Robert Alter: Found in Translation - Part 1

A generic literary figure emerged in the years following the Second World War; and this was the translator.

A generic literary figure emerged in the years following the Second World War; and this was the translator. The aftermath of war, and travel, had combined to highlight the necessity for cultural exchange. Texts that had previously been hidden in foreign languages suddenly became available: a visible industry emerged in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Through new publications and small presses, essential writers such as Anna Akhmatova, Eugenio Montale, Christa Wolf, Anna Swir and so many more, were conveyed to excited audiences. Paul Auster said that translators are the shadow heroes of literature, and it certainly appeared that way.

The Burning Question: What is the Translator’s Role?

But then an unusual thing occurred: while the conversation about new voices in different languages became louder, at the same time the conversation about translators fell into confusion. What exactly was the definition of a translator’s role? Was a translator just a vendor, a sifter of words? Mediators between cultures perhaps: maybe something more, maybe something less? These questions remained unanswered, and then disappeared; resulting in what was a very essential figure slipping away into the shadows. But still, what George Steiner said still remained true, that ‘without translation we’d be living in provinces bordering on silence.’

Robert Alter: ‘Strong as Death is Love’

Robert Alter’s latest volume of biblical translation is ‘Strong as Death is Love’; and these omissions and issues are brought into focus by this book. In addition, they’re what make him such an amazing figure. Robert Alter was born in the United States, and since the 1960s he’s been both a scholar and professor, working at both the Departments of Hebrew Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley. He’s lectured and written as a comparatist on Walter Benjamin and Franz Kafka, and he published a book on modernism called ‘Necessary Angels’. He’s also been a prominent Yehuda Amichai translator; but all of these commitments and achievements pale compared with his signature project – the translation of the Hebrew Bible.

Two Decades of Dedicated Translation

Robert Alter has pushed ahead for almost two decades, producing his volumes of this translation at a hectic pace. It was The David Story in 1999, which is a translation of the first books of Samuel: it offered a very powerful narrative of a biblical anti-hero. It was The Five Books of Moses in 2004; The Book of Psalms in 2007, and The Book of Genesis in 2009. Then, in 2010 he offered The Wisdom Books. And now we have his new title ‘Strong as Death is Love’ which covers the books of Esther, Ruth, Jonah, Daniel and The Song of Songs. ‘A Translation with Commentary’ is the sub-title on all these volumes.

And where does the translator fit into all of this? Alter said in an interview ‘I try to convey in English what I believe were the mind-sets and values of the ancient Hebrew writers, which, as in the poetry, is inseparable from the concreteness of their language and the rhythmic force and compactness of their poetry’.

Redefining the Translator’s Role

It’s important that we don’t miss this remarkable claim by Alter. In our time, a difficulty of poetic translation has been the tendency to translate the poem, whilst making little effort to translate the poet. Clearly, Robert Alter intends on doing both; and in so doing it’s very clear that one of the major rewards of his work is a redefining of the role of the translator.

*** Next ***