Friday, October 01, 2004

The Redactor

There are book reviews that are themselves so well-argued, so polymathic in scope, so provocative and engaging, that they make you almost afraid to read the book, for fear it could only be a colossal letdown. Such a one in Cynthia Ozick's piece on Robert Alter's new one-man translation of the Pentateuch. This is the kind of cultural writing that I missed during the wilderness year when our subscriptions to The New Yorker and The New Republic were allowed to lapse. (You may be able to read Ozick's piece here, but I can't guarantee that; the precise workings TNR's designations of some of its online articles as subscriber-only some-of-the-time-but-not-always—or not—continue to mystify me. In any case, you really should just subscribe.)

Trepidations aside, I need Alter's book, need it like it was crack. My fascination with liturgical language, with its musics and meanings, has been discussed elsewhere. When we consider the removes from which we regard the Bible—the gulfs of years, language, and culture that separate us from the days of its initial revelation, and from the audience to whom it was initially revealed—that we can glean from it anything of any use, that we can extract from its temporal and cultural specificities a set of useful general principles, seems like, well, a miracle. Alter himself says as much in another of his books, quoted by Ozick:

Ethical monotheism ... was delivered to the world not as a series of abstract principles but in cunningly wrought narratives, poetry, parables, and orations, in an intricate patterning of symbolic language and rhetoric that extends even to the genealogical tables and the laws.
It's miraculous, too, when a translation can recapture some of the poetry in a story we all know so well, that we've all heard a thousand times before in varying levels of diction:
When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God's breath hovering over the waters, God said, "Let there be light."
Ozick calls this passage Joycean, and rightly so; and that singular and idiosyncratic voice would be nigh-impossible in the standard paradigm of translation-by-committee.

Alter's methods and agendas are many—and beyond my wit or expertise to summarize here—but his lodestar is the notion that "[t]he mesmerizing effect of these ancient stories will scarcely be conveyed if they are not rendered in a cadenced English prose that at least in some ways corresponds to the powerful cadences of Hebrew." That he leans heaviest on the Saxon strain of English construction and vocabulary in his attempt to emulate those cadences is a testimony to the lingering emotional resonance of Germanic vocabulary vs. Latinate (nicely summed up in Bill Bryson's comment that we instinctively prefer a hearty welcome to a cordial reception)—it seems sturdy, honest, forthright,

But it seems to me there is something more poignant at play here. Ozick calls Alter's Saxon English "the language of Lincoln," and that's true enough. But that Alter, a New World Jew of European descent, renders these narratives of trial and deliverance in prose that so echoes that of the home now lost to him and his people seems itself an act of deliverance. In this parable, it is language that is redeemed.

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