[b-hebrew] Robert Alter on Translation

Peter Kirk peter.r.kirk at ntlworld.com
Thu Aug 14 17:37:02 EDT 2003

On 14/08/2003 14:09, CS Bartholomew wrote:

>Haven't actually read Alter's translation yet, but I suspect that he does
>not apply this principle woodenly. A local recognition of the significance
>of repeated terms which serve a  literary purpose, sounds like a good plan.
>How local is local? This might end up being a sticky problem. One might
>discover a term which is repeated throughout the Pentateuch which serves a
>literary purpose but if the contextual meaning of this term makes concordant
>translation counter productive semantically, the trade off between the
>meaning and the literary structure is going to cause heart burn for a lot of
>SIL people. 
The problem here is that repetition means different things to different 
target audiences, largely but not entirely dependent on language. It had 
a certain purpose in Hebrew which Alter no doubt describes. But when 
read, for example, in a particular language of central Asia (and to some 
extent in English) it is a mark of very poor style and an ignorant 
author who doesn't know the language well enough to use a variety of 
synonyms. Do we want our translations to communicate that message?

>However, SIL people are not in the same world as Robert Alter. His target
>audience is not tribal cultures getting the bible for the first time. Alter
>is translating for a highly literate audience which has had the bible for
>eons in their own language. So target audience is a big issue here.  Just
>because I like Everett Fox's "Five Books of Moses" does not mean that I
>would give a copy to someone who just arrived from Cambodia.
Good point. Just as long as Alter's translation is targeted at this 
particular subset of the English reading population and not marketed, as 
so many Bible versions are, as the best translation for all English readers.

>>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 ...
>Yes, ambiguity in the original can produce incomprehensible text in a
>translation if one carries Alter's suggestions to extremes. But not even a
>Berkley processor is going to do that, is he?
I guess you meant a Berkley professor, who is as likely to be she as he. 
But if by a Berkley processor you mean a computer programmed by the 
clever Berkley people, although that would be it, yes it would do that.  
:-( This isn't just a joke, there are people really trying to do machine 
translation of the Bible, but one of the main problems they come up 
against is that computers are mindlessly consistent!

>>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.
>There are some folks on this list which might not be willing to go this far.
Absolutely not! I would never agree that a translation should be made to 
express literary features of the original if it is then an inaccurate or 
meaningless translation. But I would accept a modified version (though 
omitting "certainly"): "it should... be done in every case where it can 
serve to express literary features of the original" *without 
compromising the accuracy and clarity of the translation*.

Peter Kirk
peter at qaya.org (personal)
peterkirk at qaya.org (work)

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