Art, Imagination and the Bible: An Interview with Robert Alter

The Christian Century, December 18, 1996 | Go to article overview

Art, Imagination and the Bible: An Interview with Robert Alter


A professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley, Robert Alter has focused much of his work on the literary art of the Bible, publishing such volumes as The Art of Biblical Narrative, The Art of Biblical Poetry and The World of Biblical Literature. We spoke with him recently about his new translation of the Book of Genesis (published by Norton) and about related issues of biblical interpretation.

What was it like to work with the Book of Genesis so intimately and for such a long period of time?

It was wonderful. There are few things I've done in my career that turned out to be such fun. First, in order to translate the Bible, in contrast to, say, translating Camus, you have to do philological spade work. That is sort of like detective work. When I suddenly realized, for example, that a particular biblical expression had a meaning that no one before had realized, I had that "Eurekal!" feeling. That part of it is fun. Further, Genesis is such a beautifully articulated and compact text. When you work with it with the kind of fanatic attention that a translation demands, there are often little details that suddenly begin to emerge.

For example?

A special verb is used in the story of Cain and Abel that is used only for the opening of the mouth, but it is also related phonetically to the verb that means to wound." This latter word basically means "to split open." So in my translation I wrote that God said to Cain, "Cursed shall you be by the soil that gaped with its mouth to take your brothers blood from your hand." I don't think anyone else has tried to capture that gaping, woundlike image.

This illustration brings me to another great joy of translating the Bible. After I was well into my work, I realized that I was simultaneously carrying out two great love affairs: my love affair with the Hebrew language and my love affair with the English language. When I would read a verse, I'd feel so struck by the rhythm, the weight and nuance of the words that I knew I wouldn't be able to reproduce it in English. But then I would arrive at some approximation in which a particular rhythm, for example, would just click and seem to fit the Hebrew perfectly. It was a wonderful sense of achievement.

Is it fair to say that your new translation of Genesis is deliberately archaic-sounding?

Yes, if you'll grant that the archaic is not necessarily alienating. One of the great thin about culture is that it inscribes upon us an historical memory; we don't simply jettison earlier phases of culture. As a result, Picasso can allude to Velazquez or Giotto and so forth, and an innovative 20th-century poet like Ezra Pound can make archaic echoes part of his innovative poetry. So I thought that it was possible-and it turned out to be more possible than I suspected - to create an English style that would be readable as literary English late in the 20th century, but at the same time would have something of the dignity and poise of the ancient Hebrew.

You're especially averse to translators' yielding to what you have caned the "heresy of explanation." What are the origins and characteristics of this heresy?

In the 20th century, especially after World War II, translators of the Bible have been self-conscious about trying to make everything crystal clear. Out of some fear that people can no longer construe metaphors - which I don't think is the case - texts that are metaphorical in the original are turned into abstractions and paraphrases. Also, cultivated ambiguities in the original, such as using the same term to mean two different things and playing the two different meanings against each other, are entirely eliminated.

Again, can you give us an example?

The binding of Isaac. In Genesis 22 when Abraham is about to go up to the mountain with his son, he turns to speak to his servants, who are actually his slaves. …

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