- The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary by Robert Alter
Norton, 518 pp, £22.00, October 2007, ISBN 978 0 393 06226 7
Out of the mouths of babes; apple of the eye; fire and brimstone; out of joint; sleep the sleep of death; sweeter than honey and the honeycomb; whiter than snow; oh that I had wings like a dove for then would I fly away; the meek shall inherit the earth; tender mercies; clean hands and a pure heart; I have been young and now am old; my cup runneth over; many a time; clean gone; the days of old; I am a worm and no man; his heart’s desire; the heavens declare the glory of god; go down to the sea in ships; at their wits’ end; the valley of the shadow of death; make a joyful noise; go from strength to strength . . .
The 1611 King James Authorised Version of the Book of Psalms – and of course of the entire Bible – is so deep in the English language that we no longer know when we are repeating its phrases. Inextricable from the beliefs and practices of its faithful for four hundred years, it has been transformed from the translation of a holy book into a holy book itself. Poets, however, know from experience that there are no definitive texts, and over the centuries an assembly of angels has been singing the Psalms in its own way: Wyatt, Sidney, the Countess of Pembroke, Campion, Milton, Crashaw, Vaughan, Smart, Clare, Hopkins and Kipling among them. Some were setting lyrics to new tunes; some were performing metrical exercises with familiar material; some were expressing private prayer; some were simply writing a poem. St Augustine said that all things written in the Psalms are mirrors of ourselves and it was inevitable that, when English poets were still largely Christian believers, they would look into the mirror of this foundational anthology of poetry, as Chinese poets looked into the Confucian Book of Songs.
In the Modernist era, the poets, as Pound wisecracked, have been more interested in Muses than Moses and though bits of the Psalms have inevitably been embedded in poems, new translations have become the province of theologians and academics. The latest is a handsome edition, complete with the requisite red ribbon, by Robert Alter, and it has arrived accompanied by a joyful noise, widely acclaimed in the press as the Psalms for Our Time.
New translations of a classic text are either done as a criticism of the old translations (correcting mistakes, finding an equivalent that is somehow closer to the original, writing in the language as it is now spoken) or they are a springboard for trying something new in the translation-language, inspired by certain facets of the original (such as Pound’s Chinese or Anglo-Saxon versions, Paul Blackburn’s Provençal, Louis Zukofsky’s Latin). Alter, whose concern is Biblical Hebrew and not contemporary poetry, is in the former camp. As he explains in the introduction, his project is to strip away the Christian interpretations implicit in the King James and later versions and restore the context of the archaic Judaism of the half-millennium (roughly 1000-500 BCE) in which the Psalms were written. His poetics is an attempt to reproduce the compression and concreteness of the Hebrew, ‘emulating its rhythms’ and ‘making more palpable the force of parallelism that is at the heart of biblical poetry’. As for mistakes, it is surprising that the King James apparently has so few. Alter corrects very little, sometimes unconvincingly, though he is more specific on flora and fauna.
His de-Christianisation is largely in the avoidance of frequent King James terms such as ‘salvation’, ‘soul’, ‘mercy’, ‘sin’ and its sister, ‘iniquity’. He translates the KJ line ‘my soul thirsteth for thee’ (63) as ‘My throat thirsts for You,’ explaining in the introduction that although the Hebrew word nefesh ‘means “life breath” and, by extension, “life” or “essential being” . . . by metonymy, it is also a term for the throat (the passage through which the breath travels)’ – a translation, in other words, more literal than the original. Elsewhere, ‘my soul’ becomes ‘my being’, or sometimes merely ‘I’. For ‘sin’ he prefers ‘offence’; for ‘mercy’, ‘kindness’. For ‘iniquity’ he often chooses ‘mischief’, which, in American English, is more likely to be associated with frat-boy pranks on Halloween than treachery in the desert. Thus the KJ ‘they cast iniquity upon me’ (55) becomes ‘they bring mischief down upon me’ and the KJ ‘Iniquities prevail against me’ (65) becomes ‘My deeds of mischief are too much for me.’ The strangest choice of all is the replacement of the often reiterated ‘salvation’ and its cognates with ‘rescue’ (the noun), in ways that seem to have no connection with English as it is spoken: ‘rescue is the Lord’s’ (3) or ‘the cup of rescue I lift’ (116) or the KJ ‘A horse is a vain thing for safety’ (33), which becomes the incomprehensible ‘The horse is a lie for rescue.’
The parallelism that is the organising principle of the psalmodic line (and of much archaic poetry) has been plain in English since the translations of Miles Coverdale in 1535. Coverdale marked the division into hemistiches (or what Alter, following Benjamin Hrushovski, calls ‘versets’) with a colon, a practice followed, inconsistently, by the King James. Bishop Robert Lowth explained it in detail in 1753 in Oxford, and inspired Christopher Smart, who attended the lectures, to use the form for his Jubilate Agno. Alter emphasises this by splitting each line into two, with the second one indented, giving the poem a more ‘modern’ look, but it is hard to see why this is ‘more palpable’ than previous versions. Open any page of the KJ version and the parallelism is quite clear: ‘Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together’ (98) – a line I picked at random – seems little different from
Let the rivers clap hands,
let the mountains together sing gladly
– though Alter is, characteristically, slightly more awkward.
To illustrate how he has rendered the condensed language of the original, Alter, in the introduction, takes an unfortunate example, the famous line from Psalm 23: ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.’ He explains that the Hebrew has eight words and 11 syllables, but the King James translation ‘weighs in’ at 17 words and 20 syllables. Alter has brought this down to 13 words and 14 syllables, an admirable diet, but there are few who wouldn’t prefer the chubbier version to this:
Though I walk in the vale of death’s shadow,
I fear no harm.
Over the last century, there have been many translation strategies for giving a sense of the denseness of classical languages such as Chinese or Sanskrit: layout on the page, enjambment, the dropping of articles when possible, a reliance on Anglo-Saxon rather than Latinate words. Alter tends to use the possessive. The opening line of Psalm 19 in the King James, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God,’ becomes ‘The heavens tell God’s glory’; if nothing else, cutting three syllables. Its concluding lines, which are repeated thrice daily by observant Jews, ‘Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer’ are turned into lines that would have the prayerful stumbling:
Let my mouth’s utterances be pleasing
and my heart’s stirring before You,
LORD, my rock and redeemer.
Considering that the Psalms are meant to be spoken or sung, many of Alter’s lines are difficult to say: ‘Your throne stands firm from of old,/from forever You are’ (93) is one for elocution class, and the KJ ‘Make haste, O God, to deliver me; make haste to help me, O Lord’ (70) has been turned into a stammer: ‘God, to save me,/Lord, to my help, hasten!’
Translation comes from somewhere, the language and literature of the original, but it also goes somewhere, into the language and literature of the translation language. Too often the experts in one know very little about the other. The cliché that only poets can translate poetry is half true. More exactly, only poetry-readers can translate poetry: those familiar with the contemporary poetry of the translation language, the context in which the translation will be read. On the evidence here, Alter seems to know very little about the last hundred years of English-language poetry.
He is partial to Victorian language, perhaps in the belief that it is more ‘poetic’. The result is that, at times, he sounds more dated than the King James. He’s in ‘death’s vale’ where the KJ was in ‘the valley of death’. His Lord is ‘my crag and my bastion’ (18) where the KJ’s is ‘my rock, and my fortress’. He has a ‘people aborning’ (22) where the KJ has a ‘people that shall be born’, and a ‘sojourner’ (94) for the KJ’s ‘stranger’. The KJ’s ‘I have considered the days of old’ (77) is now ‘I ponder the days of yore.’ And the famous line ‘I have been young and now am old’ (37) has been turned into A.E. Housman: ‘A lad I was, and now I am old.’
Worse, like many writing poems for the first time, he is in love with inverted syntax: the trees ‘fresh and full of sap they are’ (92); ‘they fix to the string their arrow’ (11); ‘His handiwork sky declares’ (19, better known as ‘the firmament sheweth his handywork’); ‘orphans they murder’ (94). Sometimes he merely inverts the King James phrases. ‘For I am poor and needy’ (86) becomes ‘for lowly and needy am I’; ‘The sea is his, and he made it’ (95) turns into ‘His is the sea and He made it’; or similarly, ‘Thy way is in the sea’ (77) is now ‘In the sea was Your way.’ There are inversions on nearly every page and after a while, wonder, one does, if it’s not the swamp of Yoda the Jedi Master we’re in. That sinking feeling hits bottom as early as Psalm 23:
The LORD is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
In grass meadows He makes me lie down
(And, almost needless to say, for ‘He restoreth my soul,’ Alter has ‘My life He brings back.’) The incessant inversion, combined with the predilection for possessives, leads to many examples of the kind where la plume de ma tante would become ‘My aunt’s is the pen.’ The first line of Psalm 24 is straightforward in the King James: ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.’ Alter’s line needs to be diagrammed: ‘The Lord’s is the earth and its fullness.’
He seems to have no ear for American English, from the alpha (2: ‘Why are the nations aroused,/and the peoples murmur vain things?’) to the omega (150: ‘Let all that has breath praise Yah’ – a construct rather like ‘All who is going should get on the bus’). He is oblivious to American slang, not realising that Psalm 66 (KJ: ‘Make a joyful noise unto God . . . Say unto God, how terrible art thou in thy works!’) in his version (‘Shout out to God . . . Say to God, ‘‘How awesome Your deeds”’) sounds like a Christian rock band warming up the crowd. He sometimes slips out of register: ‘The wicked man borrows and will not pay,/but the just gives free of charge’ (37). And he apparently can’t hear that the line ‘Free me, Lord, from evil folk’ (140) is best spoken in the voice of George Bush.
Inversion, the possessive, the unpronounceable and an unfortunate word-choice all converge in Psalm 18, where he transforms a dull line in the King James (‘As soon as they hear of me, they shall obey me: the strangers shall submit themselves unto me’) into: ‘At the mere ear’s report they obeyed me,/aliens cringed before me.’ There are many other lines that would cause the meek to tremble, though perhaps not aliens to cringe. Among them: ‘With their dewlaps they speak haughty words’ (17); ‘All day long I go about gloomy’ (38); ‘Like sheep to Sheol they head’ (49, KJ: ‘Like sheep they are laid in the grave’); ‘All the wrongdoers bandy boasts’ (94); ‘For all gods of the peoples are ungods’ (96); ‘I hate committing transgressions’ (101); ‘I resemble the wilderness jackdaw’ (102); ‘for we are sorely sated with scorn’ (123); and, perhaps the worst of all, the anatomically perplexing ‘The wicked backslide from the very womb’ (58). But fortunately, as Edward Dahlberg once remarked, ‘there are many psalms that even the droning of a priest cannot kill.’
As one reads along, the suspicion grows that perhaps this book is not about the poetry at all, but about the commentary. Usually half, and sometimes more, of every page is taken up by Alter’s notes. Certainly there are many editions where the notes are more interesting than the texts, but the commentary here divides between lexical minutiae, of interest largely to Hebraicists (though this is a heavily promoted mass-market book) and a running exegesis for freshmen, in a relentless reiteration of the obvious. The line ‘My being like thirsty land to You’ (143) is glossed: ‘Rain in this climate and therefore in this body of literature is characteristically thought of as a desperately needed blessing. Hence God’s responsive presence is metaphorically represented as the rain that the parched land awaits to quicken it with growth’ – though one presumes that, by page 493, the reader has already figured out that these people are living in the desert. ‘Sing to the Lord a new song’ (149) needs this explanation: ‘The idea of a “new song” is highlighted in several psalms. In a sense, this is a kind of self-advertisement of the psalmist, as if to say “here is a fresh and vibrant psalm that you have never heard before.”’
It is remarkable that, in some two thousand of such notes, most of them longer than these, very little outside of Alter’s own interpretations is ever mentioned. He takes issue with some of the King James readings and very occasionally disputes some (usually unnamed) biblical scholars, but not once does he cite any of the translations from the history of English poetry, the uses to which individual psalms have been put, the detailed Christian exegeses of everyone from St Augustine to John Donne (and only very rarely the Jewish exegeses of Rashi and Avraham ibn Ezra), or even – except where there are specific references – other passages in the Bible. (This is contrary to Jewish tradition, which tends to pile up citations and defer to the long tradition of transmitted wisdom.) There is one far-fetched mention of Mallarmé, explaining why, in Psalm 65, Alter translates a certain word as ‘silence’. And he defends his transformation of the well-known line ‘sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb’ (19) into ‘and sweeter than honey,/quintessence of bees’ – despite his own injunction against multisyllabic Latinate words and the inappropriate alchemical term – by modestly noting: ‘The English equivalent offered here may sound like a turn of phrase one might encounter in the poetry of Wallace Stevens, but it offers a good semantic match for the Hebrew.’ (The Hebrew had merely put together two words that both mean ‘honey’.)
St Hilary said that the Book of Psalms is a heap of keys that can open every door in a great city, but that it is hard to find which key opens which lock. For translation, the opposite has been true: many poets have discovered many different keys to unlock certain doors.
For emotional power, Thomas Wyatt, circa 1536:
From depth of sin, and from a deep despair,
From depth of death, from depth of heart’s sorrow,
From this deep cave, of darkness deep repair,
Thee have I called, O Lord, to be my borrow.
Thou in my voice, O Lord, perceive and hear
My heart, my hope, my plaint, my overthrow,
My will to rise, and let by grant appear
That to my voice thine ears do well intend.
For concision and straightforward speech, Arthur Golding – whose translation of Ovid was loved by Pound and plagiarised by Shakespeare – in 1571:
My heart is boiling of a good word.
The work that I indite shall be of the King.
My tongue is the pen of a swift writer.
(Alter: ‘My heart is astir with a goodly word./ I speak what I’ve made to the king./My tongue is the pen of a rapid scribe.’)
The lute music of Philip Sidney in the 1580s:
How long (O Lord) shall I forgotten be?
How long wilt Thou Thy hidden face from me
And Sidney’s sister, the Countess of Pembroke, ten years later, bringing in the whole orchestra:
Lord, crack their teeth! Lord, crush these lions’ jaws!
So let them sink as water in the sand.
When deadly bow their aiming fury draws,
Shiver the shaft ere past the shooter’s hand.
Thomas Campion in 1612, similarly alliterative, but restoring the psalm to the clarity of a single human voice singing:
Aloft the trees that spring up there
Our silent Harps we pensive hung:
Said they that captiv’d us, Let’s hear
Some song which you in Sion sung.
(Alter: ‘On the poplars there/we hung up our lyres./For there our captors had asked of us/words of song,/and our plunderers – rejoicing:/“Sing us from Zion’s songs.”’)
Milton, in 1653, the master of syntactical inversion:
Rise Lord, save me my God, for thou
Hast smote ere now
On the cheek-bone all my foes,
Of men abhorred
Hast broke the teeth. This help was from the Lord;
Thy blessing on thy people flows.
The sheer goofiness of Richard Crashaw in 1648, translating ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ as:
Happy me! O happy sheep!
Whom my God vouchsafes to keep;
(And later, ‘He leadeth me beside the still waters’ becomes, in part: ‘At my feet the blubb’ring Mountain/Weeping melts into a fountain.’)
Isaac Watts in 1719, making an entirely new song out of ‘O sing unto the Lord a new song’:
Joy to the world – the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King:
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing.
Christopher Smart in 1765, turning a single line (KJ: ‘He giveth snow like wool: he scattereth the hoarfrost like ashes’) into one of his typically bright and idiosyncratic stanzas:
His snow upon the ground he teems,
Like bleaching wool besides the streams,
To warm the tender blade;
Like ashes from the furnace cast,
His frost comes with the northern blast
To pinch and to pervade.
Thomas Merton, who as a Trappist monk recited them every day, wrote that ‘the Psalms teach us the way back to Paradise.’ Indeed, ‘they are themselves a Paradise.’
Curiously, many of Alter’s goals were achieved in the 1960s in the Jerusalem Bible, an English translation by an anonymous committee (though the translation of Jonah has been attributed to Tolkien), directed by Alexander Jones, of a decades-long French project by the (Catholic) School of Biblical Studies in Jerusalem. It is without literary pretension and its literal, plain-spoken minimalism takes one far from the courtly elegance of the King James and into the world of the desert tribes. Its narratives, at times, seem as straightforward and unadorned as Icelandic sagas, those other great tales of vengeful shepherds. And its deadpan translation of the interminable, detailed rules and prohibitions underscores how selective the so-called fundamentalists of our age are: ‘When two men are fighting together, if the wife of one intervenes to protect her husband from the other’s blows by putting out her hand and seizing the other by the private parts, you shall cut her hand off and show no pity’ (Deuteronomy 25.11-12). Moreover, it manages, in the Bible’s deepest strata, to summon up the archaic world where Yahweh was not the only God, but the chief among many gods – Canaanite and other eclipsing figures – simply by naming him. (Alter refuses to do this, in deference to the Orthodox Jewish taboo against saying the name, and resorts to the standard ‘Lord’ in small capital letters.) Here are a few lines from Psalm 29, in the Jerusalem Bible translation:
The voice of Yahweh over the waters!
Yahweh over the multitudinous waters!
The voice of Yahweh in power!
The voice of Yahweh in splendour!
The voice of Yahweh shatters the cedars,
Yahweh shatters the cedars of Lebanon,
making Lebanon leap like a calf,
Sirion like a young wild bull.
The voice of Yahweh sharpens lightning shafts!
The anonymous Jerusalem Bible translators, who make no claim for poetry, have inadvertently written a Beat poem – by Allen Ginsberg or Anne Waldman or Michael McClure – a reminder that the Psalms have set the tone and standard for what an oracular and ecstatic poem should sound like: in English, from the King James to Whitman to Ginsberg; and in the rest of the world from Whitman to Neruda and Senghor, among so many others. Where the usual ‘Lord’ carries millennia of evolving interpretations, and an inherent benevolence, calling Yahweh by his name – as we would a Greek or Hittite or Hindu god – confers a mythological otherness: an unsophisticated warrior god of the neolithic Hebrews, far from the deity now invoked in suburban synagogues.
We tend to remember the songs of praise and thanksgiving, but most of the psalms are preoccupied with vengeance. The psalmist is surrounded by enemies who slander him, bring lawsuits against him, cheat him in the marketplace, and he calls on Yahweh to destroy them. Or the Hebrews are surrounded by hostile tribes and they call on Yahweh to destroy them. Everyone knows Psalm 137, the beautiful song of exile (‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion’), but few remember how it ends, here in Alter’s translation:
Daughter of Babylon the despoiler,
happy who pays you back in kind,
for what you did to us.
Happy who seizes and smashes
your infants against the rock.
Alter comments that the psalm ‘ends with this bloodcurdling curse pronounced on their captors, who, fortunately, do not understand the Hebrew in which it is pronounced’. A cheerful thought, but language is more than the meaning of words and somehow one suspects that if this curse was indeed once spoken aloud, the Babylonians, knowing nothing of the original, would still have been able to translate it.