Thir­teenth cen­tu­ry Hebrew Psalter

For me, one of the most inter­est­ing, and per­va­sive, chal­lenges in trans­lat­ing the Hebrew Bible with an eye to its lit­er­ary pow­er, was try­ing to find ways to bridge the sub­stan­tial gap between ancient Hebrew and mod­ern Eng­lish. Some of the fea­tures of this gap proved to be insu­per­a­ble, such as key terms in bib­li­cal Hebrew that had no real equiv­a­lent, or dan­ger­ous­ly too many equiv­a­lents, in mod­ern Eng­lish. But the essen­tial dif­fer­ence between the two lan­guages is chiefly man­i­fest­ed in the ter­rif­ic com­pact­ness of bib­li­cal Hebrew in com­par­i­son to mod­ern Eng­lish. Bib­li­cal Hebrew has a rel­a­tive­ly small num­ber of poly­syl­lab­ic words, and because it is a lan­guage in which the syn­tac­tic and seman­tic func­tion of words is typ­i­cal­ly indi­cat­ed mere­ly by the way verbs are con­ju­gat­ed, or by suf­fix­es added to nouns, it has lit­tle need to use per­son­al pro­nouns — to cite a cen­tral instance — although the lan­guage cer­tain­ly has them and can intro­duce them at points for emphasis.

Here is a mod­est but char­ac­ter­is­tic instance: The only way to ren­der the begin­ning of Psalm 23 in Eng­lish is, as all trans­la­tions do, The Lord is my shep­herd,” five words, six syl­la­bles. But the Hebrew is two con­cise words, four syl­la­bles, YHWH ro’i. No my” is required because a first-per­son pos­ses­sive suf­fix, a sin­gle syl­la­ble, is tacked onto the word for shep­herd. The Hebrew does not even show is” because the verb to be” has no present tense, being mere­ly implied by putting togeth­er a sub­ject-noun and a pred­i­cate-noun. In this par­tic­u­lar case, not much is lost by the added words and the addi­tion­al two syl­la­bles in the Eng­lish, but this very brief sen­tence and its Eng­lish equiv­a­lent do illus­trate the gen­er­al prob­lem, for very often the com­pact­ness of the orig­i­nal is cru­cial for its expres­sive force both in poet­ry and in nar­ra­tive prose.

Some of the fea­tures of this gap proved to be insu­per­a­ble, such as key terms in bib­li­cal Hebrew that had no real equiv­a­lent, or dan­ger­ous­ly too many equiv­a­lents, in mod­ern English.

My gen­er­al strat­e­gy has been to elim­i­nate all unnec­es­sary words — in Psalms, not hap­py is the man” but hap­py the man” — and as much as fea­si­ble to avoid poly­syl­lab­ic words, which in prac­tice means favor­ing the Anglo-Sax­on com­po­nent of Eng­lish over terms derived from Latin and Greek. I elim­i­nat­ed, for exam­ple, iniq­ui­ty” every­where in my trans­la­tion and for the Hebrew avon used crime,” a word that hap­pens to derive from Latin but is a blessed sin­gle syllable.

Let me offer an exam­ple from Psalms where I think a small maneu­ver to tamp down Eng­lish con­tributes to con­vey­ing the poet­ic force of the Hebrew. In Psalm 30:10, the begin­ning of the verse in the King James Ver­sion reads, What prof­it is there in my blood.” The 1611 trans­la­tion set the words is there” in a dif­fer­ent font because they are mere­ly implied and don’t actu­al­ly appear in the Hebrew. The deci­sion to add those two words is unfor­tu­nate because any­one with an ear for poet­ry will rec­og­nize that this line has no per­cep­ti­ble rhythm. Mod­ern trans­la­tions pro­duced by com­mit­tees often seem to be guid­ed by the assump­tion that every­thing must be made crys­tal clear; blood,” for exam­ple, is changed to death.” My ren­der­ing is, What prof­it in my blood.” The is there” struck me as alto­geth­er unnec­es­sary, and what results is a repli­ca­tion of the Hebrew rhythm: MAH BEts’a beda­MI (upper­case marks the accent­ed syl­la­bles). The pound­ing rhythm is impor­tant for the expres­sive effect of the line: it reg­is­ters the des­per­a­tion of the speak­er urgent­ly implor­ing God not to let him die. As else­where, rhythm is insep­a­ra­ble from meaning.

This micro­scop­ic exam­ple is a small illus­tra­tion of what I have tried to do through­out my trans­la­tion of the Bible and espe­cial­ly of the poet­ry. By tamp­ing down Eng­lish, as I have said, I have aimed, and per­haps even often suc­ceed­ed, to con­vey in trans­la­tion the rhyth­mic force and integri­ty of the strongest Psalms, the Book of Job, the poet­ry of the prophe­cies of Isa­iah, the Song of Songs, and the oth­er great poems of the Bible, many of them unique achieve­ments in the ancient world. No trans­la­tion, of course, can be more than an approx­i­ma­tion of any mag­is­te­r­i­al work of lit­er­a­ture, but I have worked in the con­vic­tion that a rea­son­able approx­i­ma­tion is far bet­ter than the Eng­lish ver­sions that obscure the bril­liance of the lit­er­ary vehi­cle through which the bib­li­cal writ­ers con­veyed their vision.

Robert Alter is a pro­fes­sor of the Grad­u­ate School and emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of Hebrew and com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley. His many books include The Plea­sures of Read­ing in an Ide­o­log­i­cal Age, Imag­ined Cities: Urban Expe­ri­ence and the Lan­guage of the Nov­el, and Pen of Iron: Amer­i­can Prose and the King James Bible (Prince­ton). He lives in Berke­ley, California.