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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.