisingly, influenced in their vocabularies by strong Protestant convictions. The Geneva Bible, the version used by most English readers in the second half of the sixteenth century, has a good many partisan Calvinist marginalia. Nothing of this kind would be expected of Alter. Modern translators still have to deal with obscurities; but it is not their job to find doctrine in them, simply to offer an equivalent, perhaps approximate, in the “target” language. Of course they may choose to explain why they reject or prefer this or that reading, and Alter does that, among other things, in his commentary.

Scholarship is traditionally contentious, and it would be miraculous if two translations should be exactly alike. When the Puritans persuaded King James to sponsor a new translation, or revision, his archbishop of Canterbury, the anti-Puritan Richard Bancroft, opposed the plan with the oft-quoted comment “If every man’s humour should be followed there would be no end to translating.” Nor has there been an end. The great achievement of Tyndale, the founder of the English biblical tradition, has not died out—traces of his idiom persist in new translations to this day, via 1611—but it would no longer be enough to eliminate his oddities or his doctrinal prejudices (such as his refusal of words like “priest” and “penance” and “church”) to make his Bible accessible to ordinary people, which was his avowed intention.

It is easy to agree that what most modern translators seek to provide is fidelity to the original in a language acceptable to their contemporaries; but this commonplace view of the matter leaves much to be explained and defended. Fidelity can be lifeless, and an apparently honest translation of the words may leave out whatever it is that makes the original worth translating. In the end a new version must stand on its own, and be accepted as faithful or rejected as wrong or eccentric, not by sectarian or other idiosyncratic standards. That is the least that can be asked of the translators. They have to judge the degree of colloquialism they can permit themselves, decide between verse and prose, and, what calls for the greatest refinement, be true not merely to the sense of the original but to the character of its language more generally.

Faced with this responsibility, translators may discover that their preferences and dislikes have a certain regularity—that their task may be made a little easier by the understanding of certain principles that govern their practice in general. Robert Alter has such principles, and he makes them clear to his readers. Indeed he has already done so in his earlier translation of Genesis, reprinted in the present volume, and in the introduction to his book The David Story in 1999. Like the present volume these books have a commentary in which the translator annotates “particular choices that might seem surprising or even peculiar to readers of the Bible.” Other notes indicate untranslatable puns or elements of the biblical Iron Age culture modern readers need help with.


Sometimes Alter will revert to his other trade as a literary critic, and indicate features of literary interest that escape the notice of specialized philologists. He has shown himself to be particularly good at dealing with narrative, a skill that makes his account of The David Story so fine; but the Pentateuch has, in addition to the great stories, a load of information concerning law and ceremony, not to mention the dense genealogical chapters or interchapters—what he calls “the begats”—and these need to be dealt with just as correctly as the narrative.

The principles that animate this translation of the Pentateuch are again set out, with Alter’s habitual force and clarity, in the introduction. “There is…something seriously wrong,” he claims,

with all the familiar English translations, traditional and recent, of the Hebrew Bible. Broadly speaking, one may say that in the case of the modern versions, the problem is a shaky sense of English and in the case of the King James version, a shaky sense of Hebrew.

You can see he is not much interested in making friends with either party. He accepts, on the whole, a fairly standard account of the sources and dates of his text but gives his own emphasis to what he calls their “literary design,” which preoccupies him throughout his commentary. He treats each book as he would a secular work of literature, attending to its structure, its employment of gaps and repetitions, as techniques of characterization. He believes that modern English versions have “placed readers at a grotesque distance from the distinctive literary experience of the Bible in its original language,” and he shares the opinion of the British critic Gerald Hammond that 1611 “remains the closest approach for English readers to the original—despite its frequent and at times embarrassing inaccuracies, despite its archaisms, and despite its insistent substitution of Renaissance English tonalities and rhythms for biblical ones.”

His version is thus meant to be a complete updating of 1611, shorn of its errors and archaisms. His purpose is not to explain the original text; his language will preserve its strangeness, its “physicality,” and it will follow the narrative practices of the original. If the Hebrew word means “hand” he will not translate it abstractly as “trust” or “care”; “don’t lay a hand on him” will not become “don’t do away with him”; and if the text says “seed” he will not translate it as “offspring.” Nor will he avoid the habitual parataxis of the original—clauses linked by “and” and not arranged according to the English habit of using subordinate clauses; for parataxis “is the essential literary vehicle of biblical narrative.” If his observance of this practice is taken to be another form of archaism, he doesn’t care.

He follows 1611; an indication of its adherence to parataxis may be illustrated by the contrast between a passage by Francis Bacon, written within a few years of 1611, and a characteristically paratactic passage in 1611, close enough to Alter: “And God made the vault and it divided the water beneath the vault from the water above the vault, and so it was.” (Alter; 1611 says “firmament” for “vault.”) Bacon begins his History of the Reign of Henry the VII thus:

After that Richard, the third of that name, king in fact only, but tyrant in both title and regiment, and so commonly termed and reputed in all times since, was by the Divine Revenge, favoring the design of an exiled man, overthrown and slain at Bosworth’s Field….

There is little doubt that Alter’s attention to the literary qualities and idiosyncrasies of his texts is unique and impressive. He understands how the stories work. Years ago he drew attention to the repeated “type-scenes” of biblical narrative, like the variants on the set piece of the young woman at the well. Rebekah comes out to the well with her jug on her shoulder, and meets Abraham’s servant, standing in for Isaac. They talk; she goes home with the news; and the scene is set for the betrothal. A similar scene occurs between Jacob and Rachel five chapters later (chapter 29). An echo of this may be the encounter between Judah and Tamar (chapter 38). This is the “betrothal type-scene”; there are other kinds. Now he is anxious to demonstrate that the narrative, considered in a larger perspective, is also carefully constructed. Its language is a literary language, and he sees no more reason to render it in colloquial English than to sacrifice literary power to paraphrase and explanation. Similarly, the rendering of bits of verse buried in the text (which he identi-fies with an expert eye) must reflect the “elevated and archaic” character of the language of that verse, which, he claims, “no previous English translation has made a serious effort” to do.

In his oracular essay “The Task of the Translator” Walter Benjamin argues that the meaning of an original text is not the same as its “way of meaning.” The reason we value ancient literature is (usually) not for what it means but for the way it says it, its “way of meaning.” It is with this that the translator should concern himself. Since the reproduction of meaning is not the point, discussion in terms of fidelity and license is irrelevant. Indeed bad translators are the best, if it is only a question of meaning. The good translator “must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s way of meaning,” a quite different project. Benjamin ends by remarking that only in sacred writing does the literal quality of the text take part directly in the Truth”; this text is directly translatable, and can “write literalness with freedom in the shape of an interlinear version,” i.e., with the translation following the original line by line.3

Alter declines the interlinear solution, but he probably has Benjamin’s ideal in mind. However, he is a philologist as well as a writer, and he cares about exact meaning. And he deserves the reader’s admiration for the skill with which he combines attention to meaning and to way of meaning. It may strike some as strange that his homage to the Hebrew of the Five Books consists not only in his preference for parataxis (which would of course feature in an interlinear version) and in his delicate detection and rendering of verses and versets, but also in his respect for the King James Version, written, as I’ve said, by a group of clerics and based on the work of the Reformation theologian William Tyndale. One of the pleasures of his book is to read through it with the English 1611 text at hand. Within the terms he laid down for himself Alter has solved a thousand problems and made a thousand choices, the literary critic and the philologist working harmoniously. Naturally any reviewer will find cause to quibble as well as to admire, and the remainder of this notice will be a brief selection from dozens of observations made in the course of a reading that was always seeking points to argue about.

An obvious place to start is with some lexical decisions that feel dubious. “Rachel was comely to look at,” (Gen. 29:17): the word “comely,” used when 1611 has “beautiful and well-favoured,” is one such decision. It is true that the word occurs frequently in the Song of Songs, but it seems to have changed its meaning by 1718, when John Gay could write “Sarah Drew might be rather called comely than beautiful” (OED), and to treat it as synonymous with “beautiful” is, I think, a distracting archaism. Surely nobody now uses it to mean “beautiful.” So too with “lad” to mean “young man” or used, as in Exodus 2:6, of a baby (Moses in the bulrushes). Alter has a note defending this, saying that in this place it was desirable to emphasize that the newly discovered child was a male, this being a time when the male children of Hebrews were all supposed to be dead. It may be relevant, as he explains in a note, that the verb meaning “to weep” is used of a crying baby only in this place. To me, though perhaps not to an American reader, the word “lad” has entirely inappropriate associations—with A.E. Housman, for instance, or with stables, or with menacing teenagers. It is true that Tyndale and King James’s bishops used it fairly freely, but it still sounds odd. So does “weep” for “cry.”

Then there is the question whether a new word for an old idea might not produce some sort of inappropriate reaction—as when “the country of Edom” (Gen. 32:3; 32:4, Alter) becomes “the steppe of Edom,” where the Russian overtones struck me as irrelevant and confusing. I also wondered about the repeated use of “keen” for “lament,” but it is probably justifiable. “Sojourning settler” (Gen. 23:4) avoids “the bureaucratic coloration” of “resident alien” but still sounds awkward; so, too, the repeated “battalions” for “hosts” (Exodus 12:41). Several times Alter uses “substance” for “goods” and vice versa; 1611 also does this, but it is Alter who often makes a strong point, here neglected, about the rightness of repetition when the original repeats (and see Gen. 12:4, 14:11, and 15:14, where Alter and 1611 happen to agree).

A few modern colloquialisms may jar a little. “Take her and get out” (Gen. 12:20) attempts to render the “three abrupt syllables” of the original, which yielded “Go thy way” to the 1611 translators. “Clear out everyone” (Gen. 45:1) is even brusquer. Perhaps “Head up from here” (Exodus 33:1) is good colloquial American for “Go up.” But I can’t make myself hear an ancient Israelite using the banal modern expression “in point of fact” (Gen. 20:12, where 1611 has just “Yet indeed”).

In some places the sense seems different from that offered in the earlier translation. This may be because 1611 simply got it wrong. At Gen. 30:11 it has “A troop cometh,” where Alter has “Good luck has come.” It may be that Alter here, as elsewhere, knows more than the bishops. So we learn that “He pulled up his stakes” (Gen. 12:8) is better than “he removed from thence” (1611) because the Hebrew verb actually alludes to the pulling up of tent pegs, a regular duty among nomads.

At Gen. 14:14 Alter says Abram “marshaled his retainers” while 1611 says he “armed his trained servants”; a note tells us that “trained fighters” is possible, but Alter prefers not to print it. Sometimes, as another note tells us, the translator must make “an educated guess.” So, with the poem that is Jacob’s address to his sons in Gen. 49:4, the old man says to Reuben, “you profaned my couch, you mounted” (1611: “then defiledst thou it: he went up to my couch”). Here the modern translator presumably accepts an emendation in the interest of intelligibility rather than condone the baffling switch of pronouns.

Now and then one feels the need of more explanation, despite Alter’s argument that in these matters explanation is a heresy. When Sarai consorts with the Pharaoh to save her husband’s life, and the Lord afflicts the Pharaoh with plagues, Pharaoh summons Abram and says:

What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me she was your wife? Why did you say, “She is my sister,” so that I took her to me as wife?

In 1611 Pharaoh says “I might have taken her to me to wife” (my emphasis). This is surely a very different matter, though perhaps involving the form of the verb rather than a case of adultery. Alter can’t of course be held responsible for the bishops, who were perhaps being euphemistic, not that they usually were. A note would have been welcome.

In Gen. 14:10 one would quite like to know whether the kings of Sodom “fell” into what 1611 calls “slimepits” or, as Alter has it, “leaped into” the “bitumen pits.” Is “Pharaoh was hard about sending us off” (Exodus 13:15)—Alter’s version—better than 1611’s “Pharaoh would hardly let us go”? (Perhaps the archaic “hardly” was the trouble here.) Sarah laughs when she is told she will conceive in old age, and adds that “whoever hears will laugh at me” (Gen. 21:6, Alter). But 1611 has “laugh with me.” Here a learned note allows both “at” and “with,” which is no doubt humanly possible.

In Gen. 30:1 Rachel says, “Give me children, or else I die” (1611), which becomes, in Alter, “Give me sons, for if you don’t, I’m a dead woman!” As the note points out, this is Rachel’s first speech in the Bible, although she has been around for a decade. It therefore has special importance as having “particular defining force as characterization.” Perhaps she has always spoken imperiously, but not hitherto been recorded. Fine, but one is left to suppose that the Hebrew for “sons” was taken by the early translators to cover children of both sexes, and that “I’m a dead woman” is not just a rather modern rhetorical flourish.

Sometimes deviations are more fully explained: “they were a provocation to Isaac” (Gen. 26:35, Alter) replaces “which were a grief of mind unto Isaac” (1611)—other translations give “bitterness”—but Alter explains that the Hebrew word has a different root, meaning not “bitter” but “rebel” or “defy,” so that “provocation” is more precise.

A more general consideration is the awkwardness of a good many sentences. It is right to assume that this is not accidental but arises from the author’s view of what translations ought to do—represent the “way of meaning” as well as the meaning. Alter’s version of Gen. 44:27–29 runs:

You know that two did my wife bear me. And one went out from me and I thought, O, he’s been torn to shreds, and I have not seen him since. And should you take this one, too, from my presence and harm befall him, you would bring down my gray head in evil to Sheol.


Ye know that my wife bare me two sons: And the one went out from me, and I said, surely he is torn in pieces; and I saw him not since: And if ye take this also from me, and mischief befall him, ye shall bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave. (1611)

The inversion in the first sentence is defensible as securing the right emphasis on “two” (compare “Like a whore should our sister be treated?” [Gen. 34:31]). “One went out from me” repeats 1611. The exclamation “O” is presumably in the original Hebrew but it is not in 1611. “Shreds” simply varies “pieces,” “harm” stands in for “mischief,” “should you” is not quite the same as “if you,” but here, no doubt, Alter’s Hebrew is better than that of 1611; “befall,” though slightly archaic, serves in both versions. The final words raise a point of importance, for here the language of 1611—“bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave”—is part of the common language, and Alter, who elsewhere defers to that tradition (for instance, he allows “fleshpots” and “milk and honey”), might have done so here, especially since the old version is not incorrect, and avoids “Sheol”—the abode of the dead—which is of course correct but unfamiliar to many Anglophone readers.

To give one more example: “Lord, God of my master Abraham, pray, grant me good speed this day and do kindness with my master, Abraham” (Gen. 24:12, Alter), with which compare “O Lord God of my master Abraham, I pray thee, send me good speed this day, and shew kindness unto my master Abraham” (1611). Where the new is faithful to the old, it might better have been less so: “Send me good speed this day” sounds like chivalric romance; and where it is not obviously true to either sixteenth- or twenty-first-century idiom (“do kindness”), it sounds perverse.

But the immensity of the translator’s task, the complexity and virtue of his intentions, must always be borne in mind. Alter’s huge book inevitably invites its reviewers to cavil at what they take to be faults: I have sheets of notes, many admiring but not represented here. And it is proper to end with undiluted praise for a heroic achievement. I have said nothing about the high quality of the introductions to each of the five books, the one to Exodus particularly notable for the acuteness of its perceptions; and nothing about the skill with which great poems like the Song of Moses are translated. In his introduction to Exodus, for example, he has this to say about the Tabernacle, the sanctuary carried by the Jews during their Exodus:

The Tabernacle, I would suggest, was imagined by these writers as a vision of perfectly orchestrated harmony, enacted through the meticulous crafts of architecture, weaving, dying, woodcarving, and metalwork—an implementation by human artisans, following divine directives, of the sort of comprehensive harmony figured in the Priestly account of creation. After the tense story of rupture and recrimination of national experience in history, the Priestly writers, themselves intimately associated with a realm of ordered ritual, provide an elaborately imagined representation of the beautiful ordering of sacred space, a zone of choreographed repetition set off against the unsettled peregrinations of the Wilderness generation.

I cannot say that this is the best translation since 1611, only because I have not read the great mass of those that intervened; but I can say that in my opinion it is certainly a great translation, to be honorably compared with the admired Homeric translations of recent years.

This Issue

October 20, 2005