There are few issues as divisive among Christians as that of Biblical translation. This might come as a shocking statement when you consider things like abortion, homosexuality, and the recent uproar over Rob Bell’s Love Wins. But consider this: all such debates ultimately stem from how Christians read and interpret the Bible. And since most people no longer speak ancient Hebrew or Greek (neither of which is the same as their modern versions), this means using a translation.
The English language has more translations of the Bible than you can shake a staff at, and all of them range from extremely literal to extremely liberal in their handling of Biblical idioms, phrases, and metaphors. The most famous is, of course, the King James Version — one which I believe has been rather unfairly maligned in certain circles of the modern church. But that’s for another post.
This post is a review of a recent translation of the books of 1 and 2 Samuel. The translator is a Hebrew scholar from California named Robert Alter. 1 and 2 Samuel (more properly the Book of Samuel since they really form a single unit, together with 1 and 2 Kings) tell the story of the establishment of the monarchy in Israel and the founding of the dynasty that began with King David.
The church I’ve attended for 20 years has always used the NIV (New International Version) translation of the Bible, which sits nicely in the middle between total literalness and loose paraphrase. One would think that should be ideal, and for years I was convinced that the NIV was the only way to go if you wanted to read the Bible. I refused to look at anything else. So what if it was a bit dry and boring? So what if Genesis read the same as Matthew? I believed that the medium between faithfulness and readability was the best one could hope for. But as the years have gone by, and my general reading has become more and more advanced, the Bible I was using began to dissatisfy me. It’s been harder to look past the staleness of the phraseology in a book that is supposed to be filled with life and colour. Several months ago I started peeking into other versions and translations, and really digging into the issue of how the Bible is written.
The great contribution of Alter’s rendering, at least to me, has been it’s demonstration that the Bible is, regardless of what you believe, a true masterpiece of literature. He calls his translation more literal than even the KJV, and this is in many ways true. But at the same moment he brings the full power of the English language to bear on the Hebrew text, and instantly demonstrates that faithfulness to an ancient text and readability for the modern age are not mutually exclusive concepts. And beyond that, this translation is not simply readable. It is simply a joy to read. Alter takes the bold step of retaining the original Hebrew conjunctions at the beginning of most sentences, without softening the strangeness by turning “and” into “now” or “meanwhile”:
“And Hannah arose after the eating in Shiloh and after the drinking, while Eli the priest was sitting in a chair by the doorpost of the LORD’s temple. And she was deeply embittered, and she prayed to the LORD, weeping all the while…And it happened as she went on with her prayer before the LORD, with Eli watching her mouth, as Hannah was speaking in her heart, her lips alone moving and her voice not heard, Eli thought she was drunk.”
The flow and drive of the Hebrew text sometimes seems more like poetry than prose. Entering into this translation felt like entering into the entire world of ancient Hebrew literature and language, at least as far as rhythm and cadence are concerned. I’m certainly not fluent in Biblical Hebrew. But somehow, this felt right. This felt like I was hearing the words of the historian the way he himself did. Like I was truly living within the lost civilization the Bible was describing.
A large part of that experience was the running commentary Alter provides on each page. He points out motifs and repetitions, and places where the transmitted text has become corrupted by time and various scribal hands. He makes sure to detail his every emendation and his reasons for them. He draws comparisons between different episodes and shows how the writer of Samuel constructed the narrative to emphasize characterization and make theological and analytical points. Although he isn’t a believer in God, I found his notes on the literature and characters very insightful and his viewpoint more than illuminating.
Some who argue for a looser, more paraphrased translation often say that people need to be able to understand the Bible on their own terms to see how relevant it is for their lives today. I respectfully disagree. While I do think people need to understand the application of Bible today, I also believe that taking it too far leads to a dumbing-down of the Bible, adding too much water and taking away not only the flavour but the essential meaning of what is written. It also gives the translator a certain licence to imprint their own interpretations on the Biblical text rather than allowing the text to be interpreted on its own terms. We cannot bring the Bible down to our level and make it say what we want it to. We need to rise up to hear what it’s actually saying.
No translation of any work is perfect or final. Nor should we be relying on any single translation to guide our full understanding of it, especially when it comes to the Bible. But Robert Alter’s work (which includes not only The David Story but also the Pentateuch, the Psalms, and a volume of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes) should be on the shelf of anyone interested in discovering the richness and beauty of the Jewish scriptures. And how the Word of God is actually written.
Can I get a hallelujah?