Podcast with Robert Alter and David Bentley Hart

My two favorite, and possibly the best, translators of the Bible today were interviewed together on a podcast about a year ago:

Speaking broadly and perhaps simply, Robert Alter produced a translation of the Hebrew Bible that shows in English that the original was great literature, while David Bentley Hart produced a New Testament that was not afraid to give us poor, simple, or awkward English in its efforts to reflect the Greek original, which in fact was often poor, simple or awkward.

The NT authors do not appear to have been native Greek speakers; it is likely that they wrote the NT in Greek when they decided to make their mission to the wider Gentile world, since most people of that time period spoke Greek.

Alter, then, gives us something that is a pleasure to read, for reasons that need no explanation. Yet Hart’s NT gives us language that is just as compelling, for different reasons. Here I cannot possibly explain better than Hart does in his Introduction:

This is all evidence, however, of a deeper truth about these texts: They are not beguiling exercises in suasive rhetoric or feats of literary virtuosity; rather, they are chiefly the devout and urgent attempts of often rather ordinary persons to communicate something “seen” and “heard” that transcends any language, but that nevertheless demands to be spoken, now, here, in whatever words one can marshal.

That comes across consistently here, in Hart’s ruthlessly literal translation. It does not come across in most translations, simply because they try to produce good English, or at least grammatically correct English. They are poetic (KJV), or clear and grammatical (RSV), wherever the originals were not. Or they gave the impression of a unitary voice, whereas Hart gives us English that varies among the various NT books: some NT writers like Luke, or the author of the letter of the Hebrews, could write very well; and that comes across in Hart. Each author is palpably unique in his translation.

The real meat of Hart’s translation may be not the translation but the theology. As an Eastern Orthodox, he sees evidence that the Greek of the original texts has been mistranslated in important ways in the western, Latin-originated churches. This is particularly important for the question of whether the New Testament offers universal salvation. Hart draws on the older traditions, based in the Greek East, in which the New Testament was read as speaking of universal salvation and in which, particularly, there was no concept of an eternal Hell.

This makes Hart’s learned translations of Paul’s letters, especially, with their detailed footnotes and vigorous analysis, particularly interesting and even edifying, in the sense that Paul spoke of in 1 Corinthians 14.

All of this is my way of introducing these two translators, though the podcast doesn’t dwell exclusively on these issues that I’ve brought up. It goes in many directions, and is always interesting. Highly recommended.

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