The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary/Praise Seeking Understanding: Reading the Psalms with Augustine

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The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary. By Robert Alter. New York: WW. Norton, 2007. xl + 518 pp. $35.00 (cloth).

Praise Seeking Understanding: Reading the Psalms with Augustine. By Jason Byassee. Foreword by Robert W Jenson. Radical Traditions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007. xiv + 290 pp. $32.00 (paper).

This review should begin with an admission that it is not written from the perspective of a scholar of the Hebrew Bible but from that of a person who says the daily offices and hoped to be enabled to read the Psalms more profoundly with the help of these two books, a hope that was fulfilled in large measure.

Robert Alter is one of the leading theorists of the literary interpretation of the Bible. He teaches Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California and is the author of many books of criticism of both sacred and secular literature. Alters introduction to his translation prepares readers well for what is ahead. After supplying historical-critical information about the poems collected in the Psalter, he tells how the poetry of the Psalms differs from that in other biblical books. Noting the parallelism that is the most familiar trait of the Psalms, he adds that it is seldom synonymous; rather, there tends to be an intensification of meaning that concentrates emphasis in the second verset of a line.

To me the most helpful section of the introduction was "The Challenge of Translating Psalms" (pp. xxviii-xxxv). The way that Hebrew treats pronouns, not bothering to have separate words for many and including subjects and objects in the verb, means that English translations are bound to have more syllables. They tend to be less compact and certainly less rhythmic - a serious defect in rendering poetry. Another difference between the Psalms in Hebrew and their English translations has been that concrete words have been translated as abstract ones, a trend that Alter tries to reverse in his version. Instead of "iniquity" or "transgression," he says "crime"; and "offense" usually appears in place of "sin." Nefesh, traditionally translated as "soul," has a range of meanings, from "life breath" to "I," "life," "my being," and even "neck" or "throat." And "salvation" becomes "rescue." Something else that has always caused problems is that the Hebrew text of the Psalms is in sad shape, often showing signs of efforts over the ages to fix it.

In the face of all these challenges, Alters aim in his translation has been to represent the 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 (p. xxxi).

All this sounds so admirable that I was surprised by my reaction to what he achieved. Although I have been greatly taken with such similar efforts as Everett Fox's translation of the Pentateuch, Alters did not appeal. While I recognize his great superiority to me as both a Hebraicist and as a connoisseur of literary aesthetics, his translations hardly strike me as poetry. I am aware that this may say more about my taste than Alters translation, but I will return to using the Prayer Book translation when I read the offices. An additional factor is that my reading builds on two thousand years of Christian devotional use of the Psalter. While that does not add to the meaning intended by the authors of the psalms, it is inevitable for one with my associations.

On the other hand is the equally surprising fact that his commentary has become my favorite, for he supplies me with exactly the information I need to read the Psalms with more attention and understanding. …