Welcome To Babel: Translating Sacred Poetry


Recommended Reading: Psalm Springs – How I Translated The Bible’s Most Poetic Book by Robert Alter
Slate. 26 September 2007

Translation of poetry is a puzzle so complex, multifaceted, and difficult that it seems to most of us as mystical as advanced physics calculations. In the case of the Psalms, of course, one adds to that task the burden of dealing with one of the world’s major religious texts that is also replete with historical import. Oh, and also add the fact that the Psalms were composed by “anonymous poets over a period of more than five centuries,” and one quickly realizes that this is not a job for the timid. Yet, the process involved in translating poetry offers a unique insight into the workings of literary thought. I’ve re-read this essay about the translation of these Hebrew poems into contemporary English a half -dozen times in the month since it was published and found it rewarding each time.

This excerpt is typical:

In many lines, however, a little resourcefulness can produce rhythms resembling the Hebrew’s. The King James version of Psalm 30:9 reads: “What profit is there in my blood, when I go down to the pit?” (The 1611 translators used italics for words merely implied in the Hebrew.) From a rhythmic standpoint, this sounds more like prose than poetry. My version reads: “What profit in my blood,/ in my going down deathward?” This rhythm is virtually identical to the Hebrew, the second half of the line just one syllable more than the original. The alliteration of “down deathward” has no equivalent in the Hebrew, but it helps the rhythmic momentum and compensates for other places (including the first half of this line) where alliterations in the original could not be reproduced.

This article, as well as a link to a sound file of the author reading from his translations, is online at Psalm Springs – How I Translated The Bible’s Most Poetic Book


Credit Due Department: Image by Unknown – albani-psalter.de, Public Domain, via Wikipedia

Note: Originally posted Oct 26, 2007 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of AllanShowalter.com

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