Michael Dirda

A Psalm 150 panel that decorates the balcony, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence, Italy
A Psalm 150 panel that decorates the balcony, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence, Italy (Luca Della Robbia)
By Michael Dirda
Sunday, December 2, 2007


A Translation with Commentary

By Robert Alter

Norton. 518 pp. $35

Readers of the Psalms -- perhaps the most comforting of all the books of the ancient Hebrew scriptures -- turn to these "songs of David" in times of both trouble and celebration. Many phrases in the Authorized or King James translation have passed into the common parlance of English: "Out of the mouths of babes," "Keep me as the apple of the eye," "the noise of many waters," "the stone which the builders refused is become the head stone." Certainly, many a would-be atheist has shivered to read Psalm 14: "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God." And surely the 23rd Psalm -- "The Lord is my shepherd" -- must be the best known religious poem in the Western world.

The Psalms pervade our literature. The Book of Common Prayer quotes from them repeatedly, as in these somber lines from Psalm 103: "As for man, his days are as grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more." In Moby-Dick, Melville naturally alludes to Psalm 107: "They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters. These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep." Oscar Wilde's famous letter from Reading jail, "De Profundis," takes its title from the Latin for the psalmist's cri de coeur: "Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord." And every fan of spooky tales knows the passage from Psalm 91: "Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day. Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday."

Given the power and pervasiveness of the Psalms in Renaissance English, it is almost inevitable that Robert Alter's new translation is going to sound somewhat lackluster. But his goals are admirable:

"What I have aimed at in this translation -- inevitably, with imperfect success -- is to represent Psalms in a kind of English verse that is readable as poetry yet sounds something like the Hebrew -- emulating its rhythms wherever feasible, reproducing many of the effects of its expressive poetic syntax, seeking equivalents for the combination of homespun directness and archaizing in the original, hewing to the lexical concreteness of the Hebrew, and making more palpable the force of parallelism that is at the heart of biblical poetry."

With such aims, Alter naturally avoids the Christian language, often pertaining to salvation, imposed on the text by the King James translators. In addition, he provides detailed commentary, usually focused on linguistic difficulties in the Hebrew or on explanations for his plain English diction and imagery.

This is close to the same program and format behind Alter's much-acclaimed The Five Books of Moses (Genesis to Deuteronomy). There, however, the power of ancient narratives -- of Adam and Abraham, Joseph and Moses -- coupled with fascinating historical commentary, made his book a modern classic, comparable to Robert Fagles's versions of the Homeric epics. I doubt The Book of Psalms will repeat this earlier success: These translations, for all their semantic fidelity, lack poetic fire, and the footnotes tend to be narrowly specialized, dry and repetitive.

Take, as an example, the famous Psalm 137, which opens (in the Authorized Version): "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion." Alter's translation goes this way: "By Babylon's streams,/there we sat, oh we wept,/when we recalled Zion." This clipped syntax is doubtless more faithful to the Hebrew, but that's about all one can say in its favor. Similarly, the commentary about these lines merely states, after a bit of historical conjecture: "The first Hebrew noun, neharot, generally means 'rivers,' but because the more probable reference is to the network of canals that connected the Tigris and the Euphrates, 'streams' is a preferable translation here. It should be noted that, in keeping with the evolution of Hebrew poetry in the later biblical period, semantic parallelism within the lines in this poem is weak, an absence occasionally compensated for by interlinear parallelism." Alter's notes throughout are comparably detailed and scholastic, and -- without the Hebrew texts -- even somewhat perplexing.

Every generation needs to revitalize the classics by looking at them anew, and many previous poets and scholars have taken stabs at translating the Psalms. One should welcome such efforts. Students will certainly find The Book of Psalms valuable, and it can usefully correct and supplement the more familiar English version. After all, Alter is an eminent teacher of Hebrew and comparative literature at Stanford, and one stands in awe of his knowledge and critical understanding. But great learning, alas, doesn't necessarily make for a book that people will enjoy reading. "The heavens tell God's glory,/And His handiwork sky declares" just doesn't measure up to "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork." *

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com. His latest book, "Classics for Pleasure," has just been published.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company