Robert Alter: ‘Nefesh’ Doesn’t Mean “Soul”!

Robert Alter, The Art of Bible Translation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019), 48:

It is also odd that the modern translators in all their zeal to put aside the precedent of the King James Version and redo everything from the ground up, continue to perpetuate some of the errors of the 1611 translation. Every biblical scholar knows that nefesh means “breath,” “life-breath,” “life,” “essential self,” and sometimes, by metonymy, “throat,” “neck,” and even “appetite,” yet the number of times it is still rendered soul in the modern versions is disconcerting. It is as if the translators felt that you can’t really have a Bible without “soul.” But it is always a misleading English equivalent because there is no biblical notion of the soul, and the several concretely physical meanings I have just listed reflect a rather different conception of the living human body.

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