Alter’s Psalter Falters
Well, not really. But I couldn’t resist the alliteration. ;-)
I found a copy of Robert Alter’s The Book of Psalms at our local library and I have been thumbing through it in a lazy vacation sort of way. The introduction contains mind-bending prose like this:
“Poetically effective sequencing may be combined with the semantic dynamics to which lines of parallelistic verse lend themselves.” (p. xxvi)
Whoa! Scary thing is I almost understand what he’s talking about! Alter has to condescend to his readers somewhat because if he was only writing to his peers he wouldn’t need to publish a book he could just print five copies and hand them out.
My first stab at the book was just opening it to Psalm 1 and giving it a read. That was a mistake. My little translator critic alarm was dinging wildly from the first verse. But wait. Isn’t this guy hugely smarter than I am? Doesn’t he have Hebrew in the bag and more literary honors than I could stuff in my sock drawer? So he probably has good reasons for making a translation that sounds this strange. Thus my next step was to back up and start reading the introduction. I tried to swallow the intro right after lunch which ended up with me passed out on the bed and the book pushed under the pillow. This morning I tried again while still high on coffee and I was in just the right frame of mind to really enjoy the introduction and not get too hung up by prose like that shown above.
To summarize: Alter hopes to reflect in his translation something of the terseness and prosody of the original. In addition, he’s trying to give it a slightly archaic flavor while shunning traditional semantic mind-ruts like “sin,” “salvation,” and “soul.”
I’m looking forward to reading the translation and notes on Alter’s terms. But I think I’ll go hang out on the beach for a while first. If you’ve read Alter’s Psalms maybe you could give me some pointers on how I could make the most of reading this translation.