Robert Alter: Found in Translation - Part 2
The aftermath of war, and travel, had combined to highlight the necessity for cultural exchange.
Innovative and Artful Literary Works
Yet, his task clearly got a little harder with his new volume: Strong as Death is Love is a translation of the five biblical books mentioned previously. In his introduction, Alter writes ‘The short books presented here are innovative and artful literary works’. However, they’re also what are known as late biblical books. Alter suggests they will be far more modern texts to our eye than the earlier texts. He added ‘The temporal distance between the sundry strands of the Book of Samuel or Genesis and these late Biblical texts could be compared to the distance between John Updike and Shakespeare’.
There’s more than time to that distance. In truth, many people know a fragment or phrase from at least one of these books, but they might not from (let’s say) The Book of Samuel. These are the ones that collude and collide with popular memory, unlike those more remote books. It’s these ones that are likely to trespass on a remembered phrase, a half-sentence or a cherished memory that a reader might have held onto all their life. And this is what Alter must contend with: he’s driving through a territory of previous cultural possession with these translations.
‘The Song of Songs’
Alter does this with clarity and with authority: his eloquent introductions are approachable and masterly. In each of the translations of these five books he begins with ‘To the Reader’, with an explanation of the text; which is particularly helpful with the first book ‘The Song of Songs’. Robert Alter proves himself to be an articulate, lucid guide to this erotic and mysterious masterpiece, half-recognized by many people, but generally excerpted by a few phrases.
Alter noted that very little is known about the origins of these poems; once again reaching for the identity of the poets in addition to the poems. He added: ‘These poets are acutely aware of the long-held tradition of Hebrew poetry.’ And then he summarises: ‘These are some of the most beautiful love poems that have come down to us from the whole ancient world.’ His translation work is haunting and clear.
‘The Book of Ruth’ – A Charming Narrative
It’s a similarly inviting situation with his treatment of the Book of Ruth: the story of Ruth is perhaps the most simplified and loveliest in the Bible, and it tells the story of Ruth and Naomi, a widow and her mother-in-law. Ruth, who eventually becomes David’s great-grandmother, accepts Naomi’s Israelite faith. Alter writes: ‘Charm is not a characteristic usually associated with biblical narrative, however this idyll is charming’.
It also becomes much more accessible after reading the notes Alter places under the page of translation. Ruth says in this text ‘For wherever you go I will go’, which is Alter’s more plainspoken turn of translation than the King James Version. And the follow-up of: ‘wherever you die I will die’ is just as powerful. And this is very characteristic of these translations: in all of the biblical books contained within this volume there’s a balance of explanation, translation and commentary. The reader is made a partner in each of them, in an adventure of clarification and scholarship, which is both exemplary and rare.