“Your native language,” Henry Higgins proudly proclaims in Pygmalion, “is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible.” George Bernard Shaw knew very well that the Bible was not written in English, and yet this sentence remains true all the same. The King James Bible is the jewel of English literature, of greater import and influence than Shakespeare’s plays and Milton’s poems. Now, one man seeks to surpass it: the scholar and critic Robert Alter, who on his own has translated the entire Hebrew Bible into English, with an additional commentary. In his introduction, Alter explains what the King James has that other English versions of the Bible lack. “The unacknowledged heresy underlying most modern English versions of the Bible,” Alter argues, “is the use of translation as a vehicle for explaining the Bible instead of representing it in another language, and in the most egregious instances this amounts to explaining away the Bible.” This, he stresses, leaves the readers “at a grotesque distance from the distinctive literary experience of the Bible in its original language. As a consequence, the King James Version…remains the closest approach for English readers to the original.”
At the same time, the King James, for Alter, contains “embarrassing inaccuracies” and “insistent substitution of Renaissance English tonalities and rhythms for biblical ones.” Its authors and editors often ignored the syntax and cadences of the Hebrew text, as well the Bible’s deliberate choices between flowery words and prosaic ones, each intended in its proper place. “An adequate English version,” Alter reflects, “should be able to indicate the small but significant modulations in diction in the biblical language—something the stylistically uniform King James Version, however, entirely fails to do.” No extant translation, he believes, captures how biblical prose “is a formal literary language but also, paradoxically, a plainspoken one.” Alter’s goal is to mirror the cadence of biblical Hebrew, to capture “both the deliberate elegance of beautiful phrases that at times stand out all the more because they are placed in the midst of verses that are deliberately repetitive by nature.” He seeks to show that the Hebrew of the Bible “has a distinctive music, a lovely precision of lexical choice, a meaningful concreteness, and a suppleness of expressive syntax that by and large have been given short shrift by translators.”
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