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Review of "The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary" by Robert Alter

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Alexandra Glynn photo Review of "The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary" by Robert Alter. Norton. New York. 2007. 518 pp.

Robert Alter's recent translation of the Psalms ought to be taken as asking us: what are we achieving when we translate the Bible, and what devices can we use to achieve our goals? Comparing Alter to the King James nicely points out a set of ways in which a translator can make meaning through patterning. Mr. Bloom thus will be proven right, if one accepts his definition of Protestantism, that The KJV is a Protestant fever of sound and meaning—of, as Bloom calls it "eloquence"—consistent eloquence. Alter's translation, however, could never be called anything fevered.

The commonly understood tools of alliteration, assonance, and utilization of the variance in vowel sounds, these we will not review so carefully. Suffice us to look at a few instances.

KJV: "Let thy saints shout for joy" (Psalm 132:9)

We would all do well to study and be aware of how much powerful an effect poetic patterning has on meaning.
In the KJV the vowels fall from "ai", to "ou" to "oi" on the last three stressed syllables. The shouts rise up in joy in the sounds. The closed and calm vowel in "let" ends up in the sky of joy. Alter ignores this tool, most of the time. This is typical:

Alter: "And let Your faithful sing gladly."

Here the vowel sounds rise and fall with no thought for how they might be patterned to affect the meaning. It's not so easy to find out how glad the faithful are singing. We know this: they are singing better and more surely in Hebrew and in KJV English.

Let's look at another example, this time of alliteration and assonance.

KJV: "O how love I thy law! / It is my meditation all the day" (Psalm 119:97).

Alter: "How I loved Your teaching. / All day long it was my theme."

The King James is full of attention to the sounds, Alter is not. The two most stressed beats in the first half of the KJV translation are on love and law, and they alliterate. So by three things we see how much the psalmist really loves the law. Very much. The sound pattern of the "l" alliteration, and the placement of those two most important words on the two only important stressed syllables in the line, as well as the words themselves, prove the love of the law. Alter's words state his love only, on paper, but not in the air, in sound—they stay like unspoken thoughts lurking in the brain. Again, the KJV has the power of the Hebrew. The translation as if first decides what the Hebrew means. Having decided it means the psalmist loves the law, the teaching, and this law or teaching is the psalmist's meditation or theme all the day, the KJV translation sets the words in English into a sound pattern to declare this love and its constancy and with those glad sounds stealing into the reader, or listener's mind, makes it their meditation all the day.

But we would like to look at two other things that are not commonly thought of as tools, but which tools the KJV uses a great deal, and to wonderful effect. Let us take our first example.

KJV: "Let thy saints shout for joy" (Psalm 132:9)

/ ' / / ' /

The stress pattern in this sentence is: Let thy saints shout for joy

There is a pattern established in the first three beats, and it is flipped and set again in the second half. The two sides are tied together by the "s" sound on "saints" and "shout", which two words divide the two sides of the pattern. This increases the musicality of the phrase, and the delight of the ear, and the joy of the shouting saints, even—or tends to deliver well the sense of saints shouting for joy.

The KJV builds these patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables everywhere. Note that Alter's line has no discernable pattern of stresses: And let Your faithful sing gladly. At least, let's hope Alter is forgetting how this line might scan. Because what comes to my mind first is this—which makes the meaning of the faithful singing gladly look very clumsy:

' / ' / ' / ' /

"And let Your faithful sing gladly"

He could have taken those same words (adding one) and set them into this sort of pattern, to give the emphasis to the two most important words, and the modifier of the last one "sing", which is the word "gladly":

' ' / ' ' ' / / '

And your faithful, let them sing gladly.

That would have been very KJV-ish, because, as we will see, the KJV loves to have a series of unstressed syllables leading up to the main words, thus stressing them more strongly.

To take another example:

KJV: "O how love I thy law! / It is my meditation all the day" (Psalm 119:97)

The stress pattern in the second line rises to the word "meditation", especially the 3rd syllable of that word. And the other two words that are stressed are "all" and "day"—which, note, somewhat closely parallel the vowel sounds of "love" and "law"—the KJV layers pattern upon pattern in an area.

Here is another example of the same patterning:

' ' / ' / ' / ' / '

"Through thy precepts I get understanding:

' ' ' / ' ' / /

Therefore I hate every false way. (Psalm 119:104)

Perhaps in the first half of the line we can argue about whether "I" gets a stress. But we know that "get" does not get stressed, and neither does "thy". We are certain that the most important words from the Hebrew, "precepts" and some part of "understanding", get emphasized. In the second half, we have a beautiful example at the end of the line with the words "false" and "way" having quite similar vowel sounds. They also both come at the end of the line, and both are stressed. And what other word is stressed in this line, and has the same vowel sound as "way"? The word "hate." So "false" has a false vowel sound even in the structure in which it is set. Alter has: Uphold me that I may be rescued / to regard Your statutes at all times. Here the first half of the line is good—it stresses almost exclusively "uphold" and "rescued"—and they begin and end the line. And the second half is not bad—the right words are stressed. But sound patterns do not play in with the stress patterns. Alter's is wheezy, and especially while one is moving from the first half of the line to the second. The first half of the line, we can say, as a rule, can be set up and then a pattern made there can be exploited in the second half. It tends otherwise to clunk, and one is not sure what to be sure about, in terms of stresses. Alter has: From Your decrees I gained insight, / therefore I hated all paths of lies. Once in a while he gets it right, though. For example: The perverted I hated / And Your teaching I loved. (Psalm 119:113)

Let us look at one more way in which the King James sets up patterns. Here we have:

"Hold thou me up, and I shall be safe:

And I will have respect unto thy statutes continually" (Psalm 119:117)

Here the word "continually" is itself going on and on, which is what the psalmist in Hebrew says his respect unto the statutes of God will be. And let's not forget to note that in the second line, the words one ought to stress, are stressed: "respect" and "statutes" and "continually." But let us return to the first line. Here we have something similar to what we saw in Psalm 132:9.

/ ' ' / / ' ' /

Hold thou me up, and I shall be safe:

The words before and after the "and" are held up by the pillars of the mirrored sound patterns of "Hold thou me up" (four beats, first and last stressed) and "I shall be safe" (four beats, first and last stressed). One is held up, and one is safe, and one's sound foundation is quite sturdy! This mechanism of building parallel sound structures is not limited to one line. Here the sound pattern (four beats, first and last stressed) is on "place and my shield" and then in "hope in thy word".

KJV: "Thou art my hiding place and my shield: / I hope in thy word" (Psalm 119:114).

Alter has: "My shelter and shield are You. / For Your word I have hoped." He could have done something similar to the KJV and it would have sang better:

You are my shelter and my shield. / For Your word have I hoped


You, my shelter, and you, my shield. For your word have I hoped.

The King James, as Bloom said, is consistently eloquent. And it consistently uses all these patterning devices. Alter uses one of them once in a while. He looks therefore unsure of whether or not he really wants to say what he's saying. He looks like a timid guest in the corner who doesn't have any strong opinions about anything, but at the same time, he looks like a large guest who keeps clunking into the furniture and knocking things over, so that you can't help but feeling your ears constantly crashed into by jarring sounds. We would all do well to study and be aware of how much powerful an effect poetic patterning has on meaning. During the time of the Reformation it was often said that hymns converted more people than any other form of rhetoric did. Music, or patterned sound, has great power. Through this power, onward well into the 21st century the "Calvinist" (so Mr. Bloom calls it) King James's translations marches on conquering all.

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