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But we forget at our peril that, through most of their history, these have been not books, to be appreciated, but truths, to be obeyed. By searching around for the good bits, we read past the point, and past their point of view: intending to honor the texts by humanizing them, we insult them by aestheticizing them. But Alter has, like Dr. Johnson with his dictionary, tackled the job on his own. The accomplishment, two decades in the making, is almost absurdly impressive. One wants to call it titanic or Olympian or even heroic, but those are the wrong words—pagan words.
In undertaking his translation, Alter recognized that he had a terrific problem.
With Homer, we expect and get a fine new translation with each poetic period—George Chapman for the Elizabethan, Alexander Pope for the Augustan, Robert Fagles and Emily Wilson for our time—but with the Hebrew Bible in English we have one huge, unsurpassable masterpiece. The King James Version was entangled, root and branch, with the art of Shakespeare and Donne and Herbert and the other poets of the greatest age of English verse; it drew on common practices of prosody already in place, even as it inflected all subsequent practice.
Alter wanted his translation to echo our own great age of English prose. Joyce and Hemingway are in it, certainly, but he also mentions Philip Roth and Ian McEwan and Saul Bellow and Margaret Atwood —all of them, inevitably, influenced, if at a distance, by the sounds of the Bible.
So Alter wanted his Bible to be estranged and idiomatic, ancient-seeming and modern-sounding, clearly coming from elsewhere but alive to us now, and all at once. Alter met his terrific challenge with terrific taste. But parataxis can be defended on aesthetics alone. Alter believes in poetic parataxis, not pious parataxis. The volumes, it must be said, are laid out in a slightly daunting way, with minimal line and paragraph breaks among the parts. This is in keeping with the Hebrew original, but in places—particularly in Proverbs, where one wants a breath between what are clearly independent thoughts—it can be headache-inducing.
Still, one turns the pages eagerly, looking for the good parts and, yes, for the naughty bits, too. The tests of a Biblical translation are like the tests of a Shakespearean actor. With the Bible, we want, above all, to see how the translator will handle the set-piece poems we know—from the Psalms and the Song of Songs—along with the Book of Job and the early chapters of Genesis.
Some of his work in Proverbs clearly surpasses the King James Version. Where the K. How she sits alone, the city once great with people. She has become like a widow. Great among nations, mistress among provinces, reduced to forced labor. She weeps on through the night, and her tears are on her cheek. She has no consoler from all her lovers.
Yet, as English poetry, the K. Its version of Psalm 22, the sorrowing that will be echoed by Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, begins:. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent. My god, my god, why have You forsaken me? Far from my rescue are the words that I roar.
Chicago Tribune Article About Alexander Scourby
My God, I call out by day and You do not answer, by night—no stillness for me. Although English has, in the centuries since the K. The phrase is more strange than beautiful. Alter renders perhaps the most famous poetic lines in English with an admirable deference to the K. The L ord is my shepherd, I shall not want. In grass meadows He makes me lie down, by quiet waters guides me. My life He brings back.
Your eyes are doves through the screen of your tresses. Your hair is like a herd of goats that have swept down from Mount Gilead. Your teeth like a flock of matched ewes that have come up from the washing, all of them alike, and none has lost its young.
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