The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes

By Bandstra, Barry | Shofar, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes


Bandstra, Barry, Shofar


The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, by Robert Alter. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010. 394 pp. $35.00.

"Of making many books there is no end." So Robert Alter renders Qohelet 12:12. The same might be said of versions of the Bible generally-they do appear with rather amazing regularity. But it would be both unkind and inappropriate to apply such skepticism to Alter's new translation and textual commentary of Israel's wisdom literature. This fresh translation of the Hebrew Bible books of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes is a welcome addition to the available renditions of these marvelous works.

Professor Alter is a specialist in Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley and has distinguished himself with his translations of the Hebrew Bible. He has individual volumes dedicated to Genesis, also later included in complete Five Books of Moses, the David Story covering the books of Samuel, the Psalms, and now the wisdom literature. One might speculate that he may have his eye set on completing an annotated translation of the entire Hebrew Bible in the not too distant future, for with this resumé he is well on his way. He has also written highly regarded works of biblical literary analysis, including The Art of Biblical Narrative, The Art of Biblical Poetry, The World of Biblical Literature, and The Literary Guide to the Bible, the latter edited with Frank Kermode. In addition, Alter has experience in textual and literary analysis beyond ancient Hebrew literature and has written works of literary criticism of the novel in the western tradition, and of literary figures such as Kafka.

Effective and communicative translation is a skill and an art. Most translations of the Bible are the work of committees of scholars and language specialists; less often are they the work of an individual, for the obvious reason that a single person rarely combines all the necessary attributes, as does Alter. He works directly offthe Hebrew Masoretic text and provides insightful analyses of syntax and semantics to reveal the deep structure of its clauses. While he frequently references Hebrew words and phrases in the scholarly notes that accompany the text, he uses Roman transliterations, so readers who do not control the original can still follow the argument and "hear" the text. Alter takes pains to mirror the syntax and word order of the Hebrew text in his translations. …

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