Music to whose ears?

Largely remaining faithful to the nuances of the biblical Hebrew, R. Alter's translation of 'The Book of Psalms' is a watershed event.

psalm book 88 224 (photo credit: )
psalm book 88 224
(photo credit: )
The Book of Psalms By Robert Alter W.W. Norton 518 pages; $35 Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy. I know it because Psalm 126:5 tells me so. But Robert Alter, in The Book of Psalms, suggests a different sort of happy ending, not joy in general but rather specifically "glad song." I thought that I walked in "the valley of the shadow of death" in hard times, but Alter puts me in the "vale of death's shadow." According to Alter, we sat down not by "the rivers of Babylon," but by "Babylon's streams." What led Alter to make these changes? Translation is hard. And religion is complicated. So translating the psalms - probably the best-known religious poetry - is a difficult and complex undertaking. Anyone who attempts it faces two immediate challenges: the inherent difficulty of transposing poetry from one combination of language and culture into another, and the heightened sensitivity of a religious mind-set that prefers old work over new. In The Book of Psalms, Alter attacks both potential hurdles with the thoroughness and creativity that scholars and lay-readers have come to expect from him. The result is a fresh look at the psalms. In a short introduction, Alter offers some historical and literary background. Then he explains his translation goals. The next 514 pages give the reader new English translations to all 150 psalms, complete with copious historical and linguistic notes. Two pages at the end provide brief suggestions on further reading. Most English translations of the Bible trace their roots to 1611, when the King James Version (KJV) was first published. Readers who recognize familiar passages from Psalms probably have that translation in mind: "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want" (Psalm 23:1), "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil" (Psalm 23:4), "They that sow in tears shall reap in joy" (Psalm 126:5), "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion" (Psalm 137:1), etc. Alter, however, wants to "turn ancient Hebrew poetry into English verse that is reasonably faithful to the original and yet readable as poetry." He acknowledges the eloquence of the KJV, but faults that translation for ignoring "the rhythms of the Hebrew almost entirely"; that is, for achieving only one of his two goals. Alter is of course right that a translation must convey not only the content but also the flavor of the original. In this case, the poetic Hebrew must become equally poetic English. Assonance and imagery alike should be preserved. Perhaps most difficult, naturally phrased Hebrew must be phrased naturally in English, but unusual Hebrew must not. In short, Alter does well to demand English that represents the Hebrew faithfully. The question then becomes what constitutes fidelity to the original Hebrew, and while Alter's approach here is clear and frequently productive, it is also ultimately flawed. To understand why, some background in translation is necessary. The process involves words, of course, but also sentences and their rhythms. At the most basic level, any translator must carefully choose which words to use. The quirks of language make this a harder task than many people realize. (Although mushrooms are a fungus, "pizza with mushrooms" is not "pizza with fungus." "Out of sight, out of mind" is not "blind idiot.") In his translation, Alter has sometimes done superbly with the words. His rendering of Psalm 29:7, "The Lord's voice hews flames of fire," is vastly more poetic than the KJV, "The voice of the Lord divideth the flames of fire." "Hews" captures the Hebrew perfectly. Other times his English seems too obscure. His translation of Psalm 126:4, "Restore, O Lord, our fortunes/like freshets in the Negeb," is accurate, but only to those whose vocabulary includes "freshet." (It's the deluge that results from melting snow or from a sudden downpour.) In another successful example, Alter takes the icky "marrow and fatness" of Psalm 63:6 in the KJV and renders it as "ripest repast." (It's Psalm 63:5 in the KJV, which follows a different numbering convention.) This passage demonstrates a subtle aspect of translation, namely, the importance of conveying not just the literal meaning of the words, but also their implications. In modern culture, "fat" is the pejorative opposite of the more desirable "fit," while in antiquity "fat" was the positive opposite of the undesirable "scrawny." In translating "fat" as "ripest," Alter has correctly been careful not to mislead the modern reader. BECAUSE DIFFERENT languages assemble words differently (that is, they have different "syntax"), a translator must choose not only words but also sentence structure. And the same process of translation applies to both words and the larger units they comprise. Just as the modern words should reflect the ancient ones, so too should the modern English syntax convey the flavor of the ancient Hebrew. For example, Hebrew adjectives follow the nouns they modify, so a "new song," in Hebrew is shir hadash, literally, "song new." Alter, and all other translators, correctly translate "song new" in Hebrew as the grammatical "new song" in English. The reasoning is clear. Grammatical Hebrew syntax ought to become grammatical English syntax. (Again the issue can be tricky. "Working hard" is not "hardly working.") But Alter stumbles with some aspects of Hebrew syntax, mimicking them rather than conveying what they mean. Word order is more flexible in Hebrew than in English. So while Hebrew permits both "I was a lad" and "a lad I was," English allows only the former. Yet surprisingly, Alter's rendition of Psalm 37:25 reads, "A lad I was/and now I am old." He has taken ordinary, grammatical Hebrew and turned it into odd English. Rather than capturing the beauty of the original, he has destroyed it by mimicking it too closely. "A lad I was" is no more correct than "sing a song new." Alter acknowledges that he grappled with this issue. In the introduction he discusses "syntactic fronting" (one technical name for the Hebrew construction "a lad I was") and specifically notes that "Biblical syntax is more flexible than English." But he justifies the "reversal of normal English word order" because, he says, it is so common in poetry, and, besides, he continues, the psalms incorporated an "archaic stratum" of Hebrew. While some English poetry allows some words to be reversed, Alter has missed the point. English "syntactic fronting" is a jarring word order used for striking effect. By contrast, the same order in Hebrew is common and unobtrusive. He has turned the nicely poetic into the bizarrely foreign. And there is scant evidence that the language of the psalms is archaic or otherwise ungrammatical. If the book has a failing, it is Alter's insistence, in this case and many others, on blindly copying Hebrew syntax rather than reproducing in English the effect of the Hebrew. It is a common mistake, taken to an extreme in Everett Fox's The Five Books of Moses (Schocken, 2000), but it is a mistake nonetheless. It does not yield a better or more accurate translation, just a wrong translation. Elsewhere Alter does a better job. And some issues are more subtle, as when poetic style and imagery conflict. Alter translates "Though I walk in the vale of death's shadow" (Psalm 23:4), instead of the familiar (KJV) "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death." The Hebrew is traditionally five syllables. The KJV is twice that, so any metrical poetry that the KJV enjoys here is novel, and not reflective of the original Hebrew. But while Alter does a better job with the loose meter, he misses a subtle aspect of the Hebrew imagery, in which "valley" gives way to "shadow," and then finally "death." Here it's more difficult to know which is better, Alter's lyric translation or the KJV that preserves the progression. I prefer Alter's. In spite of the errors that occasionally mar the work, The Book of Psalms is a marvelous translation, unsurpassed in its accuracy and poetry, replete with insights into the psalms' meanings, and graced with beautiful renderings of the ancient words. Translation is always a compromise, and publishing a compromise is not easy. Readers of the Bible are indebted to Robert Alter, and fortunate that he struggled with the ancient text and coerced it into modern English form. The publication of The Book of Psalms is a watershed event, and from the seeds Alter has sown we all reap in joy - maybe even in glad song. The writer teaches at HUC-JIR in New York City.