How I translated the Bible's most poetic book.
Click here to hear Robert Alter read from his translations of the Psalms.
It is astonishing that an anthology of poems, many of them liturgical, composed by anonymous poets over a period of more than five centuries should include some of the most memorable and moving poetry that has come down to us from the ancient world. The Book of Psalms is, in fact, just such an anthology. Its oldest poems go back perhaps as far as 1000 B.C., while some of its late poems date to the fifth century B.C. We know nothing about the identity of these poets, though scholars have concluded that a good number were priests working in the temple precincts. Evidence for this conclusion is the cultic character of the majority of the psalms, which would have been sung in the temple ritual to the accompaniment of musical instruments. Some psalms, though, are personal, meditative, and even philosophical, while still others are responses to historical crises. The psalm, then, was less a definite genre than a flexible label for a variety of different kinds of poetry.
The poetry of Psalms draws on a traditional and even formulaic repertory of images, but on the whole it is remarkable for its powerfully succinct and intense passion about God and human existence, and for the way it anchors the life of the spirit in the palpable experience of the body. The sundry English translations, from Renaissance to contemporary, have in certain ways obscured key strengths of the Psalms. My dissatisfaction with them led me to attempt my own translation.
Two aspects of the Hebrew poems have especially suffered in translation: their powerfully compact rhythms—which, after all, constitute much of the music of the poetry—and the terrific, physical concreteness of the language. The conciseness of biblical poetry derives from the structure of the ancient language: Pronouns are usually omitted because you can tell the pronoun subject from the way the verb is conjugated; possessive pronouns are simply suffixes attached to the nouns; and the verb to be is entirely dispensed with in the present tense. Sometimes, there is simply no way of reproducing this compression in English. In the Hebrew, "The Lord is my shepherd" is just two words, two accents (Yahweh ro' i). But I, like the translators convened by King James, could see no other way of getting this into workable English.
In many lines, however, a little resourcefulness can produce rhythms resembling the Hebrew's. The King James version of Psalm 30:9 reads: "What profit is there in my blood, when I go down to the pit?" (The 1611 translators used italics for words merely implied in the Hebrew.) From a rhythmic standpoint, this sounds more like prose than poetry. My version reads: "What profit in my blood,/ in my going down deathward?" This rhythm is virtually identical to the Hebrew, the second half of the line just one syllable more than the original. The alliteration of "down deathward" has no equivalent in the Hebrew, but it helps the rhythmic momentum and compensates for other places (including the first half of this line) where alliterations in the original could not be reproduced.
Let me offer one more example of an effort to emulate the music of the Hebrew. The opening line of Psalm 104, a paean to the grand panorama of creation, was translated in the King James version as "thou art clothed with honour and majesty." This has a certain poised dignity, though there are too many words and syllables: The Hebrew original has three words, six syllables. And honour doesn't capture the true significance of the Hebrew hod, which means either grandeur or glory. My version reads: "Glory and grandeur You don." Here the strong alliteration mirrors a similar effect in the Hebrew (hod/hadar), and the syntactic inversion also follows the Hebrew, reproducing its emphasis on these two terms. Finally, I chose don as part of a general strategy to use single-syllabic words of Anglo-Saxon derivation, and to avoid the potential awkwardness and abstraction of Latinate terms (such as majesty or, elsewhere, transgression).
Robert Alter is the author, most recently, of Imagined Cities.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Photograph of Bible on Slate's home page by Stockbyte/Getty Images.