After a journey of more than 20 years gradually translating the books of the Old Testament, Robert Alter has completed his work. His complete translation of the Hebrew Bible along with commentary (not including the Deuterocanonical Books, some of which were written in Greek rather than Hebrew) will be released in a three volume set on December 4th. 

For anyone unfamiliar, Robert Alter is a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley. In an interview with the Chicago Manual of Style Blog, he describes himself as “a literary person who happens to have the skill set of a Bible scholar, and as a literary person I read the Hebrew and see that much of it is fantastic, stylistically — wonderfully subtle prose, powerful, resonant poetry — and I think that the existing translations don’t do justice to it because the modern translators don’t look at the stylistic aspects of the Hebrew”

Alter criticized modern dynamic translations in the preface to his translation of Genesis, which was published in 1997. There, he wrote, “The unacknowledged heresy underlying most modern English versions of the Bible is the use of translation as a vehicle for explaining the Bible instead of representing it in another language, and in the most egregious instances this amounts to explaining away the Bible…Modern translators, in their zeal to uncover the meanings of the biblical text for the instruction of a modern readership, frequently lose sight of how the text intimates its meanings — the distinctive, artfully deployed features of ancient Hebrew prose and poetry that are the instruments for the articulation of all meaning, message, insight, and vision.”

These reflections place him in a similar line of thought to translators like Rabbi Everett Fox, who published a new translation of the Torah in 2000. Fox placed a strong emphasis on trying to reproduce the spoken style of the Hebrew text in his translation. Another kindred spirit is John Hobbins, who offers insights on Hebrew translation on his blog Ancient Hebrew Poetry

I’m looking forward to this complete collection of Robert Alter’s translations. The three volume set is currently available for pre-order on Amazon and ChristianBook.  

13 thoughts on “Coming in December: Robert Alter’s Translation of the Complete Hebrew Bible”

  1. The mission reminds me of the Artscroll translation of the Hebrew Bible. Its English represents the cadence found in Hebrew. But it’s a one-volume set AND it has notes. It’s basically a study Bible with beautiful rythmic language. See here for a review that I liked :

    1. Thanks for mentioning this, Erap10! I wasn’t familiar with the Artscroll Tanach before. It looks like an interesting resource.

  2. I put that on my Amazon wishlist where it will stay while I will wait for it to go on sale. I ain’t paying $70 for it,

    1. Considering the prices of the individual volumes that have already been released, I didn’t think the $70 price was out of line. I wouldn’t be surprised if it comes down, though. I rarely find pre-order pricing to be a good deal.

      1. The price isn’t unreasonable I agree, but considering that I already own about 50 other translations of all or part of the Bible, I’m not going to pay that much for ‘yet another translation’

  3. I’ve bought Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible as the different books have been released over the years. I’m a little upset that no one at Norton has responded to me about whether the last part of the translation will be available as an individual release. I don’t want to buy this complete set when I already own most of it.

    1. Oh no! I hope they do publish the last part as an individual volume. I’m sure there are many people in the same boat.

  4. This is intriguing. To me this sounds like another dimension of scripture to which I have not yet been exposed. We have some hints in the notes of some bibles, but they only seem to cover instances that would be otherwise too obscure for the modern reader to grasp. The word play used in some names comes to mind.

    1. Yes, I’m excited to get a copy of this once it is released. I read the story of the sacrifice of Isaac in Rabbi Everett Fox’s translation of Genesis a few years ago, and it was quite different from any other English translation — very rhythmic. It’s an interesting way to experience the Old Testament.

  5. I’m fascinated by the Hebrew literary style that Alter is wary of and warns against explaining away instead of translating the actual Hebrew intended (structure?)
    I bought a used copy of Lawrence Boadt’s Genesis “a book of beginnings” and it apparently contains his own translations of Genesis, I wonder how this compares to Alter’s Hebrew Bible. It’s interesting to me the faith Jewish scholars might have towards the Hebrew and I wonder what the official Catholic stance is on respecting Jewish scholarship… I’m in favor of including their input but I’m not sure what grants the ecclesiastical approval of these kind of texts. Lawrence Boadt apparently advocated a lot of Jewish-Catholic dialogue. I think it’s important to have an interconfessional/non-sectarian attitude when it comes to the Hebrew Bible since we Catholics should have the same seriousness and respect towards the ancient text that Jewish scribes/rabbis have.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.