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Oct 5, 2021

Can English Capture the Language of Revelation?

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John Walbridge

Indiana University Bloomington

John Walbridge is a Near Eastern languages and cultures professor at Indiana University Bloomington.

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Can English Capture the Language of Revelation?

Robert Alter’s Torah and Implications for the Translation of the Qur’an

Talmud Torah, Ephraim Moses Lilien, ca. 1900

Talmud Torah, Ephraim Moses Lilien, ca. 1900

Robert Alter’s publication of a complete translation of the Hebrew Bible caused a literary sensation. Most English translations of the Bible[1] have been the products of committees, so one-man translations, particularly of the whole text, are not common. Moreover, Alter is not a biblical scholar by profession but rather a professor of comparative literature and Hebrew at Berkeley. Alter had gotten into the field of Hebrew Bible studies through a well-regarded book on biblical narrative published in 1981. Persuaded by his editor to follow that with a book on Genesis, he concluded that existing translations were unsatisfactory and so did his own. The rest is the story of a small academic project that got out of hand, something familiar to a great many scholars. His translation of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, came out in 2004, followed by several more installments until the completed work was published in a handsome three-volume edition in 2018. The work was greeted by general acclaim—along with a certain amount of predictable scholarly harumphing from specialists.

Alter is a literary scholar deeply steeped in English and Hebrew literature with a mastery of English prose style and the rhythms of biblical Hebrew. His concern, as he makes clear in an essay on translation that begins each of the three volumes and in a short follow-up book, The Art of Biblical Translation, is the style and narrative techniques of the Hebrew Bible and how they might best be rendered into English. It is a task, he acidly insists, that the modern translators of the Bible have failed miserably at. His heroes are the translators of the King James Bible and his two favorite medieval commentators, Rashi and Abraham ibn Ezra. His villains are his colleagues down the hall in biblical studies departments and the translations they produced by committee in the second half of the twentieth century.

Why the King James Bible? To start with, the king’s translators were men like him, scholars who knew the languages of the Bible and sometimes also languages like Arabic and Syriac but who were also deeply immersed in the literary culture of their time. In short, they knew the Bible and they knew how to write. They were of an age that produced the great polyglot Bibles and monuments of English style such as Shakespeare, Milton, and The Book of Common Prayer. They also were convinced that the Bible was, word for word, the Word of God, so they followed the Hebrew text as closely as they could, even meticulously italicizing words that had to be added to make intelligible English, as in “I am Joseph,” the copula not being required in Hebrew. To be sure, they sometimes misunderstood the Hebrew and tended to put everything in the same register, of which more later. Still, it is owing to the literalism of the King James Bible’s translators that high liturgical English has a decidedly Hebraic flavor, something that translators of the Qur’an and classical Arabic might well keep in mind, as we will see.

Alter is particularly satisfied that the king’s translators tended to faithfully translate the Hebrew ve as “and.” As any student of biblical Hebrew—or Arabic—knows, ve/wa can legitimately be translated not only as “and” but also as “but,” “so,” and various other connectives, so modern Bible translations usually render ve according to the context. Alter is adamant that King James’s translators were right and the modern translators are wrong. Waving the banner of parataxis, the stylistic device of coordinating clauses without indication of subordination or logical relationship, Alter insists that the biblical authors knew what they were doing with their use of ve and the resulting ambiguities. It is Alter’s insistence on rendering ve by “and” that has been most consistently criticized by biblical scholars. In reply, Alter sputters that he suspects his critics never read Roth, Nabokov, Hemingway, or Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. Point to Alter, I have to say.

Modern translators in Alter’s view have thrown away the baby with the bath water. Seeing the translation problems in the King James Bible, they have started over from scratch. Alter is well aware of the philological achievements of modern biblical scholars, but in his view they have utterly failed to deal with the stylistic and literary aspects of the text, occasionally adding their own errors in the process. Translation errors Alter could have tolerated; bad English, he might have said, is the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost that cannot be forgiven.

Alter, having produced a complete translation of the Hebrew Bible, has put his translation theories to the test. So how did he approach this task, and how well did he succeed? Two factors shape his translation.

First, Alter is concerned with the Hebrew Bible as a literary text. He wants to reproduce as closely as possible the stylistic and literary form of the underlying Hebrew text. Apart from occasional references in his notes, he does not remark on how the Bible was understood by later Jews, much less by Christians. Nor is he particularly concerned with the interests of academic Bible scholars: source criticism, fine points of philological analysis, and the like. It is not that he is willfully ignorant of such matters; it’s just that he is mainly concerned with matters of style and understanding the various books as literary texts. Thus, for example, while he commonly cites ancient versions to solve textual problems—for example, preferring readings from the ancient Greek Septuagint, a translation that predates the standard Masoretic Hebrew text by a thousand years or so—and sometimes cites parallels from other ancient Near Eastern cultures to explain aspects of stories or ritual practices, his main concern remains style.

Second, he respects the authors of the various books as authors. The five books of the Torah are a particularly good example. Though details are disputed, it is generally accepted by scholars that these books consist of—probably—four sources combined by persons unknown to form the books as we now know them, the so-called documentary hypothesis. Alter is well aware of this but works on the assumption that the final compilers of these texts were authors who knew what they were doing. While occasionally he will explain some quirk of the text as being the result of an awkwardly placed fragment from an earlier source, he will normally explain the text and its literary effects as being the result of the conscious decision of the compiler-author. As the translator and an author himself, he respects the biblical authors as skilled colleagues.

These assumptions convert into three translation methods. First, Alter tries to be as literal as possible. In the story of Noah, for example, he renders the Hebrew as “And the flood was forty days over the earth, and the waters multiplied, and bore the ark upward and it rose above the earth,” which is word-for-word the Hebrew apart from putting the verbs after the subjects as English grammar requires. This he contrasts with the wordy and expository translations of, for example, the New Jerusalem Bible: “The flood lasted forty days on earth. The waters swelled, lifting the ark until it floated off the ground.” The stately dignity of Alter’s rendering, conveying the immense antiquity of the passage, is much to be preferred. Likewise, he resists arbitrarily varying phrases that are exact or near-exact repetitions, often arguing in his notes that such repetitions conceal deliberate narrative ambiguities.

Second, Alter attempts to replicate, or at least note, soundplay, wordplay, repetition, and other word- and sentence-level effects. The biblical authors not uncommonly use the same word in different meanings, an effect anathema in English (but prized in Arabic). They play with rhyming words or alliteration in words having similar consonant roots. An example comes in the second verse of the Hebrew Bible: “and the earth was tohu ve-bohu,” which the King James version renders as “without form and void.”  Though this is probably accurate, Alter wants to preserve something of the sound, so his version is “welter and waste.”

Finally, Alter tries to be sensitive to the register of words. Any English speaker knows that while “to eat” and “to dine” are near synonyms, their register is different, an invitation to “dine out” not being the same as one to “eat out.” Obviously, the same is true of ancient Hebrew, though we can’t always know the exact register of particular words. Alter points out that there are words used only in poetry, giving as examples certain words having to do with light. As much as possible, he insists, the translation should reflect this. The most striking example in his Torah translation comes in the story of Jacob and Esau, when Esau trades his birthright for a pot of stew. The King James version has Esau saying, “Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint.” Alter points out that the language seems decidedly colloquial and renders it as “Let me gulp down some of this red red stuff , for I am famished.” Probably he is right about this, but the crudity of diction is jarring—as Alter thinks it was meant to be.

Of course, insensitivity to register can also be fatal for translation. Alter gives the example of the Song of Solomon 1:13, which he renders as “A sachet of myrrh is my love to me, all night between my breasts.” Other versions give unfortunate renderings such as “a bag of myrrh lodged” or “lies between my breasts.” Alter observes that “bag” is entirely too big and “lodged” suggests a chicken bone stuck in the lover’s throat.

Alter has other concerns that I do not have space to deal with. His original concern was with narrative, and in his notes he deals with narration with great subtlety and skill. He also attempts to correct the understanding of passages, sometimes because his concern with the literal meaning of the text reveals misinterpretations such as the theologically motivated but anachronistic rendering of nefesh as “soul.” In many cases he has interesting suggestions for new understandings of obscure terms or of words whose conventional understandings do not make much sense.

Alter’s translation is a tour de force. The language is stately modern English, reminiscent of the language of the King James version while avoiding unnecessary archaisms on the one hand and anachronisms on the other. The commentary in the footnotes is a little longer than the text—at least in the places that interest Alter; less so in, for example, lengthy and tedious instructions for sacrifice ritual. In general, the notes contain what Alter is unable to contain in the translation itself: necessary background, defenses of his unconventional renderings, and explanation of the rhetorical effects that he was unable to reproduce in the translation—in effect, a full literary commentary on the Hebrew Bible. This is not a Bible for all purposes—notably due to its lack of concern with theological issues and the uses to which the Bible was later put by the rabbis and the Christian theologians—but it is unsurpassed for reading the Bible as literature.


The Qur’an is very much of the same genre and style as the Hebrew Bible. Had it been written in Hebrew and placed between Ezekiel and Daniel, it would not have been out of place. Certainly, its translation poses problems very like those of translating the Hebrew Bible, given that its syntax and rhetoric are not unlike those of biblical Hebrew but quite unlike English.

In one sense, Muslims might well deny that Alter’s project has any relevance to Qur’an translation. Muslim theologians and philologists have usually insisted that the miracle of Islam consists in the inimitable eloquence of the Qur’anic text. While translations of the Qur’an have existed for more than a thousand years, they were almost always produced with the Arabic text, frequently written much smaller. Unlike Christians, Muslims have rarely allowed liturgical use of these translations. In recent times, Muslims have commonly denied that the Qur’an could be translated; thus translations, particularly those brought out by Islamic publishers, have titles like “Interpretation of the Meanings of the Holy Qur’an.” Thus, it is unlikely that any Muslim translator would pursue a project parallel to Alter’s, producing a Qur’an translation whose main purpose is the reproduction of the rhetoric of the Qur’an. Still. . .

I cannot pretend to have studied, or even seen, all the dozens of English translations of the Qur’an, some of which barely deserve the term “English,” but I will comment on three that in some way live up to the goals of Robert Alter’s project. The first, and in some sense the most successful, is that of the British lawyer George Sale, who published his translation in 1734. This was, for example, the Qur’an of Thomas Jefferson. Though obviously not without its flaws, Oriental scholarship had sufficiently advanced in Europe that Sale could rely on Arabic commentaries. More to the point for our purposes, Sale was an excellent writer steeped in the language of the King James Bible and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. In a word, he had borrowed the excellences of the King James Bible, a procedure that Alter would certainly approve of and that worked due to the similarity of Qur’anic Arabic to biblical Hebrew.

Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Lafayette, 1930

Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Lafayette, 1930

The second translation I wish to consider is that of the anglophile Indian lawyer Abdullah Yusuf Ali. Educated mainly in English but also with a sound Islamic education, he possessed a mastery of English style rare in a nonnative speaker. The culmination of a series of translations by Indians, his translation was obviously intended to make Islam and the Qur’an respectable to his English contemporaries. The translation is eloquent but so free as to limit its value for serious study. It still retains many of the archaisms of high liturgical English. It remains a classic, even though it now circulates mostly in bowdlerized versions reflecting contemporary Salafi sensibilities.

The final translation is that of the great translator of Islamic literature, A. J. Arberry. He is almost alone in his concern for the “rhetorical and rhythmic patterns which are the glory and the sublimity of the Koran.” These he attempts to imitate—or at least indicate—by setting the text as though it were English free verse with short final lines substituting for the rhymes that usually end Qur’anic verses. Apart from an occasional “ye” or “thou,” liturgical archaisms are entirely absent, replaced by elegant contemporary English. The result is a tour de force, though, like Yusuf Ali’s translation, better for discovering what the Arabic Qur’an is like than for detailed theological study of the text. It is, however, a piece of English worthy in some degree of its archetype and defensible as literature by Robert Alter’s standards.


The Qur’an still awaits its King James translation, a rendering of sufficient mastery to shape the language of English-speaking Muslims for centuries to come. Alter would recognize the problem. Apart from the insistence of Muslims on using Arabic rather than vernaculars in worship, the gap between scholars and literati plagues Qur’an translation. There are plenty of scholarly translations by Muslims giving a clear rendering of the meanings of the text—most recently, for example, The Study Qur’an—but apart from Arberry and Yusuf Ali, to my knowledge no recent masters of English prose have turned their hands to translating the Qur’an. There have been fruitful collaborations between scholars and poets—for example, in translations of Rumi—but this model has not been applied to Qur’an translation. Given the concern with each word of the sacred text and the theological insistence on the inimitability of Qur’anic Arabic, perhaps the poetic freedom required for this mode of translation is impossible in the Islamic context. It is no accident that two of the three translations I mention were by Christians. Perhaps it is a matter of time. After all, the King James Bible was the culmination of over two centuries of effort to translate the Bible into English, and no version since has equaled its well-deserved prestige.

To return to Alter and his rendering of the Hebrew Bible, it is not likely to become the authoritative translation, if only because of his general lack of concern for matters religious. Nevertheless, it is well worth the attention of Bible readers—and Qur’an translators—for its deeply thoughtful concern with the interaction of text, style, and narrative.

[1] In this piece, “Bible” will normally refer to the Hebrew Bible.