On Translating the Psalms

By Vanek, Elizabeth-Anne | The Catholic World, July-August 1995 | Go to article overview

On Translating the Psalms


Vanek, Elizabeth-Anne, The Catholic World


The responsorial psalm--particularly when it is sung--is, for me, unquestionably one of the high points of the liturgy. Situated as it is between the first and second readings, it not only provides the opportunity for a heartfelt response to that Word which has already been heard, but it helps us to center ourselves in such a way that we are more open to the Word which is about to be proclaimed. Moreover, the language of passion and intimacy which is so characteristic of the psalms allows us to bring to speech our own individual concerns, even as we pray in unison with the community. Walter Brueggemann has said that praying the psalms depends upon two things: what we find when we come to the psalms that is already there and what we bring to the psalms out of our own lives.(1) What we find is the voice of common humanity--a voice which can be strident and demanding, accusing and hostile, wistful and resigned, gentle and tender, grateful and triumphant. What we bring is the stuff of our own experience--the painful issues which consume us; the bitter memories which grieve us; all our struggles, idiosyncrasies, fears, wild imaginings, dreams, joys and successes. If we are to pray in the spirit of the psalmist, therefore, any translation of the psalms needs to be able to carry both realities: what we find and what we bring.

As one of the poetry consultants on the International Commission on English in the Liturgy's (ICEL's) subcommittee on the liturgical psalter, I had to come to terms with precisely how poetry worked in transmitting the content of the psalms. My first poetry book, Frost and Fire,(2) had just been published when Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P. invited me to be part of his Chicago-based subgroup of the psalter committee. "There's no fame involved and not much money, but I think you will enjoy the opportunity," he had said to me on that occasion. Little did I know how hard I would have to labor, how much I would learn, or how greatly I would be changed; nor did I ever envision the rich network of friendships which would evolve through this experience. And in terms of poetic praxis and theory, I found myself taken far beyond my starting point as a "storefront poet" with an amateur writers' group.

The project itself involved the mandate to provide faithful translations of the psalms for contemporary liturgical use. This fidelity to the Masoretic texts involved more than a word-for-word rendering of the Hebrew, but, rather, the principle of "dynamic equivalence" which could unlock the power of the original poetry. According to ICEL's Brief on the Liturgical Psalter, "It also ought to convey a sense of the compression and forceful imagery in the Hebrew used by the ancient poet.... [It] must stress intelligibility and poetic concision." To accomplish these goals, ICEL called upon a variety of specialists to collaborate closely at all stages of the project. Biblical scholars provided base translations and accompanying notes which covered anything from alternative meanings for specific words to references to citations in the Hebrew scriptures and Christian scriptures. Poets, working from this data, created texts which satisfied the demands of inclusivity and appropriateness. In turn, liturgists suggested liturgical applications for individual psalms, as well as contemporary musical settings which would respect the natural characteristics of Hebrew poetry. In our Chicago group, which also consisted of liturgist Mary McGann, R.S.C.J. and hebraist Leslie Hoppe, O.F.M., all of us gathered to refine the texts before submitting them to ICEL for further revisions; the final products, then, were truly collaborative efforts.

Even before my involvement with ICEL, I had been captivated by the power of poetry to go beyond ordinary speech, to articulate the ineffable, to bring about change. In "The Divine Activity of the Poet,"(3) I wrote:

When bureaucracy stifles growth, the poet must sing songs of creation; when ritual becomes dry and uninspiring, the poet must breathe life into the assembly; when words lose their impact, the poet must discover new ways of describing lived experiences; when the church's primary symbols are reduced to stereotypes and when God's Word is trivialized, the poet must cry out in anguish for all to hear. …

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