Saturday, November 3, 2007

A literary review of a literary translation of the Psalms

Robert Alter's new translation of the Psalms is creating a fair stir. There's a particularly good review by James Wood in The New Yorker. (Hat tip, Avdat.)

Wood is a literary critic and novelist. The literary perspective of the reviewer corresponds to Alter's goal of producing a literary translation:
[Alter's] work has been characterized by … a desire to convey in English the concrete ferocity of the original Hebrew. He is particularly alive to formal aspects of ancient Hebrew poetry and prose such as repetition, internal rhythm, and parallelism …. Because the Psalms are poems, he wants to preserve in English what he calls the "rhythmic compactness" of the originals, "something one could scarcely guess from the existing English versions." His helpful introduction is more polemical than the exegeses he has provided for his other translations: he argues that even the King James translators, whom he, like everyone else, has always admired, pad out their versions with filler.
I am of course delighted to see that Wood reads the Psalms much like Walter Brueggemann does. Wood is alert to what Brueggemann would summarize as the absence and silence of God in certain Psalms:
Many Psalms seem to involve three modes, shuffled into different combinations, which one could call plea, plaint, and praise. Psalm 13 is characteristic, beginning in plaint with the great central cry of the Psalter, "How long": "How long, O LORD, will you forget me always? / How long hide your face from me? / How long shall I cast about for counsel, sorrow in my heart all day? How long will my enemy loom over me?" …

Then, in the fourth verse, the supplicant switches to a plea: "Regard, answer me, LORD, my God. / Light up my eyes, lest I sleep death." And in the last verse of this short psalm the writer switches again, this time to a kind of formulaic praise, apparently sure that his prayer has worked: "But I in Your kindness do trust. . . . Let me sing to the LORD, / for He requited me."

The three modes are very close to each other in spirit, staining each other: one often hears a barely suppressed note of desperation in the praise, as if it were about to collapse back into plea or plaint. When the psalmist exults "Let me sing to the LORD, / for He requited me," at the end of a prayer that is only six verses long, and which has barely earned its right to such certainty, do we accept it as a statement of fact or as an expression of wishful yearning? Why would a God so absent six verses earlier suddenly make himself present?

This is all part of the human drama of the Psalms, that sense we have of a voice arguing with itself and its God.
The review is four "pages" long. If you read nothing else, read page four. Wood's analysis of Psalm 137, and his insight into the KJV translation of verse 7, is not to be missed.

And perhaps I should add:  I've told my family to put Alter's translation of the Psalms on my Christmas wish list.

1 comment:

Phil Sumpter said...

Have you read Alters The Art of Biblical Poetry? It's opened up the Bible to me in a whole new dimension and has helped me to appreciate biblical poetry as true art. I'd recommend it to anyone.