A Momentous, but Flawed Attempt to Render the Bible into English

March 26 2019

Robert Alter’s monumental translation of the Hebrew Bible, the subject of Mosaic’s February essay and the responses to it, aims above all to preserve the literary qualities of the original. In his own review, Meir Soloveichik points to instances where Alter succeeds in “captur[ing] the cadences of the Bible . . . better than anyone who has attempted it before,” and even exceeds the King James. Nonetheless, to Soloveichik the new translation’s “astonishingly insightful renderings,” based on “sensitive readings” of the text do not make up for its deficiencies. Just one example comes from the translation of the book of Psalms:

The most surprising, and jarring, diversion from the King James version of the Psalms can be found in Alter’s translation of the phrase that appears more than any other in that entire book: the Hebrew words mizmor l’David. It introduces many of the Psalms, and in the King James, as in so many other translations, the words are rendered as “a psalm of David.” . . .

The Psalms are a window into David’s mind, and there we find a man who, though flawed, lives at every moment with a sense of the intimacy of God. Alter rejects all of this. “The Davidic authorship enshrined in Jewish and Christian tradition,” he informs us in his introduction to the Psalms, “has no credible historical grounding.” Therefore, for mizmor l’David, he gives us “a David psalm”. . . .

The problem is, however, that the Psalms that begin mizmor l’David often ask the reader to see into David’s soul at moments in David’s life and career, as expressed by David himself. Thus Psalm 51 begins, in Alter’s version: “For the lead player, a David psalm, upon Nathan the prophet’s coming to him when he had come to be with Bathsheba.” A similar passage presents itself in the third Psalm, where Alter gives us “a David psalm, when he fled from Absalom his son.” Such ascriptions, Alter comments, “have no historical authority.” . . .

Alter is certainly entitled to his opinion. At the same time, the phrase, as written, is meant to ascribe the reflection to David. The text, as it currently stands, is insisting that it is indeed a Psalm of David. In inverting the words mizmor and l’David, Alter violates his own rule of representing the order and rhythm of Israelite syntax in order to emphasize that these Psalms are not authored by David himself. But if the Hebrew is presenting David as the author, why translate this differently? Is the obligation to uproot the traditional ascription of authorship so important as to deviate from the simpler meaning of the Hebrew itself?

You have 2 free articles left this month

Sign up now for unlimited access

Subscribe Now

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at Commentary

More about: Hebrew Bible, Psalms, Religion & Holiday, Robert Alter, Translation

At the UN, Nikki Haley Told the Truth about Israel—and the World Didn’t Burn Down

April 22 2019

Although Nikki Haley had never been to Israel when she took the position of American ambassador to the UN, and had no prior foreign-policy experience, she distinguished herself as one of the most capable and vigorous defenders of the Jewish state ever to hold the position. Jon Lerner, who served as Haley’s deputy during her ambassadorship, sees the key to her success—regarding both Israel and many other matters—in her refusal to abide by the polite fictions that the institution holds sacred:

Myths are sometimes assets in international relations. The fiction that Taiwan is not an independent country, for example, allows [the U.S.] to sustain [its] relationship with China. In other cases, however, myths can create serious problems. On Israel–Palestinian issues, the Trump administration was determined to test some mythical propositions that many had come to take for granted, and, in some cases, to refute them. Haley’s prominence at the UN arose in large part from a conscious choice to reject myths that had pervaded diplomacy on Israel–Palestinian issues for decades. . . .

[For instance], U.S. presidents were intimidated by the argument that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would trigger violent explosions throughout the Muslim world. President Trump and key colleagues doubted this, and they turned out to be right. Violent reaction in the Palestinian territories was limited, and there was virtually none elsewhere in Arab and Islamic countries. . . .

It turns out that the United States can support Israel strongly and still work closely with Arab states to promote common interests like opposing Iranian threats. The Arab street is not narrowly Israel-minded and is not as volatile as long believed. The sky won’t fall if the U.S. stops funding UN sacred cows like the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA). Even if future U.S. administrations revert to the policies of the past, these old assumptions will remain disproved. That is a valuable accomplishment that will last long after Nikki Haley’s UN tenure.

You have 1 free article left this month

Sign up now for unlimited access

Subscribe Now

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at Commentary

More about: Donald Trump, Nikki Haley, United Nations, US-Israel relations