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Why this Bible translation stands out so clearly: 2-2/3-19

A perfectly reasonable question is why the world needs another English translation of the Bible. Over the last 100 years or so there have been simply dozens of them.

Alter-BibleMany have been the whole Bible used by Protestants. Those 66 books include 39 from the Hebrew scriptures and 27 from the New Testament. Some have been Bibles approved by the Catholic Church. Those include not just the 66 books found in Protestant Bibles but also books of the Apocrypha. And there have been just New Testament translations, such as the recent one by David Bentley Hart that seeks to follow the original Greek style closely. Beyond all that, there have been several versions of the Hebrew Bible, which Christians, in a supersessionary way, historically have called the Old Testament.

Each has approached the task of translation -- or, sometimes, paraphrase -- in different ways, using different techniques to try to get at an English expression of the original Hebrew, Greek and some Aramaic. And each has its strong points and its failures. Translation is, in the end, always a matter of interpretation. It cannot be otherwise.

The latest Hebrew Bible translation is by the gifted Hebrew scholar and teacher Robert Alter of the University of California-Berkeley. It is not just a translation but also a commentary, meaning that each chapter not only has a detailed and helpful introduction but also tons of footnotes to help explain the translation choices Alter makes.

The three-volume set (which I recently received as a birthday gift from my daughters) is called, simply, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary.

This story from The Tablet does a good job of explaining what Alter tries to do in his translation and why what he does is unique and valuable.

"Robert Alter’s newly completed English translation of the Hebrew Bible," the story says, "shows what it means to take the idea of the Bible as literature seriously. For Alter, the most important thing for a translator to know about the Bible is that its authors were great literary artists. This doesn’t mean that they lacked a religious purpose, of course; but it does mean that they paid close attention to literary technique, without which their writing might never have become canonical in the first place. Getting the Bible right, for Alter, means offering the English reader a literary and aesthetic experience that comes as close as possible to the Hebrew reader’s."

If, like me, you don't read or speak Hebrew, you, like me, have had no real chance of experiencing the rhythms, the cadences, the internal connections, the linguistic artistry of the Hebrew Bible. As Alter himself notes in his introduction to his new work, "modern English versions -- especially in their treatment of Hebrew narrative prose -- have placed readers at a grotesque distance from the distinctive literary experience of the bible in its original language."

Some people, including Alter, contend that despite its many limitation, the King James Version, first published in 1611, comes the closest to matching the original Hebrew version's style. But Alter wanted to do better. And, I think, has.

I haven't yet had a chance to do more than sample Alter's work, though previously I've read his translation and commentary on the Psalms, which is included in this new work. But what I have read has turned up golden nugget after golden nugget -- some word, phrase or explanatory note that made me sit up and take notice because it was fresh information.

I look forward to using Alter's translation for a long time. Though, no doubt, in a year or three or five someone else will publish another translation of the Bible that claims to be the end all and be all of translations. And maybe it will be just that. Though I have my doubts.

By the way, here is the National Public Radio story about Alter and his new Bible.

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WORTH THE WEIGHT?

A new study shows that people active in a religious tradition tend to be happier than those who aren't, but also more overweight. Should we start calling such people the caloric euphoric?

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