A POWERFUL PENTATEUCH; Capturing the Authority and Force of the Bible's First Five Books

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"Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness after the flesh," the author of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes wisely admonishes us. And of no thing is that more true than books of translation and commentary about the Bible itself. Yet there are exceptions to every rule and Robert Alter's wonderful new translation and accompanying commentary to the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses or Jewish Torah, is most certainly a case in point.

A dark age of bureaucratic arrogance and mediocrity enveloped the field of biblical translation from the 1880s onwards when the dire Revised Standard Version and a host of even worse ones replaced the glorious 1611 King James Version in the churches of the English-speaking world. Better days began to dawn in with the appearance of the lucid and lightly styled Catholic New American Bible in 1970 and translations over the past two decades, while never measuring up to the extraordinary beauty and brilliant clarity of the KJV, have at least been energetic and stimulating rather than leaden.

Mr. Alter's work, however, is in a class by itself. Over the past 25 years, this professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley has established himself as the grandmaster of style, translation and literary criticism par excellence in the English-speaking world in such definitive studies as "The Art of Biblical Poetry" and "The Art of Biblical Narrative." His vast new work is the worthy fruition of a lifetime's outstanding labors.

What Mr. Alter has always understood is that the formative texts of the Old Testament are as rich in word-play and complex literary coding and style as any of William Shakespeare's greatest plays and that the ultimate challenge of any translator ought to be to convey all that subtle and precise richness and elegance of style into English - or any other language.

The great scholars of the King James Version, living in one of the greatest eras of literary excellence in any culture in recorded history understood this very well. They also understood the vital need for humility in approaching any text for translation, especially the biblical ones. And ever since the RSV slouched on to the scene more than 120 years ago, this cardinal requirement has been cavalierly forgotten by English-speaking scholars - until Mr. Alter.

In his earlier books he repeatedly emphasized, following the pioneering German language studies of Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber, the importance of leitmotifs, or recurring key words, in the Hebrew text. Even the ubiquitous simple Hebrew phrase "v" - literally meaning "and" but also carrying many other potential meanings such as "then" or "next", depending on context - had its significance erased because so many generations of translators were determined to "tidy up" the biblical text and thereby ironed out thousands of subtle but clearly intended meanings.

Before Mr. Alter, only Everett Fox among major modern translators of the Bible grasped the cardinal importance of tight fidelity to the original text and the need to seek a "literally literal" translation to recapture its primary meaning in another language. But Mr. Fox's translation while true to the minute detail of the Torah lost its over-all spirit by being conveyed in a truly weird English that makes James Joyce's "Ulysses" and even "Finnegan's Wake" seem as accessible as a supermarket tabloid by comparison. …