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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, by Robert Alter.  New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.  394 pp.  $35.00.


“Of making many books there is no end.” So Robert Alter renders Qohelet 12:12. The same might be said of versions of the Bible generally—they do appear with rather amazing regularity. But it would be both unkind and inappropriate to apply such skepticism to Alter’s new translation and textual commentary of Israel’s wisdom literature. This fresh translation of the Hebrew Bible books of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes is a welcome addition to the available renditions of these marvelous works.

              Professor Alter is a specialist in Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley and has distinguished himself with his translations of the Hebrew Bible. He has individual volumes dedicated to Genesis, also later included in complete Five Books of Moses, the David Story covering the books of Samuel, the Psalms, and now the wisdom literature. One might speculate that he may have his eye set on completing an annotated translation of the entire Hebrew Bible in the not too distant future, for with this resumé he is well on his way. He has also written highly regarded works of biblical literary analysis, including The Art of Biblical Narrative, The Art of Biblical Poetry, The World of Biblical Literature, and The Literary Guide to the Bible, the latter edited with Frank Kermode. In addition, Alter has experience in textual and literary analysis beyond ancient Hebrew literature and has written works of literary criticism of the novel in the western tradition, and of literary figures such as Kafka.

              Effective and communicative translation is a skill and an art. Most translations of the Bible are the work of committees of scholars and language specialists; less often are they the work of an individual, for the obvious reason that a single person rarely combines all the necessary attributes, as does Alter. He works directly off the Hebrew Masoretic text and provides insightful analyses of syntax and semantics to reveal the deep structure of its clauses. While he frequently references Hebrew words and phrases in the scholarly notes that accompany the text, he uses Roman transliterations, so readers who do not control the original can still follow the argument and “hear” the text. Alter takes pains to mirror the syntax and word order of the Hebrew text in his translations. And there’s just enough strangeness to remind the reader that this is really a foreign text and not an English original.

              After a brief introduction that explains the wisdom category of biblical books, Alter approaches each of the three wisdom books in the same manner. First, he provides an introduction to the book, dealing primarily with literary and structural matters. Then the translation is laid out as prose, as with the framework chapters of Job (1, 2, and the end of 42), or as poetry, with the second line of poetic couplets indented. The translation is annotated with notes, referenced by verse numbers, on the lower portion of the page: verse and annotation, if one exists, are always on the same page. The annotations do not indulge in theological speculation but rather address Hebrew lexical and literary issues. While in some respects the translation seems rather conventional, tending more toward a literal rather than a dynamic equivalence model, the translation notes are rich with insight and backgrounding. For example, here is his translation of  Job 3:3–4 which introduces what he terms Job’s “death-wish poem”: “Annul the day that I was born, and the night that said, ‘A man is conceived.’ That day, let it be darkness. Let God above not seek it out, nor brightness shine upon it.” His notes effectively lay out the sonorous and rhythmic aspects of the original language.

              The volume concludes with a ten-item “For Further Reading” list, and each entry is lightly described. There are no indexes to authors or to the text or to the notes. Clearly the book is not targeted to Hebraists or research scholars, though many of Alter’s textual analyses might provide scholarly food for thought. Instead, it is meant to inform non-professionals who might want to enjoy a Hebrew-flavored translation that is yet entirely accessible. The text is traditional in its treatment of the divine name but not inclusive: he employs LORD for the tetragrammaton, and he capitalizes God and the pronouns He and His when referring to deity.

              On the basis of his translation of the wisdom books, along with the prior volumes, one might with justification eagerly anticipate a complete Alter literary and linguistic study edition of the Hebrew Bible.

Barry Bandstra

Hope College

Holland, Michigan