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Robert Alter: translation or tampering?

April 25, 2009 |  3:45 pm

Jonathan Kirsch's considerable familiarity with biblical scholar Robert Alter's work led to a brisk, varied discussion of the practice of translation that ranged across many topics, including lexical nuances, negative reviews, Harold Bloom, the biblical author J and his (or her) gender, the storytelling of Homer versus that of biblical storytellers -- you name it. And yet, the talk remained clear and accessible even when issues took a complex turn.

The well-attended, noon event's most memorable moment,  however, was also one of its earliest -- Kirsch and Alter opened their discussion by giving the audience some sense of the task facing a translator by taking the opening passage of Genesis, about the creation, and presenting it in three versions: the original biblical Hebrew, the King James Version and Alter's own translation.

It was a brilliant strategy, immediately immersing the audience in the issues and obstacles confronting a translator better than any introductory remarks could have achieved. Alter's reading of the original Hebrew, delivered with a soft, delicate tone, was followed by the Elizabethan splendor of the KJV's and then by Alter's small, startling changes. Where the KJV describes the world as being "without form and void," for instance, Alter rendered the primordial world as being a place of "welter and waste." At other places, however, he left the language alone, such as when Cain says to God, "Am I my brother's keeper?"

"I could have used other words, but why tamper with that?" he said. "In other places, however, it is necessary to make changes."

That decision, he explained, is based on the logic and meaning of the original Hebrew. He talked about the concrete quality of biblical Hebrew, and he and Kirsch discussed the balance that must be struck between transparency and the experience of the text, of maintaining, Alter explained, the original's "loving craftsmanship and a delight in wordplay." His approach, Alter said, has not always been received warmly by critics.

"I know it has unnerved some, including the late John Updike," he said, chuckling, "who didn't give me an altogether favorable review." He shrugged good-naturedly.

On a private note: There was also a great sense of personal satisfaction for Kirsch in conducting this conversation with Alter. Last night Kirsch gave Alter the 2008 Robert Kirsch Award (named for his father), a prize honoring a body of work by a writer living and working in the Western U.S. "Three generations of my family have reviewed him," Kirsch said proudly, referring to his father, himself and his son, critic and poet Adam Kirsch.

-- Nick Owchar