Smarty Pants Podcast

The Ten Commandments of Bible Translation

Robert Alter talks about capturing the art of the original Hebrew

By Stephanie Bastek | April 19, 2019
Dunedin Public Libraries/Flickr
Dunedin Public Libraries/Flickr

Few people have read the Hebrew Bible all the way through—maybe you memorized a portion for your bar or bat mitzvah, or read parts of it in Sunday school or a college course. But the whole thing? Hardly. Fewer people still have read it as a work of literature, treating every sentence as an expression of literary style. Even fewer have read the Bible all the way through in the original language, gotten frustrated with available English translations, and then decided to blaze ahead with their own. One such person is award-winning translator and literary critic Robert Alter, who between books of literary criticism on the modern novel has been translating the Hebrew Bible for more than two decades. Last year, he finished: all 24 books of the Bible—a three-volume set weighing 10 pounds and three ounces.

Go beyond the episode:

His Ten Commandments for Bible Translators:

1. Thou shalt not make translation an explanation of the original, for the Hebrew writer abhorreth all explanation.
2. Thou shalt not mangle the eloquent syntax of the original by seeking to modernize it.
3. Though shalt not shamefully mingle linguistic registers.
4. Thou shalt not multiply for thyself synonyms where the Hebrew wisely and pointedly uses repeated terms.
5. Thou shalt not replace the expressive simplicity of the Hebrew prose with purportedly elegant language.
6. Thou shalt not betray the fine compactness of biblical poetry.
7. Thou shalt not make the Bible sound as though it were written just yesterday, for this, too, is an abomination.
8. Thou shalt diligently seek English counterparts for the word-play and sound-play of the Hebrew.
9. Thou shalt show to readers the liveliness and subtlety of the dialogues.
10. Thou shalt continually set before thee the precision and purposefulness of the word-choices in Hebrew.

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