Saturday, December 4, 2004


Here's a powerful example of how crucial a word or two can be in the work of translation, from a review by Judith Shulevitz of Robert Alter's translation The Five Books of Moses, New York Times, October 17, 2004:

What Alter does with the Bible . . . is read it, with erudition and rigor and respect for the intelligence of the editor or editors who stitched it together, and--most thrillingly--with the keenest receptivity to its darker undertones.

In the case of the binding of Isaac, for instance, Alter not only accepts a previous translator's substitution of ''cleaver'' for the ''knife'' of the King James version but also changes ''slay'' (as in, ''Abraham took the knife to slay his son'') to ''slaughter.'' Moreover, in his notes he points out that although this particular Hebrew verb for ''bound'' (as in, ''Abraham bound Isaac his son'') occurs only this once in biblical Hebrew, making its meaning uncertain, we can nonetheless take a hint from the fact that when the word reappears in rabbinic Hebrew it refers specifically to the trussing up of animals. Alter's translation thus suggests a dimension of this eerie tale we would probably have overlooked: that of editorial comment. The biblical author, by using words more suited to butchery than ritual sacrifice, lets us know that he is as horrified as we at the brutality of the act that God has asked Abraham to commit.

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