Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Eliot Weinberger in The London Review of Books reviews The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary by Robert Alter. The review is entitled Praise Yah

"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."

The review also discusses notable translations of The Psalms into English: the 1611 King James Authorised Version; and those by Wyatt, Sidney, the Countess of Pembroke, Campion, Milton, Crashaw, Vaughan, Smart, and Clare; and the Jerusalem Bible.