On Translating the Psalms

Article excerpt

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....

Convinced that words had lost their power and that language had degenerated into what I termed "pre-fabricated speech" and euphemisms, I saw poetry as a vehicle of meaning by which one could encounter ultimate reality. Later, I came to regard the poet as a servant of "higher consciousness" whose words and very being facilitated the breakthrough of the divine into a hungry world:

...It is not so much the words

that matter

as their hidden source

deep within

the core of self,

deeper than abstract conven-


or poetic license,

deeper, too, than dexterity,

more seductive

than art or logic,

power or prestige.

I speak of the smithy

of a poet's soul,

that place where words

are forged from grace,

hammered by truth,

nailed by pain,

that place where the interplay

of light and darkness

creates both gift and curse,

laughter and anguish.

The truth about me

is that I know

how to weep

and how to dream

how to wonder

and be surprised

into joy.

I am both poem

and poet,

one who holds

the editorial pen

to censor the self

so words may be

and so, through them,

the Spirit may dance

into the hearts

of humankind.(4)

What I brought to my work for ICEL, then, was not only a deep appreciation for the psalms themselves because of their effectiveness in facilitating the dance of the Spirit, but also a sense of the sacredness of our task. The very words we selected, the images we highlighted and the rhythms we orchestrated would influence the ways in which the assembly encountered God through the singing or recitation of a particular psalm. Whereas in my own poetry I was free to experiment at whim and to develop my own voice, in this particular project there were other criteria to value: anonymity of "authorship," accessibility of meaning, fidelity to Hebrew roots, the transmission of religious content. We were like midwives freeing preexisting poetry from the womb of archaic structures and mistranslations, so that it could once more animate the prayer of the faithful, just as it had animated the prayer life of the ancient Hebrews.

Working with Carroll Stuhlmueller's base translations and with those of Leslie Hoppe, I found that my starting place had to be prayer. This was no mere editing job drawing on my analytical skills and flair for originality of expression; rather, my first approach to the texts was to pray them and to feel them, to encounter God with all the intimacy with which the psalmist had encountered God. I had to be contemplative first, then poet. Brueggemann writes: "For most of us, liturgical or devotional entry into the psalms requires a real change of pace. It asks us to depart from the closely managed world of public survival, to move into the open, frightening, healing world of speech with the Holy One."(5) As I moved into his healing world of speech, I encountered a God capable of outrage, vengeance and infinite compassion, a God who longs for us with the intensity of a lover, a God who evokes wild, outrageous speech, as well as protestations of love. With the psalmist, I named this God as the "God of goodness," "The Lord of everlasting love," "The God of safety," "Great and dreaded God," "Mighty God, faithful God," "God our shield, Holy One of Israel," "the God of storming seas and roaring waves," "the One who split the sea monster and scattered enemies," "the Lord whose justice is our strength, whose name is our joy."

By bringing the events of my own life to prayer, I could move beyond the polite language of convention and speak realities others might find unacceptable. Instead of singing praise, I could rail at God; I could sob like a child, scream as though demented. Take, for example, the opening verses of Psalm 60:


3. You rejected us, God, and breached our ranks. Furiously, you turned upon us.

4. You shook the earth, it split, shuddered and broke apart.

5. You forced us to suffer, to drink bitter wine, to stagger in grief.

Or, even more strongly, the sentiments expressed in Psalm 88:


4. I am steeped in trouble, ready for the grave.

5. I am like one destined for the pit, a warrior deprived of strength,

6. forgotten among the dead, buried with the slaughtered for whom you care no more.

7. You tossed me to the bottom of the pit, into its murky darkness.

8. Your anger pulled me down like roaring waves.

9. You took my friends away, disgraced me before them.

10. Trapped here, with no escape, I cannot see beyond my pain.

There are no euphemisms, no avoidance of issues; instead, we find, bold, unadorned language which comes from the heart of pain, from the heart of being human, a language which demands that God should hear, act, love--not the language of disrespect, but language coming from the conviction that God is something more than a remote deity who inclines a gracious ear to polite platitudes. These psalms present raw feelings without modification or censorship precisely because they presume that God is a God of compassion. If one compares this version of Psalm 88 to the Jerusalem Bible or the New American Bible, one finds it is characterized by greater poetic compression, more forceful imagery and a more passionate voice. NAB reads:

4. For my soul is surfeited with troubles and my life draws to the nether world.

5. I am numbered with those who go down into the pit, I am a man without strength.

6. My couch is among the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, Whom you remember no longer and who are cut off from your care.

7. You have plunged me into the bottom of the pit, into the dark abyss.

8. Upon me your wrath lies heavy, and with all your billows you overwhelm me.

9. You have taken my friends away from me; you have made me an abomination to them; I am imprisoned, and I cannot escape.

Words like "couch," "billows" and "abomination," and such lines as "my soul is surfeited with troubles/ and my life draws near to the nether world," lack immediacy for the modern reader and are too quaint to provide an objective correlative for our own experiences of abandonment.

Creating texts for the modern assembly also involved facilitating the reader's entry into a foreign world. Many of the psalms, for example, contain cries for help, imprecations against enemies, violent language against liars, blasphemers, robbers, murderers and political adversaries; there are images of traps and snares, pits, dogs and lions, levelled cities, spilled blood and whitened bones; there are images of exile, memories of the Babylonian captivity. Other psalms glorify the established order, singing of God's mythical defeat of chaos: of the wonders of creation, of the beauty of God's law and of Jerusalem, of the power of the Exodus event, of the blessings earned by the just. Since fidelity to the Hebrew was primary, there was no tampering with this foreign world; rather, our task as I saw it was to heighten the existing imagery while helping the assembly move beyond it. Though the psalms have their own life-settings and are cast in ancient liturgical language, it is possible to pray them from the heart if the poetry succeeds in communicating the common human experiences underlying each text.

Psalm 137, for example, is a response to the Babylonian captivity; it is characterized by both poignancy and undisguised hatred:

3. Our captors shouted for happy songs, for songs of festival. "Sing!" they cried, "the songs of Zion."

4. How could we sing the song of the Lord in a foreign land?

5. Jerusalem forgotten? Wither my hand! Jerusalem forgotten? Silence my voice!

8. Doomed Babylon, be cursed! Good for those who deal you evil for evil! Good for those who destroy you, who smash your children at the walls!

Praying this lament demands that we abandon literalism while allowing the horrific images to sink into our consciousness. Though we may be uncomfortable with the undisguised hatred in this psalm, the language allows us to articulate anguish and agony, to make public our desire to remember significant events, however painful, and to entrust to God our desire for revenge. The Babylonian empire may seem remote but, to varying degrees, most of us are familiar with feelings of alienation, exile, home-sickness and being wronged; most of us know what it is to be consumed by the desire for vengeance, even if we fail to admit it to ourselves, let alone to others. It is through these feelings that we enter into the experience of the psalmist; it is by expressing them that we find healing.

The staccato effect created by the compressed lines and harsh consonants intensifies the psalmist's bitter anguish. If we examine the NAB translation, we will find that the poetry waters down these emotions by its excessive floweriness:

3. ...Though there our captors asked of us the lyrics of our songs, And our despoilers urged us to be joyous: "Sing for us the songs of Zion!"

4. How could we sing a song of the Lord in a foreign land?

5. If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand be forgotten!

6. May my tongue cleave to my palate if I remember you not, if I place not Jerusalem ahead of my joy.

The JB version, on the other hand, is more prosaic, but it, too, lacks intensity:

3. For we had been asked to sing to our captors, to entertain those who had carried us off. "Sing," they said, "some hymns of Zion."

4. How could we sing one of Yahweh's hymns in a pagan country?

5. Jerusalem, if I forget you, may my right hand wither!

6. May I never speak again, if I forget you! If I do not count Jerusalem the greatest of my joys!

The poetic burden which I took most seriously, however, was the need to help the assembly encounter God. Regardless of content, regardless of historical content, regardless of the sentiments expressed, each psalm has the potential of allowing us to dialogue with God in a way that is both immediate and meaningful. The psalms allow us to bring to speech moments of pain, ordinariness and exhilaration. They allow us to be ourselves before God and to taste something of God's mystery. They make us humble and they lift us up. They fill us with love and let us feel love in return. They sustain us and help us grow. Whenever a particular text mirrored some aspect of who God is for us, I tried to heighten what I found there. Psalm 116, for example, offers a tender testimony to God's saving power in the face of disaster. The psalmist, "filled with love," recalls a dramatic rescue, affirms God's goodness, and promises to offer public thanks, presumably in the temple. The mood I tried to evoke was one of tenderness, peacefulness, and fidelity. As we reworked my efforts in Carroll's office at the Catholic Theological Union, the psalm took on new power as each of us infused it with our own understanding of who God is for us--not necessarily some "deus ex machina" in the classical sense, but a God who witnesses the events of our lives and who stands with us in our times of difficulty:


3. Death had me in its grip, the grave's trap was set, grief held me fast,

4. but I cried out, Please, Lord, rescue me!


5. Kind and faithful is the Lord; gentle is our God.

6. The Lord shelters the poor, raises me from the dust.

7. Rest once more, my heart, for you know the Lord's love.

8. God rescues me from death, wiping my tears, steadying my feet.

9. I walk with the Lord in this land of the living.

It is with a deep sense of gratitude that I look back on the five years that I participated in the ICEL psalter project. During this time, I learned that translations of sacred texts are governed by any number of considerations--exegetical meaning, for example, or historical character, or liturgical use, or accessibility. We played with words and explored content; we set specific moods and expanded the creative potential of images to make them more inclusive; we prayed the texts and asked others for their feedback. In short, all of us--whether based in Chicago or Washington, London or New York--so immersed ourselves in the psalms that they began to shape us. The ultimate test of our work will be the extent to which it helps (in words from ICEL's Brief on the Liturgical Psalter), "the Christian assembly to experience the paschal mystery in the tensions and hopes of today's world."


(1.)From Praying the Psalms (St. Mary's Press, 1986), p. 27.

(2.)Frost and Fire (Life Enrichment Publishers, 1985).

(3.)Currents in Theology and Mission (April, 1986), p. 108-p. 110.

(4.)"Insight," Woman Dreamer (Wyndham Hall Press, 1989).

(5.)Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, p. 20.