Any time one deals with a book which has been translated, you’re opening up a whole new can of worms above and beyond the quality of the book itself. I noted this with some hesitancy when I reviewed Orhan Pamuk’s Snow—or, more accurately, a translation of Orhan Pamuk’s Snow.
Biblical translation is even tougher: the politics it involves go beyond mere word choice and touch things which people hold as sacrosanct. Maybe you think I’m exaggerating, but consider as an example the movement of Christians who believe that the only correct version of the Bible is the King James Version. Mess with canon at your own peril.
I’ve reviewed one other piece of Biblical translation—The Book of Job—and it, like Psalms, is a translation of the Hebrew: New Testament books, whose original incarnations tended to be in Greek, generate less ambiguity and controversy1. Hebrew is a complicated language, with a lot of meaning and structure which is particular to it. Much of this is often lost when translated, either because the sensitivity of King James translators was not sufficiently high, or because modern translations tend to focus overly much on readability rather than historicity.
In fact, the farther one delves in Hebrew translation, the easier it is to see why devout Jews will learn Hebrew to read the Torah, or Muslims will learn Arabic to read the Koran—and why keeping these original versions as canonical is so important to them. I imagine that Robert Alter would agree: a professor of Hebrew as UC-Berkley, the man has translated a number of Biblical books: the Pentateuch2, the story of David from [1,2] Samuel, several books on biblical narrative and poetry, and so forth.
The biblical poetic tradition is important when talking about the Psalms because they are first and foremost a sort of poetry, and they tend—Psalms were gathered from a number of places, and possibly altered over the years—to follow a particular pattern. What’s more, there is a particular quality to them in the original Hebrew that is so often lost in English translations. I won’t repeat Alter’s introduction, which explains his approach to the translation and layout; needless to say, Alter’s translation is one of extreme care and craft. The resulting text is different (though hardly unrecognizable) from what you know: there’s less emphasis on salvation history, for instance, which was never present in the original and was only added through the (unintentional?) effort of Christocentric translators. Psalms are, after all, Jewish, and the Jewish relationship with Yahweh is a bit different than that of mainstream Christianity.
Here, for example, are three different versions of part of Psalm 1.
Blessed is the man
that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,
nor standeth in the way of sinners,
nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
Blessed is the man
who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way of sinners
or sit in the seat of mockers.
Happy the man
who has not walked in the wicked’s counsel,
nor in the way of offenders has stood,
nor in the session of scoffers has sat.
You can see the subtle differences; “sinner” here is replaced with “offender,” since the persecutions of the Psalms were less theological and more worldly, and therefore “offender” tracks the meaning of the Hebrew better. The NIV version is actually shorter and more concise in this case, though much of Alter’s translation focuses on restoring the characteristic brevity and crispness of the lines in Hebrew; these are, after all, poems, and to some degree they are supposed to scan or correspond. The theological motivations of most translators are vested almost entirely in meaning as opposed to form, which sells the Psalms short.
All of this begs the question: what does Alter’s translation give us that is good or desirable? Consider the King James translation which is not only venerable, but has the added benefit of classical-sounding style and syntax. Putting aside for a moment our considerations of which translations are or are not canonical or authoritative, what is the motivation of English-speaking readers to pick up Alter’s book as opposed to our well-worn KJV, or even some insipid “Good News” translation? If our sense of modern poetry is inspired by Milton and Keats and fine English traditions of that sort, to which such translations as KJV obviously appeal, does a translation which hews more closely to the Hebrew have a place on our shelves? The answer is a definitive yes, but explaining why is more involved.
For one thing, a little less than half of the text in the book is made up of the psalms themselves; the operative word here—”commentary”—comes from the subtitle, and it is partially what makes the book such a gem. Like any heavily-annotated book, the extra information can be overwhelming, but understanding why Alter glosses the way he does gives us not only an appreciation for the work of transliteration, but also gives us a deeper insight into the Psalms themselves, what passions informed their writing, and what literary tropes the writers used. In this way, The Book of Psalms is not merely a translation of the work, but a book about them: language is as much about history and culture as it is about phonemes3, and what modern translations of the Bible don’t do as narratives is explain the history.
Alter, then, is giving us a look at the uniquely Hebraic character of the Psalms, not necessarily as a replacement for the more theological lens of our leatherbound volumes, but as a separate and distinct celebration of the psalms’ other virtues and special character as poetry, as Hebrew literature, and as historical documents.
- Though some informed translations can still add nuance. Consider the case of paradidomi, a Greek word which can mean “deliver,” “give up,” or “betray.” It is used about 120 times in the NT. In almost all its other uses, it’s used in the former way—e.g. that God “delivered” his son. The word is also used a number of times with respect to Judas; whether or not it was meant in its pejorative sense, it is interesting if one considers it otherwise. Namely that Judas, scoundrel or not, would have delivered Jesus to the Jews/Romans in the same way that Yahweh did.[↩]
- His translation of this clocks in at more than 1000 pages[↩]
- See Bryson’s Made in America, Hitching’s The Secret Life of Words, and Baugh & Cable’s A History of the English Language[↩]