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.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

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).

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.

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.

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