A po­etic way to read the Psalms

The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM - BY DR HARRY FREED­MAN

The Book of Psalms — Po­etry in Po­etry By Jef­frey M. Co­hen Wipf & Stock, $31

Once, when I was much younger and didn’t know much, I heard a poem on the ra­dio. It was mag­nif­i­cent, and I lis­tened in­tently, keen to know who wrote it. I was sur­prised and rather pleased to dis­cover that I had been lis­ten­ing to a trans­la­tion of Psalm 8. I’d no idea a psalm could be so sub­lime. The Book of Psalms is as­ton­ish­ing. Much of its po­etry is breath-tak­ing, its lit­er­ary tech­niques are fre­quently so­phis­ti­cated, its use of lan­guage can be ex­tra­or­di­nary. But un­less one is well versed in clas­si­cal He­brew, it is so easy to miss it all. There is lit­tle as in­el­e­gant in daily prayer as a rapidly gab­bled psalm.

Some­times we can ap­pre­ci­ate the beauty of a psalm by read­ing one of the stan­dard trans­la­tions. Psalm 23, The Lord is My Shep­herd, is as stun­ning in English as in the orig­i­nal He­brew. But such ex­am­ples are rare. Any poem is hard to ren­der stylis­ti­cally in a dif­fer­ent lan­guage. All the more so with He­brew, which is much more con­cise than English; the first verse of Psalm 23 con­tains just four words in He­brew, nine in English. Id­ioms also present a prob­lem, how would you con­vert phrases like “mum’s the word” or “gets my goat” into po­etic He­brew?

Not all trans­la­tors set out with the same in­tent. Some trans­late lit­er­ally, of­fer­ing the clos­est pos­si­ble mean­ing for each word even if it re­sults in stylis­tic clum­si­ness. Oth­ers sac­ri­fice the lit­eral mean­ing, pre­fer­ring to stick closely to the orig­i­nal sense. Many try to find a suit­able mid-point be­tween these two ex­tremes. Few suc­ceed with ac­cu­racy and grace.

That’s why it is re­fresh­ing to pick up Rabbi Jef­frey Co­hen’s new trans­la­tion of the Book of Psalms. He set him­self the task of trans­lat­ing all one hun­dred and fifty psalms into rhymed verse, us­ing con­tem­po­rary, ac­ces­si­ble English. Most of us would re­gard that as a chal­lenge. Rabbi Co­hen, be­liev­ing that rhyme best con­veys the power and vi­tal­ity of the orig­i­nal He­brew, de­scribes it as a labour of love.

Ren­der­ing the psalms into rhyme de­mands a cer­tain lat­i­tude with the text, which Co­hen rightly de­scribes as po­etic li­cence. But it is never hard to dis­cern the sense of the orig­i­nal He­brew. Not for him Jerome’s mis­con­ceived trans­la­tion of Psalm 68:16 as a “fat moun­tain”. The ad­jec­tive that stumped Jerome, gav­nunim, oc­curs nowhere else in the Bi­ble but its root does. By trans­lat­ing it as “jagged” Co­hen is con­sis­tent both with the root’s mean­ing and the schol­ar­ship of other con­tem­po­rary trans­la­tors.

There is hu­mour too. The King James Ver­sion’s “Moab is my wash­pot” be­comes, in Co­hen’s rhyme: “Moab is a pot/ In which I shall wash/ Edom un­der my shoe / I shall squash.”

In his schol­arly in­tro­duc­tion, Rabbi Co­hen dis­cusses the au­thor­ship of the Psalms, the per­plex­ing ques­tion of what the var­i­ous in­tro­duc­tory head­ings sig­nify and the var­i­ous col­lec­tions that are grouped to­gether in the Book of Psalms. He stresses that the book is in­tended as multi-de­nom­i­na­tional, for both Jewish and Chris­tian use.

This could cause dif­fi­cul­ties, par­tic­u­larly with two psalms that fea­ture promi­nently in Chris­tian the­ol­ogy. Psalm 22, re­garded as Je­sus’s lament at the cru­ci­fix­ion, con­tains an ob­scure phrase trans­lated in Chris­tian bi­bles as “they have pierced my hands and feet”. Jewish trans­la­tors see no proof that the oth­er­wise un­known word k’ari has any­thing to do with pierc­ing.

Psalm 110 is pre­sented in Paul’s Epis­tle to the He­brews as a divine prom­ise to Je­sus; Jewish com­men­ta­tors con­sider it as an ad­dress to Abra­ham. It is tes­ta­ment to Rabbi Co­hen’s sen­si­tiv­ity that he trans­lates both these verses in terms that are ac­cept­able to ei­ther faith.

Such sen­si­tiv­ity suf­fuses the whole work. More than just a trans­la­tion; the book is a re­li­gious text which stands on its own mer­its as a med­i­ta­tive and con­tem­pla­tive com­pan­ion. It is a wor­thy ad­di­tion to ev­ery li­brary, even for those who are ac­cus­tomed to read­ing the Psalms in their orig­i­nal lan­guage.

There is lit­tle as in­el­e­gant in daily prayer as a rapidly gab­bled psalm’

Dr Freed­man’s new book on Kab­balah is pub­lished in


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