The Heresy of Explanation

Alan Jacobs joins in Robert Alter’s lament of “the heresy of explanation” at work in dynamic equivalence translation theory. Here’s how Jacobs opens his review of Alter’s The Five Books of Moses:

As the Italians say, traduttori, tradittori: translators are traitors. But the translator who shrugs and—cheerfully or resignedly—agrees that “every translation is an interpretation, after all” has too readily embraced the way of the tradittore. The translator who strives for strict fidelity, even knowing its elusiveness, will be less treacherous. In translation, fidelity is the ultimate imperative and trumps every other virtue: even clarity or readability.

Translators of the Bible seem often to forget this, if indeed they believe it at all. In the introduction to his extraordinary recent translation, The Five Books of Moses, Robert Alter points out that modern translations operate under the (perhaps unconscious) “feeling that the Bible, because of its canonical status, has to be made accessible—indeed, transparent—to all.” Alter is certainly right that modern translators have this feeling, and obey it, but the Bible’s “canonical status” is less to blame than a particular conception of how the Bible functions in the lives of believers.

Read the whole things, which Jacobs has appropriately entitled, “Robert Alter’s Fidelity.”

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1 Comment

  1. This is an inciteful review that says a great deal about what serious translators should struggle with, and what good translations should be like. Unfortunately, while Jacobs does see a place for exposition in commentaries, no mention is made of the primacy of preaching as the divinely intended means for exposition. An “end run” may just as easily be made around this Scriptural means by commentaries as by translations.

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