Robert Alter’s translation of Genesis is one of several to appear recently—along with versions by Everett Fox (1995) and Stephen Mitchell (1996)—that has attempted to restore accuracy and power to modern versions of the text, qualities that have been lost in theologically tendentious or verbally stilted renderings. The inaccuracies of the immensely powerful and influential King James Version have to be confronted, as well as the problem of matching or overcoming its high tones that have been indelibly etched in the English imagination. Alter’s work addresses these problems and raises new ones.
Scholars and general students of the Bible, even those with little knowledge of ancient Hebrew, have benefited from Alter’s powerful studies The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981) and The Art of Biblical Poetry (1985), in which he has pointed to the immense subtlety and skill of the writing of the Hebrew Bible, qualities of verbal resonance and structure that cannot be separated from its message. His account, for example, of the story of Judah and Tamar of Genesis 38 reveals how a seemingly spurious story in the midst of the Joseph narrative actually complements the main story in both its underlying structure and in very definite verbal leitmotifs. Alter provides a very important antidote to the assumptions made by Stephen Mitchell in his recent version of Genesis that the additions of a redactor interested in making a coherent narrative mar the essential power of the “original” stories. It is certainly not easy to determine what is and what is not original in Genesis, who are the various authors, and where an editor or editors may or may not have added something. As a book, Genesis occupies an extremely powerful place in human culture, and Alter’s assumption of narrative complexity and coherence is far more compelling than Mitchell’s tempting metaphor of an original canvas that has been painted over and needs to be restored. The fact is that Mitchell’s own vision finds much in Genesis that is disturbing or contradictory and would better be left aside.
Much in Genesis is disturbing, contradictory, and obscure, and much of its power derives from holding unresolved contradictions in tension, from allowing readers to sense—as the great critic Eric Auerbach has pointed out—the shadows and silences looming in the background of everything in it. It invites, if not demands, commentary and speculation. Alter has tended to make his insights literary as opposed to theological. He wants readers to see the thematic and verbal warp and woof of the tapestry as a way into its meaning, leaving theology and theodicy to those so inclined. Alter’s approach also makes translation a particularly fruitful vehicle for interpretation. Yet there is a problem with his approach that can also be found in the other recent translations of Everett Fox and Stephen Mitchell: What does it mean to talk about Genesis or the Bible as literary work or as stories? In his very clear and forceful introduction, Alter writes:
Our own cultural preconceptions of writers scrupulously devoted to finding exactly the right word are associated with figures like Flaubert and Joyce, who meticulously chose terms of their narratives from a large repertory of finely discriminated lexical items. Biblical prose often exhibits an analogous precision within the severe limits of its primary vocabulary.
Alter makes the case for the precision of biblical writers quite convincingly. Nevertheless, the language and style of the Bible has to be considered in relation to a vision of the subject matter and cultural place of the book: Genesis is a book about the origin of the world, God and man’s relation to God, and has been and for many still is a sacred text. These facts should come into play in any translation if it is to be meaningful and powerful. The sense of the terror and mystery of its primary character—God—and the moral power and depravity of some of its most important characters—Adam, Eve, the serpent, Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph—need to be conveyed in a way that recognizes its difference, intrinsically and extrinsically, from almost all other books. At the very least, the translator needs to convey the book’s central force—immense power and mystery seen through haunting simplicity. If the elevation and highness of the King James Version is not true to the text, it still lends the book some...
(The entire section is 1800 words.)