Renovating the biblical Psalms.

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Sept. 26 2007 7:22 AM

Psalm Springs

How I translated the Bible's most poetic book.

Click  here to hear Robert Alter read from his translations of the Psalms.

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Psalms is, of course, a collection of deeply spiritual poems. But what is not sufficiently evident in the existing English versions is that the spirituality is characteristically enacted through the body. A key term that has led to fundamental misconceptions is nefesh, which the 1611 translators generally rendered as soul, a choice that is still often followed by their various modern successors. Although it may at first disconcert some pious readers, I have rigorously excluded the word soul from my version of Psalms. In the original biblical language, there is no split between body and soul and no notion of a soul surviving the body. Rather, nefesh means life-breath (one hears the breathing in the sound of the Hebrew word)—the God-given vital force that passes in through the nostrils and down into the lungs, animating the body. By extension, it means life. "My nefesh" is also an intensive way of saying "I" (which I sometimes translate as "my whole being" or "my being"). Because the throat is a passageway for the breath, this same word can also mean, by metonymy, throat or neck.

If many of the Psalms express a powerful longing for the divine presence, they register it as an acute somatic experience, the whole body thirsting for the experience of closeness to God. Psalm 63, as I have rendered it, begins: "God, my God, for You I search./ My throat thirsts for You./ My flesh yearns for You/ in a land waste and parched, with no water." The King James version, which many modern translators have followed, has soul instead of throat. This phrasing is perhaps more dignified, but, as I have argued, soul is a rather suspect equivalent for nefesh. And the parallelism between this line and the next, where the word flesh is evoked in a desert setting, suggests that both lines refer to the body. The speaker, with every cell of his physical being, throat and flesh, thirsts for God like a man stranded in a dry, hot desert.

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Elsewhere, nefesh is linked instead to a dangerous abundance of water. Psalm 69 begins, as I have translated it: "Rescue me, God,/ for the waters have come up to my neck." This vivid image of drowning, amplified in the next few lines of the poem, vanishes in the King James version's odd intimation of spiritual seepage, which translates the line as "the waters are come into my soul." Most modern translators have caught the reference to the neck here, though they miss it in other lines. For example, Psalm 44:26 (44:25 in some numerations) reads in the Revised English Bible: "For we sink down to the dust/ and lie prone on the ground." The New Jewish Publication Society version renders this as: "We lie prostrate in the dust; our body clings to the ground." Both translations fudge the stark physicality of the Hebrew poetry. My translation, which I am convinced represents the original more precisely, is: "For our neck is bowed down to the dust,/ our belly clings to the ground." The image is of a person lying flat on his belly with an enemy stomping on him. The noun at the beginning of the second half of the line clearly means belly, and its semantic parallel in the first half of the line is neck (nefesh). In the King James version, predictably, it is the "soul" that clings to the dust.

Another prime instance of translations that dilute the concreteness of the Psalms is the abundant use of salvation for the Hebrew yeshu'ah in most English versions. Salvation is a fine old word, but it is fraught with grand theological implications alien to the world of the psalmists. The Hebrew term behind this purported English equivalent actually has the homey meaning of getting someone out of a tight fix. (In post-biblical Judaism, yeshu'ah takes on a more transcendental meaning suggestive of the Davidic messiah descending to earth to restore Israel.) Hence I use rescue in its place. For what these ancient poems speak of urgently is a person's desperate need to be extricated from terrible straits in the life we live here and now, threatened as he may be by dire illness or by armed enemies or by vile schemers manipulating the legal system against him. "The God of my rescue" will take some getting used to for many readers, but it is, I am convinced, faithful to the mind-set of these poets, who imagine the life of the spirit playing out through the body and in the political and social institutions that shape our lives in this world.

All translations of poetry are imperfect approximations of the original, and I think any translator of conscience will at times wince at imperfections that he has not been able to avoid, despite the best intentions. But for me these extraordinary Hebrew poems are words that sing, using a concrete imagery keyed to our physical existence, in ways you would scarcely guess from the existing English versions. I have tried to produce a translation of Psalms that, whatever its faults, might convey to English readers something of that mesmerizing melody and that gripping concreteness.

Robert Alter's translation of Psalms has just been published.