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Posted in: Arts, Film & Culture

Published on Apr 09, 2019 by Phyllis Chesler

Written for Phyllis Chesler

The joy of literature without politics


Last night I went down to the Center for Jewish History to hear Robert Alter, the famed translator of the entire Hebrew Bible, in conversation with Adriane Leveen, a Senior Lecturer in Hebrew Bible, and one of Alter’s former students at Berkeley. Professor Alter’s white hair wreaths his genial face; his conversational manner is relaxed, sweet, enormously literate; he is always in his element. The overflow crowd could all have been guests at his table.

Leveen was a superb interviewer. Here’s three little gems. Alter said that one of the many difficulties a translator faces is this: whether to be literal or to try and capture the dense, ambiguous, nuanced, oppositional, meaning of a word or phrase, and its rhyme or rhythm —and in another, very different language. He believes that the Bible is the forerunner of the modern novel—not Homer, whose characters do not develop in the same way that the characters of Jacob, Joseph, or King David do. Alter believes that there were “three Isaiahs;” and that Ezekial was a “clinical case.” He made his case as we laughed at the phrase.

Alter is a man after my own heart—and why? Because he writes on lined paper with a pen, he translated all three thousand some odd pages of the Bible, just as scribes did in ancient times on scrolls. I was dragged, kicking and screaming, into using a computer and accessing the internet. Too ephemeral for me. Links to articles do not always remain “living” on the internet, websites remove them—which is why I keep hard copy of my own work as much as possible. No telling when my particular cloud in which my date is stored will sail away, never to be found again.


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