The Book of Psalms

Article excerpt

The Book of Psalms, by Robert Alter. New York, London: W. W. Norton, 2007. 518 pp. $35.00.

This excellent volume consists of an 18-page introduction to the Psalter and the challenges of translating it, a concluding, two-page list of nine annotated titles for further reading and Alters translation. Translation is a task to which he is no stranger (cf. his translation of the Torah, which won the PEN Center USA Literary Award for Translation in 2005). Alters translation is annotated with brief comments, eschewing the obligation to comment on every verse, let alone every phrase or word. For example, on Psalm 3 he comments on verses 1, 3, 4, 8 and 9, his explanation of verse 1 taking nine lines. His comments on the other four verses run 2, 7, 6, and 6 lines respectively. Alters comments may discuss critical problems in the Hebrew text, past efforts at resolving those problems, or matters of interpretation. In these comments he aims at terseness combined with clarity. One example is his summary of his discussion of Psalm 51:7

"Look, in transgression was I conceived

And in offense my mother spawned me."

At the end of an eleven-line comment, Alter says: [The Psalmist] may indeed trace [his sinfulness] back to the sexual act through which he was conceived, but there is not much here to support the idea that this is the case of every human born" (p. 181).

In writing about his translation of Psalms, Alter says (p. xxxi): "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. The translation is also quite literal ... in the conviction that the literal sense has a distinctive poetic force [which] is often possible to preserve ... in workable literary English." Judged by this standard, the translation is an unqualified success, and this review will illustrate several of these points.

Alter attempts to approximate the length of the Hebrew lines in his English lines and to reproduce the parallelism. …