Robert Alter


This issue features a “micro-interview” with Robert Alter, conducted by Rich Cohen. The micro-interview consists of five exchanges distributed throughout the print magazine. Alter, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at Berkeley, is the greatest translator of biblical literature in modern times. His English versions of the Psalms, the five books of Moses, and the stories of the little brother who became King David, are definitive and fascinating, as are his introductions and commentaries, as well as his books of criticism, which include The Art of Biblical Narrative and The Art of Biblical Poetry. He is the closest thing we now have to the old sages who used to sit in huts on the edge of town, on the edge of the steppe, re-reading the Scriptures, contemplating man, and God, and law. And yet, not discounting the old-world nature of the discussion, the interview was conducted entirely via email, which is how, given all options, Moses would probably have preferred to converse with the stiff-necked Hebrew people.


THE BELIEVER: Do you see your work as an effort to scrub the Jewish Bible of all the Christian notions that have colored it over years of history and translation?

ROBERT ALTER: I did not consciously set out to reclaim the Hebrew Bible for the Jews. But I guess I am, as a translator, what in constitutional law would be called an “originalist.” That is, I want to try to convey in English what I think were the actual values and mind-sets of the ancient Hebrew writers, which is also, in the poetry, inseparable from the concreteness of their language and the compactness and rhythmic force of the poetry they wrote. Jews as well as Christians have imposed very postbiblical theologies and concepts on the Bible, but these have often been articulated in commentary far more often than in translation, because through the centuries most (not all) communities of Jews were not dependent on translations of the Hebrew. In the English-speaking world, the versions of the Bible we have had have certainly been suffused with Protestant theology, and, as an originalist, I have tried to scrape all that away.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Rich Cohen is the author of Tough Jews and Sweet and Low: A Family Story. His new book, Israel Is Real, will be published next summer by FSG. He lives in the foothills of large mountains with his wife, his many children, and another man’s dog.

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