Thursday September 6, 2007
by dan pine
Translating a book as revered as the Psalms, Robert Alter had to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.
In the 23rd Psalm, he retains the iconic opening lines, “The Lord is my shepherd/I shall not want.” But in a later verse, to more closely mirror the muscular original Hebrew, Alter’s version reads: “Though I walk in the vale of death’s shadow/I fear no harm.”
Alter is not a theologian. Since 1967, he has been a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at U.C. Berkeley. Yet his 2004 translation of the Five Books of Moses earned raves from literary and religious scholars alike. Translating Psalms seemed like a worthy encore.
Says Alter: “I had this idea there might be some way to translate the Bible in a style that was readable and effective as literary English, but conveyed more of the intrinsic stylistic characteristics of the Hebrew. I was skeptical this was doable, and I wondered if I would be dissatisfied. As it turned out it was more of a success.”
Whereas the Torah is largely prose, Psalms (known as “tehilim” or “praises” in Hebrew) is pure poetry, among the greatest ever written.
The Psalms were collated sometime around the fifth century BCE, and likely composed by members of Jerusalem’s priestly circle –– probably not by King David, who lived much earlier. Some served liturgical purposes, and were sung in the Temple. Over the centuries Jews (and, later, Christians) have held the Psalms close to their hearts as a source of comfort and refuge.
But Alter was not satisfied with existing translations. “For my money none begin to do justice to the Hebrew poetry,” he says, “especially because the Hebrew is very compact, with a pronounced rhythmic character. Nobody tried to get at that, and that’s a large part of what I tried to do.”
Linguists consider Hebrew a synthetic language, meaning what may take four or five words to say in English, Hebrew can say with one. Thus biblical Hebrew has a terseness missing in the flowery language of the King James Bible. “It was fun to find ways to tamp down the English language,” adds Alter.
More importantly, the Psalms in the original stress life in the here and now –– a very Jewish concept. The emphasis on salvation and the world to come was a Christian spin laced into later translations.
“The Christian tradition conceived human life as a kind of transient and preparatory stage,” notes Alter. “The real payoff was when the soul rejoined God in the hereafter. The orientation of the biblical poets was the here and now.”
One striking example comes at the close of the 23rd Psalm, which ends, “And I shall dwell in the House of the Lord forever,” at least in the commonly known King James Bible.
But Alter more accurately translates it as, “And I shall dwell in the House of the Lord for many long days.”
“What that phrase tells us is the speaker is thinking about his life on earth, to spend most of his days in the blessed precincts of the Temple,” says Alter.
The Albany, N.Y., native grew up in a traditional Jewish household, and is today a member of Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom. He was the 1995 recipient of the Scholarship Award for Social and Cultural Studies of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.
He has served on board of Berkeley Hillel and currently chairs the executive committee of the Academic Consortium of Jewish Studies, a Bay Area-wide organization sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.
As for his own connection with the Psalms, Alter says many do speak to him personally. “They can be deeply moving and a kind of vehicle for expression for people struggling through some dark night of the soul.”
Though he plans to continue translating the Hebrew Bible, for now Alter’s cup runneth over (or, as he would have it, his cup overflows). At the moment, his translation of the Psalms is priority one.
“I hope it will get to lots of readers who are interested in Psalms for all different reasons,” he says. “It’s great poetry, and maybe my translation will give readers a better idea of the strength of the original Hebrew.”
“The Book of Psalms,” translated by Robert Alter ($35, W.W. Norton & Company, 560 pages).