The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary

Alter, Robert
W.W. Norton & Company (2007)
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Ever since the birth of Christianity the Psalms have been part of the staple of reflection and worship, featuring in the Gospels and running like a golden thread through monastic life, then transferred to the Offices of the Church of England in the Coverdale translation. In some respects, therefore, we know them too well through their arresting expressiveness and comforting cadences which is why Robert Alter's translations and commentary come as such a welcome shock. As a Jewish scholar he translates the poetry as near as possible to its original, reproducing the alliteration and preserving the terse vocabulary and line lengths which sound foreshortened to the English ear, so accustomed to smooth, metrical verse with a generous helping of polysyllabic, Latinate words; the nearest equivalent would be the demotic poetry which became popular in the 1960s with Penguin Modern Poets which only goes to show that not all verse is poetry and not all poetry is verse.

Even more valuable in many ways are the short but beautifully observed commentaries which make sense of many phrases which Christian sensibility has tended to obscure; conversely, his relationship to the text through his own tradition means that Alter is not drawn into making the meaning more than it should be by introducing anachronistic theological concepts. This simple, literal form of translation therefore forces us to try to understand the initial intention of the various authors before trying to work out what God is saying to us today through these ancient poems. We only have to compare Alter, Coverdale and a variety of other Christian translations to see how far the initial meanings have been forced to accord with Christian theology at various stages of its development.

The origin and purposes of the works that make up the collection of 150 Psalms are discussed in a learned but not over-technical introduction which is masterly in its brevity and clarity; yet perhaps the greatest asset of this book to the Christian is its capacity to help us see our old friends anew, stripped of all the accretions of well intentioned but often misled piety. Reading old favourites is like seeing old masters restored to their original luminosity.