After More Than Two Decades of Work, a New Hebrew Bible to Rival the King JamesHistorians in the News
tags: Bible, religion, Robert Alter
One morning this fall, at his home high in the Berkeley hills, the literary critic and translator Robert Alter chatted with me about the dilemmas he faced while translating the Hebrew Bible. Alter, who is 83, sat on a sofa with a long-limbed, feline watchfulness. Behind him, a picture window looked out onto a blooming garden; now and then a hummingbird appeared over his left shoulder, punctuating his thoughts with winged flourishes. He occasionally cast a probing eye on his brand-new, complete translation of and commentary on the Hebrew Bible — from Genesis to Chronicles — which, at more than 3,000 pages, in three volumes, occupied most of an end table. Published this month, it represents the culmination of nearly two and a half decades of work.
Alter told me about his decision to reject one of the oldest traditions in English translation and remove the word “soul” from the text. That word, which translates the Hebrew word nefesh, has been a favorite in English-language Bibles since the 1611 King James Version. But consider the Book of Jonah 2:6 in which Jonah, caught in the depths of a giant fish’s gut, sings about the terror of near-death by water. According to the King James Version, Jonah says that the Mediterranean waters “compassed me about, even to the soul” — or nefesh. The problem with this “soul,” for Alter, is its Christian connotations of an incorporeal and immortal being, the dualism of the soul apart from the body. Nefesh, to the contrary, suggests the material, mortal parts, the things that make us alive on this earth. The body.
“Well,” Alter said, speaking in the unrushed, amused tone of a veteran footnoter. “That Hebrew word, nefesh, can mean many things. It can be ‘breath’ or ‘life-breath.’ It can mean ‘throat’ or ‘neck’ or ‘gullet.’ Sometimes it can suggest ‘blood.’ It can mean ‘person’ or even a ‘dead person,’ ‘corpse.’ Or it can be ‘appetite’ or something more general: ‘life’ or even ‘the essential self.’ But it’s not quite ‘soul.’ ”
But, I asked Alter, doesn’t “soul” help dramatize the scene’s intense emotion? I mentioned another instance of the word nefesh, the terrifyingly evocative line from the King James’ translation of Psalm 69: “For the waters are come in unto my soul.”
“Oh, yes,” Alter said, with a smile. “That one does have a certain emotional resonance to it. But it’s not what the poet had in mind. And, I would add that the line ‘for the waters have come up to my neck’ ... is also rather dramatic.” ...
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