Sunday 19 July 2009

John Goldingay on Robert Alter on the Psalms

John Goldingay, ‘Dichten = Condensare: Robert Alter’s Artful Guide to Unpacking the Psalms’, Books & Culture (July/August 2009).

The July/August 2009 edition of Books & Culture carries a review by John Goldingay of Robert Alter’s translation and commentary of the Psalms (The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary [New York: Norton, 2007]).

Goldingay provides helpful background information to Alter, his move into biblical studies in the 1970s, the publication of his significant books on Old Testament narrative and poetry in the 1980s through to his more recent translations and commentaries of the Pentateuch, the David story, and now the Psalms (paperback edition due out later this year).

Goldingay reminds us that one of the characteristics of Hebrew poetry is its denseness, using fewer words to say more than prose, with the result that readers have to work harder. Psalm 1, for instance, contains about fifty words, which is about half the total used in most English translations.

Even Alter struggles with the terseness, but his translation pays attention to word order to provide a sense of the dynamics of the poetic lines, and he is committed to preserving the concrete nature of the language of the Psalms as well as male pronouns for God.

Goldingay has some appreciative as well as a few critical comments on Alter’s rendering of Psalm 1, translated thus:

1 Happy the man who has not walked in the wicked’s counsel,
nor in the way of offenders has stood,
nor in the session of scoffers has sat.
2 But the LORD’s teaching is his desire
and His teaching he murmurs day and night
3 And he shall be like a tree planted by streams of water,
that bears its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither –
and in all that he does he prospers.
4 Not so the wicked,
but like chaff that the wind drives away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand up in judgment,
nor offenders in the band of the righteous.
6 For the LORD embraces the way of the righteous,
and the way of the wicked is lost.

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