[b-hebrew] Robert Alter on Translation

Jan-Wim Wesselius jwwesselius at mail.thuk.nl
Thu Aug 14 03:55:44 EDT 2003

Dear Clay and List:
This is an interesting question. The problem is largely dependent on
Biblical Hebrew prose style, where repetition is often highly meaningful. n
an ideal world we would know which repetitions of words, expressions and
clauses are meaningful on the literary level and which are not, so that we
could consistently translate only the first group with the same word etc. in
the target language. As this is apparently not the case, we must either
follow Alter, with grave consequences for the readability of the
translation, or work out a compromise, which may have to be modified with
the progress of literary studies.

Note also that the pressure on the translator to translate one and the same
word in Hebrew with different words in the target language becomes
especially heavy in cases of intertextual connection, where it is often
characteristic of the words in question that they do not fit very well in
their present context. Two examples:

A. It is almost generally accepted that the exchanges between Jacob and his
sons in Genesis 37:32-33 and Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38:25-26 are
connected through the recurrence of the words hakker-na, 'do recognize!',
and wayyakker, 'and he recognized' in both, but it proves nearly impossible
to find an idiomatic translation which fits in both chapters, so that this
striking connection is lost in nearly every ancient and modern translation.

B. In a recent book I demonstrated that the words of the Amalekite in 2
Samuel 1:6-7 refer to Amalek's description in Deuteronomy 25:18, with
repetition of qara, 'to meet, to happen', pana (qal), 'to turn', yare
elohim, 'God fearing' (implicitly present via a comparison with 1 Samuel
31:4 and 2 Samuel 1:14, I claim the copyright for the term 'virtual
allusion'!), and ahar, 'after' (approximate translations). But it is really
impossible to give an idiomatic translation with the same Hebrew words
translated with the same English words in both cases.

Maybe we should in cases such as the first one take for granted that the
English translation sounds unusual, if only because the choice of words in
the Hebrew is unexpected also. But in cases like the last one it seems
impossible to render the allusion in English in any meaningful way. I would
hesitate to translate the same Hebrew with the same English word in every
case, but it should certainly be done in every case where it can serve to
express literary features of the original. Where this is impossible, a
footnote should be added. My 5 eurocents! ;-)

Jan-Wim Wesselius
Theologische Universiteit Kampen
Postbus 5021, 8260 GA Kampen
tel. 038-3371 662; fax 3371 613
e-mail jwwesselius at mail.thuk.nl
visitors: Oudestraat 6, Kampen

-----Original Message-----
From: CS Bartholomew <jacksonpollock at earthlink.net>
To: hebrew <b-hebrew at lists.ibiblio.org>
Date: Thursday, August 14, 2003 9:39 AM
Subject: [b-hebrew] Robert Alter on Translation

>Was reading Robert Alter's "To The Reader" in "Genesis" (Norton 1996) and
>found some of his comments eyebrow raising.
>For example, he advocates rendering a repititous Hebrew word with a
>repititous English equivalent. He firmly denounces altering the English
>equivalent based on contextual considerations.
>At first glance this sounds like concordant translation.
>Has translation theory come full circle while I was napping?
>Is Robert Alter using some irony here? Overstating his position as a
>against the bland flat insipid fare that we find in the mainstream English
>versions of the Pentateuch?
>Good reading anyway.
>Thanks to David Gray for reminding me to read Robert Alter.
>Clay Bartholomew
>b-hebrew mailing list
>b-hebrew at lists.ibiblio.org

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