Biblical Scholar Breaks Down Work in Translating Hebrew

By Nuzum, Lydia | The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV), October 31, 2014 | Go to article overview

Biblical Scholar Breaks Down Work in Translating Hebrew


Nuzum, Lydia, The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV)


Translation is always a work in progress, especially in the language Robert Alter has dedicated much of his life to studying - Biblical Hebrew. "I tell my students in all humility that translation is always a work in progress; even published translations are works in progress, Alter said. "Nothing is ever perfect in the translation. There is always the possibility that you might figure out something just a little bit better.

Alter, emeritus professor of Hebrew and comparative literature and the founding director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, gave a lecture at the University of Charleston on Thursday night as part of the West Virginia Humanities Council's McCreight Lecture series. The talk focused on the history of the Bible in English, stretching from the King James version to modern translations, including his own award- winning translations of Genesis and the Five Books of Moses.

Alter's work has led him to translate parts of the Bible himself, but he has also extensively studied the work of other translators. According to Alter, some have done a good job of retaining nuances of the original Hebrew text, while others have taken license that has impacted the meaning of some passages.

"It comes to be a matter of degree. That is, some translations have an awful lot of work to do before they make any progress, and some are works in progress that have moved toward some adequate representation of the original, he said.

Part of the problem, from Alter's view, is that early translators did not have access to the realm of knowledge 21st-century scholars possess.

"If you go to Johns Hopkins or the University of Pennsylvania or Harvard or Yale and complete a doctorate in biblical studies, you will learn many things the King James translators did not know, he said. "You will learn Akkadian and Ugaritic languages, which were only discovered in the late 19th and early 20th century. …

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