Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Psalter
translated from the hebrew by the international commission on english in the liturgy.
training publications, 150 pages, $18 cloth, $12 paper

There is no biblical book that has affected the inner lives of readers and worshippers over the ages more profoundly than the Book of Psalms. Augustine’s understanding of the meaning of his own experience, for example, would not have the focus it does without his reading of the Vulgate’s translation of Psalms, and the poetry of George Herbert would have been unimaginable without his immersion in the King James Version of the Psalter. And it is not only exceptional figures but countless ordinary people whose lives have been deeply touched by the daily recitation of the Psalms across the whole spectrum of liturgies. Translating the Psalms is thus a challenge of great moment, and the translators working under the supervision of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) appear to have approached the task with appropriate seriousness. Their translation, the product of fifteen years of collective labor, has now appeared in this handsome edition with the imprimatur of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. It is intended for liturgical use, and many of the decisions about translation policy were dictated by that consideration. Poets and musicians as well as biblical scholars were involved in the project, with the hope of making the Psalms accessible as poetry in contemporary English and also transposable to song in worship.

The editors give the impression of presenting their translation as a kind of work in progress. On the title page, they announce, “This translation is offered for study and for comment.” In light of that invitation, I shall make some detailed comment in a spirit of constructive criticism, hoping that the ICEL committee will devote thought to these questions in any future revisions.

Let me say at the outset that the ICEL translation at its best is remarkably good. The attention to musicality often produces powerful rhythms persuasively corresponding to those of the Hebrew (as against the plethora of arrhythmic modern English versions of the Bible). The decision to give preference to the Anglo-Saxon elements of English vocabulary over the Latinate ones has the happy effect of creating a poetic diction that frequently recalls the compactness, the concreteness, and the muscularity of the Hebrew.

And the translators show a good deal of resourcefulness in finding English equivalents for Hebrew utterances that sound both idiomatic and vigorously direct. Thus, the expression of anguish in, “Have pity, for I am spent; / heal me, hurt to the bone” (6:3). Or the sense of speed for the miraculous abruptness of creation in, “God speaks: the world is. / God commands: all things appear” (33:9). The Psalmist’s feeling for startling antitheses is nicely caught: “Fill me with happy songs, / let the bones you bruised now dance” (51:10). Although the (inferred) politics of the ICEL translators is decidedly pacific, the translators are quite strong in rendering the bristling martial images of God, perhaps because of their commitment to poetic concreteness:

Cloaked in darkness,
concealed in the rainstorm,
with flaming clouds,
with hail and coals of fire,
the Lord almighty
thundered from the heavens,
aimed lightning bolts like arrows
to rout the enemy. (18:12-15)

And their sense of simplicity of diction and rhythmic momentum also enables them to capture the beauty of more celebratory moments:

May he live as long as the sun,
as long as the moon, for ever.
May he be like rain on a field,
like showers that soak the earth.
May justice sprout in his time,
peace till the moon is no more. (72:5-7)

There is much, then, in this new version of Psalms that is at once evocative as poetry and surprisingly faithful to the Hebrew. There are also, however, recurrent problems flowing from the aesthetic position, the politics, and (at least in my view) the theology of the translators. The approach to translation, as it is spelled out in the Afterword to this volume, is what the committee calls “dynamic equivalence” as against “formal equivalence.” That is, instead of seeking to reproduce in English the formal structures—syntactic, imagistic, idiomatic—of the original texts, the translation strives for analogous “structural, semantic, and idiomatic units that are native to the receptor language.” The aim is, as much as feasible, “to produce the same effect in modern readers as the original Hebrew produced in its audience,” precisely by highlighting stylistic features that are “native to the receptor language.” Now, this is a legitimate conception of Bible translation, though it is not the one I have followed in my own work, but even granting its legitimacy, one must say that it is not without pitfalls.

The poetry of Psalms, like any great poetry, is nicely adjusted to the formal conventions of its own medium, and when these are ignored in the interests of dynamic equivalence, a certain amount of fine focus is lost. In the semantic parallelism, for example, that generally obtains between the two halves of a line of biblical verse, there is often an intensification of meaning accompanied by a miniature narrative development. Here is 89:41 in my rather literal translation: “You broke through all his palisades, / reduced his forts to rubble.” The ICEL renders this: “You break through his defenses, / batter down his strongholds.” What gets blurred is the sharp Hebrew imagery of two different temporal points in a narrative process: first the perimeters are breached, then the entire fortress is reduced to rubble. Repeatedly, vivid poetic parallelisms are turned into looser, sometimes vaguely redundant, utterances. Psalm 104, again in my relatively literal translation, begins: “Splendor and glory you donned, / wrapping round light like a cloak.” The ICEL version reads, “You dress yourself in light, / in rich, majestic light.” That may well sound more like “native” English, but at the cost of seeming faintly repetitious, merely rhetorical, and without the elegant little development of the Hebrew—which, merely through the verb, moves from an intimation of light as a garment in the first half-line to an explicit simile of God’s wrapping light around him like a cloak in the second half. Such fine effects are elements of the poetry of Psalms that might also be conveyed in English, if one cared.

A concomitant problem with the concept of dynamic equivalence is a tendency on the part of the translators to heighten the language of the original, with its distinct fondness for repetition of terms and for a kind of primary vocabulary. “Lord, how many are my foes, / many are those who rise against me” becomes “Lord, how daunting the armies / massed against me” (3:2). Part of the strength of biblical poetry is its parsimony in the use of emotive adjectives, and to my taste there is altogether too much adjectival insistence in the ICEL versions. “The voice of the Lord over the waters” becomes “God’s voice thunders / above the massive seas” (29:3). “Rescue me from the hand of my foes and my pursuers” turns into “Snatch me from the enemy, / ruthless in their chase” (31:16). At its worst, this strategy of translation does to the language of Psalms what colorization does to a fine black and white film, as when “Let your mercy come to me, that I may live” becomes the saccharine “Shower my life with tenderness” (119:77).

The most common flaw of “dynamic equivalence” is the plunge into vernacular banality. If you are self-consciously striving for a contemporary poetic idiom, you have to have perfect pitch, or you can easily slide into flatness, bathos, or cliche; and as good as these translators are, they are very far from having perfect pitch. Let me offer a sample, italicizing the offending phrases (further comment would be superfluous). “Answer when I call, faithful God. / You cleared away my trouble “ (4:2). “Hear my just claim, God, / give me your full attention “ (17:1). “Turn to God, be bright with joy; / you shall never be let down “ (34:6). “As you are just, / judge in my favor. / Do not give them the last word “ (35:24). “So I hardened your hearts, / and you left me out of your plans “ (81:13). “Will [your wrath] stop, / or drag on forever?” (85:6). “With ears that are deaf / and noses that cannot smell “ (115:6). “Though far away, / you keep an eye on the proud” (138:6). This little catalogue, alas, is far from exhaustive. The general problem is that the pursuit of native English idiom leads the translators to lose the sense of appropriate linguistic register: an insulted friend might complain about being left out of somebody’s plans, but not God; a bad movie may drag on forever, but not divine wrath.

Beyond such lapses in taste, ideological considerations lead the translators at a good many points to a deliberate realignment of the patterns of expression in the Hebrew. Perhaps inevitably for the 1990s, the most prominent of these considerations is the quest for gender-neutrality in language. The translation is identified on the title page as “a faithful and inclusive rendering from the Hebrew,” though there may be real tension between faithfulness and inclusivity. The fashionable latter term, in any case, should probably be resisted because it makes the assumption that any text that uses “he” for God or “man” for humankind automatically imposes a feeling of exclusion on the women who try to read it.

I suspect that feminists have expended a good deal of fruitless energy in making a fetish of linguistic convention. In the current state of debate about these matters, I perhaps ought to expect myself to feel “excluded” as a man from reading Jane Austen’s Emma until all female references to the protagonist are edited out, the title changed to M., and the author’s name reduced to the discreet neutrality of J. Austen. In the case of Psalms, there is a delicate issue of practical judgment involved because it is at least conceivable that by now millions of Catholic women—I have no way of knowing—have become so sensitive to textual phenomena such as pronoun usage that the only way to make these poems accessible to them as vehicles for prayer is to observe strict gender neutrality in the language. But a palpable price is paid for doing this.

Most pervasively, a certain poetic dignity is lost, and that is more than an aesthetic question, for it is partly this dignity that makes Psalms so resonant an instrument of prayer. The splendid “What is man that you should remember him, / the son of man, that you pay him heed?” (8:5) is transformed into the lumpish “What is humankind / that you remember them, / the human race, / that you care for them?” Man rising to his work (104:23) becomes a flaccid “people rise to work.” The focused image of an exemplary man not walking with the wicked or standing among sinners or sitting with mockers—“Happy is the man who . . . ”—is turned into the bland self-help didacticism of a second-person pronoun in order to avoid the dread masculine reference: “If you would be happy: / never walk with the wicked . . . ” (1:1).

The very differentiation of sexual roles and identity is denied in this contemporary version. The moving image of the long-barren woman who at last knows the joy of childbirth (113:9)—poignant in the ancient world but surely still meaningful today—is reduced to the unisex “The childless, no longer alone, / rejoice now in many children.” Another image of the blessings of female fertility, “Your wife, a fruitful vine, / in the recesses of your house,” is doubly altered: “Your beloved, a fruitful vine, / in the warmth of your home” (128:3). It is perhaps understandable that the translators should balk at “recesses,” with its very unmodern implication that a woman should be secluded within the house; but the gender-neutral “beloved” is a little silly because fruitfulness, at least poetically, pertains chiefly to the woman, and taken together with “warmth,” it produces a little roseate cloud of sentimentality where the original is crisp and clear.

A draft of this translation consistently eliminated all masculine references to God, but some of these were restored when the Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine threatened to withhold its imprimatur. Even so, the translators go out of their way to avoid masculine designations of the deity, sometimes at a cost of awkwardness. In Psalm 78, the long psalm that celebrates God’s acts in history through a chain of third-person singular masculine verbs (requiring “He” in English), the translators get around gender by repeating “God” in line after line, turning an eloquent narrative catalogue into an ungainly one.

Compensating in another way for divine gender imbalance, they convert “You do not hold back your mercy from me” (40:12) into “your maternal love surrounds me.” Now, it is true that the biblical term for mercy or compassion, rahamim, derives from rehem, womb. But to suggest that it is a differentiated term for maternal love, which has to be accompanied by womb-imagery (“surrounds me”), is rather like saying that the English word “virtue,” because of its Latin etymology, automatically calls to mind manly strength, and should appropriately be translated into, say, French as puissance masculine. In fact, in biblical dialogue, petitioners to kings and overlords frequently beg for rahamim from the potentate and they are surely not asking for maternal love.

Other ideologically driven translation choices are less common, but nonetheless annoying. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (24:1) becomes an ecologist’s manifesto: “God owns this planet, / and all its riches.” The quiet affirmation of “for the man of peace will have a future” is gender-neutralized and then converted into what sounds like ban-the-bomb sloganry: “the future belongs to peacemakers” (37:37). (The Hebrew ‘ish shalom almost certainly means “a man who avoids contention,” not “peacemaker.”)

More egregious on the score of pacifism is this representation of God in the midst of a psalm celebrating victory in battle: “There you break flaming arrows, / shield and sword and war itself.” The last term here, milhamah, sometimes means “war” in the Bible but more commonly “battle,” “fighting,” or “assault.” In context, it is clearly part of the series shield-sword-assault, all of which are broken by God’s martial power, and there is nothing in the Hebrew to justify “itself,” nothing to warrant the notion that God in the midst of a battle poem is imagined putting an end to war. That noble imagining is reserved for Isaiah, who expresses a rather different current in biblical literature from Psalms. I am happy to add that such blatant tendentiousness is relatively rare in the ICEL translation, perhaps because the translators, whatever the earnestness of their political ideals, respect the poetry of Psalms too much, lavishing imaginative energy, despite the lapses, on conveying its vividness in English verse.

The one other respect in which this version of Psalms is something less than a “faithful rendering . . . from the Hebrew” is in the influence of its theological assumptions on a couple of key translation choices. The tension between historical understanding and liturgical uses creates a problem that has no easy solution. Apart from fundamentalists, everyone now recognizes that significant differences evolved in the conception of the human relation to God from the various strata of the Hebrew Bible to the emergence of Christianity—and, for that matter, of rabbinic Judaism. The procedure of the various Renaissance translations of the Bible was at certain crucial points to read back Christianity into the Hebrew Bible because the underlying perception of Hebrew Scriptures was supersessionist: the Old Testament was ultimately understood as a prefiguration of the New in which the word of God was at last revealed in its consummated form.

The ICEL translators were, I would infer, confronted with a quandary in this regard. They clearly wanted to be faithful to the poetry and the worldview of the Psalms, and their work is manifestly informed by a modern scholarly sense of the distinctive cultural values of ancient Israel. (Their Hebrew philology on the whole is excellent, with only an occasional construal that strikes me as dubious. To the uninitiated, I should add that there are quite a few psalms in which whole series of phrases are barely intelligible in the Hebrew, probably because the Masoretic Text is defective, and in these instances one must say that the ICEL guesses are as good as anyone else’s.) At the same time, this is a translation intended for use in Catholic worship, and though for the most part it avoids explicit Christological emphases, its rendering of two recurrent terms introduces a Christian note that misrepresents the original Hebrew poems. Perhaps this is legitimate in a text meant for liturgical use, though to me it suggests that the translators want to have it both ways—to preserve imaginative fidelity to the Hebrew and yet reinscribe the Psalms in Christian theology, just as they reinscribe them in feminist egalitarianism.

The Hebrew noun moshi’a (from the root y-sh-’, reflected in the names Joshua and Jesus) can be translated as “savior,” though it is more accurately rendered as “deliverer.” It appears only once as a noun in Psalms and another three times in a verbal sense (“he who delivers”). By contrast, the two nouns derived from this root, yeshu’ah and yesh’a, occur dozens of times in Psalms. The most common context is literally or figuratively military, and so the range of meaning of the recurrent terms is something like “deliverance,” “liberation,” “rescue,” or even “victory.”

In biblical Hebrew, yeshu’ah is a distinctly here-and-now word: we are up to our neck in trouble, surrounded by implacable enemies, and we trust in, or implore, God to get us out. Against the weight of this philological evidence, and with the licence of “dynamic equivalence,” the ICEL version repeatedly introduces a savior where the Hebrew speaks of rescue. Psalm 14, evoking a society dominated by savage exploiters, concludes, “If only the Lord’s deliverance would come from Zion.” In the new Catholic translation, this becomes, “If only a savior would come from Zion,” which is quite another matter. A different, but equally untheological, verb, ‘ azar, to help or aid, particularly in military situations, also gets soteriological treatment: “God is my help” (54:6) becomes “God is my savior.”

A far more pervasive term—it is virtually the key to the Psalmist’s conception of God’s relationship with man—is the Hebrew hesed, which means “faithfulness,” “steadfastness,” “dependable kindness.” It is a word drawn from covenantal and, indeed, contractual notions: where there is some sort of commitment between two parties, the consideration or fidelity one shows to the other is hesed. Now, the ICEL translators are surely aware of all his because they regularly represent hasid, the adjectival cognate of hesed, by an English word that suggests faithfulness. But again and again they render hesed as “love,” putting an alien emotional spin on the Psalms (perhaps in keeping with “your beloved . . . in the warmth of your home”), and pitching the poems toward a later theological horizon of God as love.

To cite one instance among dozens, the Psalmist’s desperate sense in his anguish—which in context seems to be over the decline in Israel’s national fortunes—that God does not appear to be living up to His side of the covenant is expressed as “Has His faithfulness vanished forever?” (77:9); but this comes out in the new translation as “Has God stopped loving me?” The powerful biblical sense of divine-human relations founded on contractual obligation thus dissolves in a bath of private feeling. It is instructive in this regard that the actual biblical noun for love, ‘ahavah (as in the Song of Songs), appears only twice in the Psalter, both times in Psalm 109, and both times in reference to man’s relation to man, not God.

The world of Psalms is often pragmatic, anchored in the immediacy and the urgent concerns of quotidian existence. Within this frame, these nameless Hebrew poets succeeded in giving supreme expression to the basic rhythms of inner life: bleak despair in the face of accumulated disaster, stubborn hope, gratitude, exultation, rhapsodic celebration of the splendors of creation, contentment in the quiet joys of the good life. The wonder of it is that the Psalms are able to join a hard-nosed pragmatic view of life with great delicacy of feeling and resonant spirituality. At moments, this new English version gets all this just right, managing to be faithful to the poetic compactness of the Hebrew, the meanings of the Hebrew words, and the tonality of the original poem. Here, for example, is its rendering of the haunting opening lines of Psalm 42, which seems to me superior to the Authorized Version:

As a deer craves running water,
I thirst for you, my God;
I thirst for God, the living God.
When will I see your face?

There are a good many other passages in this translation that are just as fine. It is regrettable that they should be marred by the recurrent slippage in poetic diction, the indulgence in heightening paraphrase in the guise of translation, and the instances of tendentiousness and anachronism. As the translators continue to wrestle with the poetic and religious challenges of the text, one may hope these are flaws they will seek to correct.

Robert Alter teaches Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley. His translation of Genesis, accompanied by literary commentary, will be published by W.W. Norton in 1996.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift