The Motive for Translating Psalms


Literary ambition is a tricky business. No one would go to the trouble of writing for publication without the impetus of ambition. Yet too relentless a focus on ambition, in my sense of things, can be damaging to what you are trying to achieve. I have always aimed to concentrate on the particular challenges and pleasures of the project at hand and to keep my aspirations for achievement and recognition well in the back of my mind.

When I first got into translating the Bible, with Genesis in the mid-1990s, my hopes for the volume’s success were actually quite modest. As a reader of the Bible in Hebrew, I had been very dissatisfied with the existing English versions—including the famously eloquent King James Version—because none of them conveyed much of the powerful stylistic features of the original that were so important in my own experience of these texts. I initially conceived my translation as an experiment that was likely to fail. I wanted to get into readable literary English the cadences, the expressive syntax, the elegant precision of word-choice, and the use of significant repetition of the Hebrew. I suspected this was not really feasible and that neither my readers nor I would be especially happy with the results. The translation, whatever its imperfections, turned out to be a far closer approximation of my aims than I had imagined, and the responses of both critics and readers, first to my Genesis, then to The David Story, and, most strikingly, to The Five Books of Moses, have been immensely encouraging and gratifying.

All this enthusiasm inevitably has affected my ambitions as a translator of the Bible. When so many readers, not to speak of eminent critics and poets, speak of my work, perhaps extravagantly, as an outstanding translation of the Bible that is likely to endure, I am moved to put aside my initial notion of being engaged in a rather quixotic experiment and to think I may be able to produce an English version of Scripture that will speak to people for some time. It is on the momentum of such feelings that I undertook to translate Psalms.

The obvious difference of this text from the ones I had worked on previously is that it is entirely composed in poetry. Precisely for that reason, it poses a special challenge for the translator. Biblical poetry, as one would expect, is powerfully rhythmic, but the rhythms and the lines are extraordinarily compact in ways one could scarcely guess from the existing English versions, and that compactness is one of the chief sources of the expressive power of the poems. Any sensitive reader of the poetry in the Hebrew is likely to be annoyed by the profusion of words and syllables (frequently an arhythmic profusion) of the English translations, which often run to two or three times the number of words, syllables, and accents of the Hebrew. What I set out to do, then, in translating Psalms was to tamp down the English language, eliminating words and substituting monosyllables for polysyllabic terms (and, like the Hebrew, concrete terms for abstractions) in order to fashion a poetic language that sounded something like the Hebrew.

I would be the first to admit that this is not always possible to do effectively. Nevertheless, many lines proved to work well as English poetry that is a much better approximation of the Hebrew than one finds in previous translations. Let me cite just one illustration of this process. Psalm 30:10 in my version reads: “What profit in my blood, / in my going down deathward?” The rhythm here is almost identical to the Hebrew, with just one extra syllable in the second half of the line and each half-line showing two strongly accented syllables, as in the Hebrew. My version, moreover, hews to the concreteness of the Hebrew, representing dami as “my blood” and not, as most modern versions have it, “my death.”

My sense of the audience for this kind of translation is relatively well-informed because, in the era of  email, many readers let you know what they think, and what their motives are for thinking it. Since the Book of Psalms includes some of the greatest poetry that has come down to us from the ancient world, I, as someone who loves poetry, would hope that readers for whom poetry matters would find a resource in my translation, would feel that through it they can come closer to the power and beauty of the Hebrew poems. But my experience as a translator and a critical expositor of the Bible has taught me that one should not imagine a categorical split between literary readers of the Bible and those who come to the Bible for reasons of faith. The biblical writers themselves were obviously impelled by religious concerns, but for most of the texts gathered in the Hebrew Bible, they chose to convey their religious vision in poetry and artful prose narrative; and I have long been convinced that in order to understand fully what they wanted to say about God, man, creation, history, and divinely dictated moral imperatives, you have to firmly grasp how they purposefully employed the vehicles of story and poem. If a person uses Psalms in his or her devotional life (like one nun who urged me in an  email to undertake this particular translation), my assumption is that an English version which gives a better feel for the rhythms, the diction, and the stylistic contours of the Hebrew will speak to that reader more immediately, put such a reader more closely in touch with the spiritual intensity as well as the emotional urgency of the biblical poems. By resisting, moreover, the temptation of imposing later theologies and worldviews on the Psalms, in the choice of English equivalents for Hebrew terms, I hope to make it possible for readers to enter more fully into the mind-set of the ancient Hebrew poets. My ambition for this translation, then, which I hope is not overweening, is to have produced an English Psalms that will convey something of the music and the magic of these poems both to pious and secular readers.