The Book of Psalms: A Translation With Commentary
By Robert Alter
W.W. Norton, 518 pages, $35.
Robert Alter’s new edition of the Hebrew Psalms is not for everyone: It requires concentration, unfettered time and patience. Each newly translated psalm must be read through as a poem, then analyzed using the highly detailed footnotes, then reread as a poem whose linguistic issues and frames of reference have just been highlighted. My most recent experience of perusing text the way these are meant to be read was when I was part of a weekly lunch-hour minyan in graduate school that was dedicated to the talmudic study of “Finnegans Wake.” Still, if you have any interest at all in the biblical Psalms — poetry that is older than the main portions of the Bible — Alter’s version is essential. Furthermore, the implications of its painstaking lessons are immense for all translated literature and, arguably, even beyond that for the way choreography is restaged or how the classical music repertory is conducted.
“The Book of Psalms” demonstrates unequivocally how, between the letter of a text and the spirit of its meaning and/or expression, there exists a third level of communication that often either goes without saying or is ignored altogether, probably because it is the most difficult element to translate successfully. This level consists of three parts: One is the translator’s recognition of when a text has been or may have been corrupted through an error of transmission (by a scribe, a typesetter, a stager); the second consists of the rhythmic and melodic patterns and repetitions that endow the text with shape — an element of the larger meaning, and the third is the relationship between the literal meaning of a phrase and its figurative sense, as a native speaker within the culture for which the text was made would have understood that sense rather than the way that we might understand the phrase now. Imagine, for example, a translator 5,000 years hence trying to render the miscopied phrase from a fragment of a screenplay, “Here’s looping at you, kod,” into whatever language will be spoken in, say, Seoul.
The difference between what I’ve just written and Alter’s achievement is that he not only convinces a reader to understand this intellectually but also, with note piled upon note piled upon note, gets one to feel it; and the subjects of those feelings, the Hebrew originals, are among the most powerful and enduring collections of poetic and spiritual expression in the history of mankind. Beyond that, his extensive notes also repeatedly offer, as a counterpoint to the psalmists’ theme that God rewards good and punishes evil, the dispute of the poet of The Book of Job that how one conducts one’s life may have little correlation with one’s happiness, health, fortunes or fate. The editorial notes, taken as a whole, constitute a plea for the reader to widen his or her tolerance for paradox in all directions.
Although Alter — a literary scholar specializing in both biblical literature and the tradition of the novel — recognizes that the 1611 King James Version of these lyrics is incomparably beautiful among English translations, he was driven to retranslate them by his knowledge of how the Hebrew originals relate to the larger context of ancient Middle Eastern literature. This is a relationship that, if one factors it in, can significantly change the tone and focus of the psalms. As he explains in his careful, marvelously informative and often surprising introductory essay, the accentual rhythms of the Hebrew lines are not audible in the King James Version, and so one does not hear the character of performance that was crucial to the psalms’ public identity as songs sung aloud in the Temple or at pilgrimage sites. The King James also tends to iron out or soften the intrinsic strangeness — the profound poetic identity — of the psalms as historic artifacts that are rooted in the Bronze Age and affiliated in their imagery with even older pagan antecedents; or it underwrites their tropes and images with concepts and themes derived from Western Christianity — that is, with systems of thought developed at least some 1,200 to 1,400 years after the original texts were fixed in writing.
It’s entirely conceivable that, in some congregations, “The Book of Psalms” could be placed on each seat, along with the siddur (which, of course, will contain other translations of some of these psalms, as they have become part of the liturgy). Alter’s wording is often easy to pronounce, lovely to hear and, for a contemporary reader, touching when it focuses on references from our own age, as in this address to God from Psalm 139, with its delicate echo of John Steinbeck, familiar to many millions as part of Henry Fonda’s concluding monologue as Tom Joad in the film of “The Grapes of Wrath”:
Where can I go from Your spirit,
and where from before You flee?
If I soar to the heavens, You are there,
if I bed down in Sheol — there You are.
If I take wing with the dawn,
if I dwell at the ends of the sea,
There, too, Your hand leads me,
and Your right hand seizes me.
Alter acknowledges that colleagues have protested a few of his corrections to the King James Version. In the 23rd Psalm, the line “In grass meadows He makes me lie down,” with its redundancy in “grass meadows” and its rather stern concluding stresses on “lie down,” is a far cry, both as literature and consolation, from “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures,” a sentence whose rhythm incorporates the four-footed walk of a lamb in its opening. Then, with the two braking stresses of “lie down,” it embodies the creature’s obedience to the command. But the line’s last three words, “in green pastures,” in which unstressed syllables embrace the two stressed ones, lightens the mood and soothes the ear every time one rereads it or sounds it out.
And there is something that Alter does not directly acknowledge concerning the King James: Its language connects English speakers to what was possibly the most fertile and brilliant age of literary endeavor in the history of English. Not everyone will be willing to relinquish the thrill of that intermediate connection. Yet the fact that Alter is aiming so high, and that he so sensitively deploys his vast understanding of languages, context and history, leads one to admire the result — even when, out of devotion to the original, he misses the mark.
Mindy Aloff leads seminars in dance criticism and the personal essay at Barnard College. She is currently at work on “Hippo in a Tutu,” a study of the dance sources of historic Disney animated films, for Disney Editions.