Psalms - Poetry & Translation


Notable characteristics:

Psalms, however:

Alter says: "The reliance of these poems, however, on a repertoire of traditional images and stereotypical phrases does not preclude the creation of fresh and moving poetry. ... Some of the poetic power of the Psalms derives from their strategically effective use of fairly simple, archetypal imagery".


Biblical Hebrew is synthetic, eliminating, for example, 'obvious' verbs and pronouns) whereas English is analytic, with a much larger lexicography still, however, lacking some vital Jewish words. Syntax is variable according to rhythm (as with the use of inversion to facilitate rhyme in Victorian verse). Vide Psalm 23:4

  1. King James "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil" - 17 words, 20 syllables
  2. Hebrew - 8 words, 11 syllables
  3. Alter's translation: "Though I walk in the vale of death's shadow, I fear no harm" - 13 words, 14 syllables.

Biblical Hebrew uses fewer abstractions than English; and it is important to avoid multi syllabic Latinisms. For example, het means to miss the mark, to rebel, but its usual translation of "sin" overloads it with theological meaning; likewise translating nefesh as "soul" and yeshu'ah as salvation are not authentic in Psalms where the former really means "life breath" and the latter "escape from a tight corner" in the here and now.

Partly taken from

Alter, Robert: The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, W.W. Norton, 2007


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