Robert Alter. Strong as Death is Love. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015, pp. 234, $16.95 (paperback).
Strong as Death is Love is a continuation of a series of translations by the renowned Hebrew Bible scholar Robert Alter (Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley). He is most well known for The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981) which reads the Hebrew Bible through the eyes of a literary critic and significantly influenced how we read the Hebrew Bible. This work applies his literary criticism to the Song of Songs, Ruth, Esther, Jonah, and Daniel with a thoughtful translation of the books and brief commentary.
Most valuable, of course, is the option to read alternative translation. Although Strong as Death is Love only focuses on translating five books, it reflects a valuable contribution of his ongoing translation of the entire Hebrew Bible. Beyond offering an alternative translation for scholars to work with, an important accomplishment in and of itself, it offers translation and commentary which non-specialists are able to read. Rather than being caught up in academic mumbo-jumbo and theological focuses, his translation emphasizes the literary strengths and nuances of the Hebrew Bible and helps non-specialists to appreciate the literature. I do hope he eventually merges all of his translations into one translation of the entire Hebrew Bible in a single publication, for it would make a translation sensitive to literary style more readily available.
The only problem with Alter’s translation is the lack of information regarding what “some scholars or interpreters” say. As a single example, he says regarding that Song of Songs that “many interpreters understand this entire sequence as a dream” (19). While his book is written for non-specialists, the lack of reference to who those interpreters are is problematic to people hoping to continue exploring the text. It also prevents the reader from more fully exploring the text with his book as a starting point. Similarly, there is no bibliography of any sort, making it difficult to see what scholarship potentially influenced his comments and translations.
While this critique does demonstrate a difficulty for scholars approaching his translation, it is nonetheless an excellent alternative translation for scholarship and non-specialists alike. His sharp eye as a literary critic allows him to seem beyond the typical theological, text critical, and linguistically focused translations and consider the greater ramifications of the literature for humanity. Thus, as an alternative translation, I recommend his work to scholars. And even more so, I recommend that non-specialists and scholars alike read his work simply to appreciate the literary quality which his translations emphasize.
*I’d like to express my gratitude to Norton Press for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.