How translation obscured the music and wordplay of the Bible – Robert Alter |

A little off topic for this site but, oh, rules were made so they can broken.

At the very beginning of Genesis, before God speaks the world into being, the Earth is said to be, in the English of all the modern versions (except the one by Everett Fox), following the precedent of the King James Bible with only minor adjustments, ‘unformed and void’. This is a fair representation of what the Hebrew means but not at all of how it sounds. The Hebrew is tohu wavohu . The first of these two words is a well-known term that usually indicates something like ‘emptiness’, ‘trackless expanse’ or even ‘futility’. The second word could well be a nonce-word coined as a rhyme with tohu. The effect is rather like ‘helter skelter’ or ‘harum scarum’ in English, where the rhyming of bracketed terms reinforces the sense of things confused, intermingled, moving at reckless speed. I thought this important to reproduce somehow in English, and not being able to come up with a workable rhyme, I settled for alliteration, translating the paired terms as ‘welter and waste’. This solution is perhaps not perfect but, as a rule, a translator is constrained to settle for a reasonable approximation.


My first year Hebrew professor was also a rabbi and a renowned scholar of rabbinical literature. He made these very same points about TOHU VAVOHOO and reiterated them regularly.


Genesis 1 has long seemed poetic to me. And that was looking only at the English translation. So Alter is pointing out that it is even more evidently poetic when read in the original Hebrew.