The literature of Robert Alter’s Old Testament translation reaps rewards

Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible needed a quarter century to

Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible needed a quarter century to complete, and now it has earned American Academy of Arts and Literature Award. (Photos: Jeremy Snowden).

In the quarter century that Robert Alter needed to complete his translation of The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, he says he found the work to be both of scholarship and of literature.

The level of scholarship involved in translating the Old Testament has gotten much attention, but news this week that Alter was one of eight winners of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Awards in Literature was a sweet moment for the UC Berkeley professor of Hebrew and comparative literature.

"I felt a sense of gratification because I’m sort of a crossover," Alter says. "Even though a lot of scholarship went into my translation, I considered it literature. I tried to create some adequate equivalents for the poetry of the Bible and the rhythm of the prose in there."

The academy, which dates back to 1865, annually hands out awards in categories ranging from architecture to music to literature to painting and sculpture. Previous honorees of the academy have included Buckminster Fuller, David McCullough, Tennessee Williams, Edith Wharton, Stephen Sondheim, Georgia O’Keefe, W.H. Auden and Alexander Calder.

Alter’s book, which was published in December, is now going into its third printing.

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