Ethics & Public Policy Center

Translation of Psalms that Sounds Like Hebrew

Published in Washington Times on December 16, 2007



The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary
(Robert Alter, Norton, $35, 518 pages)

The Bible has been the most influential book in history and the King James Version (KJV), published in 1611, has had a greater influence on the English language than any other book has. Its magnificent Elizabethan prose, written by a committee no less, ranks with the splendor of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. The translation was based on an ancient Greek text marred by mistakes that crept in during 14 centuries of manuscript copying. The translators sought to correct these linguistic errors and modernize the prose.

Ever since the King James Bible came off the press at the close of the Elizabethan era, biblical scholars on both sides of the Atlantic have attempted to correct and update it. The most recent laborer in this vineyard is Robert Alter, who teaches Hebrew at Stanford. In his “The Book of Psalms,” he focuses on eponymous Bible book and seeks to present the passages “in a kind of English verse that is readable yet sounds something like Hebrew.” I’m not competent to judge the accuracy of his translation, but I am bold enough to say that his revised version fails to come trippingly off the tongue.

The first lines of the 23rd Psalm in the KJV reads: “The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures beside the still waters.” Mr. Alter’s version: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. In green meadows He makes me lie down, by quiet waters guides me.”

The KJV’s 19th Psalm: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge” Mr. Alter writes: “The heavens tell God’s glory. And His handiwork sky declares. Day to day breaths utterance and night to night pronounces knowledge.”

Mr. Alter’s detailed focus on one book of the Bible is a challenge to his fellow Hebrew scholars to address the other Old Testament books with the same rigor, and with the same affection for both the Hebrew and English languages.

In stark contrast to Mr. Alter’s fidelity to the basic message of the Psalms was a 1995 effort by six American Protestant academics to make the Bible user-friendly and accessible to all. In “The New Testament and Psalms: An Inclusive Version” (Oxford), they sought to make the Scriptures embrace “all people” and to liberate selected victim groups from the onslaught of words. They replaced or rephrased “all gender-specific language not referring to particular historical individuals and all pejorative references to race, color, religion” or “physical disability.”

To embrace women, they excised God as Father and begin the Lord’s Prayer with “Our Father-Mother in heaven,” thus installing a kind of bisexual regency. The Son of Man becomes “the Human One.” In the Sermon on the Mount, all references to brother are changed to “brother or sister” or “sister or brother.”

Tampering with these historic and revered texts in the name of a current fad is an insult to history and an affront to mainstream Christians, Jews and Muslims. And to the language of William Shakespeare.

In contrast to this nonsense, Mr. Alter’s exquisitely documented book makes no attempt to alter the central message of the Psalms or the Bible. Rather he addresses fellow scholars who are devoted to understanding more fully the depth and subtlety of the original Hebrew.

– Ernest W. Lefever founded the Ethics and Public Policy Center in 1976.

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