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.

17 thoughts on “Alter’s Psalter Falters

  1. Iyov says:

    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.

    Grab the Hebrew (or, if you don’t read it, an Interlinear) and start to see what Alter is doing.

  2. Peter Kirk says:

    My advice on how you can make the best of this translation on your beach holiday is to leave it under your pillow or beach towel. Take a break! You need it!

  3. tc robinson says:

    I’ve seen it at our local Library. I think I’m gonna check it out (I mean literally).

  4. David Ker says:

    I’m obsessed by constituent order and Ps. 1:1 seems weird. I’ll get out BART and see what he says.

    *BART=Biblical Analysis and Research Tool

  5. David Hamstra says:

    I don’t get poetry unless I read it aloud. I’ve read Alter’s Psalms, and it’s the same way. He’s trying to preserve not only the meaning but also, as far as he can, the syllable count and accent of the original. The only way to appreciate it, unless you’re better at appreciating poetry than I am, is to speak it.

  6. Nathan says:

    I like Alter’s translation, though only alongside others. I actually consider his translation “formal equivalent” in a very specific way: the “form” in this case is meter.

    I think Alter is right (see his intro) that changing an 8-syllable line into 17-syllables (as the KJV translators did all the time) is some sort of translation violation when you’re dealing with poetry. It’s possible to have lexical formal equivalence but not metrical/prosodic/rhythmic formal equivalence.

    Now, Alter wasn’t overly strict about meter, but he was trying to capture the feel of the original meter–something very, very few translations do.

    That’s a good reminder to those of us word lovers who tend to obsess over lexical equivalence and neglect the importance of metrical echoes.

    (Or have I slipped into the trap of assuming that meter itself can be rendered–is it foolish to try to echo meter from one language to another?)

    I mostly just like bugging formal equivalence people by saying: so which kind of “form” have you “equivalenced”? But then they can dodge the question by complaining that I’ve made up the word “equivalenced.”

  7. Dru says:

    This is very tentative as I haven’t seen Alter’s Psalter. But the comments above are really interesting, particularly Nathan’s.

    I like the idea that it might be possible to have metrical/prosodic/rhythmic equivalence. I suspect it might ultimately not be possible, but I can’t help thinking one should try. Even if one can’t get further than part of the way, translating poetry with any philosophy of equivalence should include this.

    It’s something that Gelineau took into account in his French translations with chants and which the English versions also followed.

    It’s very odd that until Lowth in the mid C18, nobody seems to have taken on board the implications of the Psalm’s being poetry. This despite that I think it was already normal by then to print them and sing them in split lines.

    To this day, I get the impression that most of us pick up the points about structure, parallelism etc, and can hear the balance in content, but have very little sense of what they sound like as poetry. We cannot hear metre in Hebrew in the way we can hear it in, say, Hamlet. Even listening to Suzanne Haik Vantoura does not give that strong impression.

    We can hear poetry as poetry in our own language. It is much harder to hear it in another language, particularly one that isn’t that closely related to ones own.

    An English speaker trying to convey the metre of Latin hexameters will stress the long syllables by weight and unstress the short ones as though they scanned in English. He or she will not actually read them differentiated by length, because as English speakers, we cannot hear length.

    We can, however, pick up even in English, that the structure in Lamentations is different from the structures usual in the psalms,even though again, we cannot actually hear whatever a native Biblical Hebrew speaker heard.

    It would be interesting to know whether a speaker of Modern Hebrew can hear the poetic parts of the OT as poetry, or whether the poesy of the languages are too far apart.

    Even though he wrote in metres we still use, it’s difficult without a trained ear to hear Chaucer as ordinary verse. It’s even harder to hear Middle English alliterative verse as verse, yet alone Anglo Saxon – which we have to be taught. Attempts to write modern verse in alliterative form are interesting curiosities, but aren’t really audible as poetry.

    So I must try and get access to Alter’s Psalter.

  8. David Ker says:

    Dru, you might check out the Surprise Me! feature of the Amazon listing (see above).

    John Hobbins has posted on this translation here and here

  9. Dru says:

    There’s what I think is quite a good secular review that I’ve found at .

    Or perhaps I like this review because I agree strongly with the statement
    “Translation comes from somewhere, the language and literature of the original, but it also goes somewhere, into the language and literature of the translation language. Too often the experts in one know very little about the other.”

    What is also interesting though is that to my ear quite a lot of the Alter extracts would sound better in English with the addition of the extra unstressed articles, prepositions etc that he’s left out. Without them, the English may sound more like the underlying Hebrew, which is good. But to me, even English free verse works better if it recognises something vaguely corresponding to a loose sprung version of iambics. It just happens to be the way the language works.

    So I think the phrase he quotes, ‘Free me, Lord, from evil folk’, would read aloud better with the addition ‘Free me, O Lord, from evil folk’.

    On inversions, I only half agree with Weinberger. I entirely agree with him that a lot of the inversions he cites sound unnecessary.‘Like sheep to Sheol they head’ would work just as well and keep the alliteration as ‘They head to Sheol like sheep’.

    Even free verse, though, is not prose. I do think you need inversions and it is legitimate to use them so as to move the most important words to the beginning or end of the phrase or sentence.

    With classical verse, it is virtually impossible to fit the line to the scansion and versification pattern without some inversion, however unfashionable this may be at the moment. It is, though, better not to make it too obvious or to try and make sure you do not do it too often, other than for the reason above about emphasis. In practice, it is particularly useful to try and get at least some of the rhymes to coincide with the most important words!


  10. David Ker says:

    I like that line as well.

    Thanks for the thoughts on iambs. Inversions i.e. conscious deviation from default syntax are of great interest to me. As you imply, they consciously make people think “this is poetry.” But they also very often allow highlighting of thematic information. The phrase that came to mind was, “To Carthage then I came / burning…” (T.S. Eliot/Wasteland) compare the original (veni Carthaginem)

  11. Dru says:

    Thanks David. That’s a really stimulating link.

    “Then” is the least important word. It isn’t even in the Latin at all. By analogy with old printings of the AV, it would be in italics. So even though it is necessary for Elliot’s own purposes, building up the sequence of his thoughts and allusions, as the least important word it goes in the middle.

    Just the thing to read on the beach – though it’s been raining steadily here most of today.


  12. David Ker says:

    I’m at the beach too! Awesome.
    1. i CAME to CARthage
    2. to CARthage i CAME
    3. To CARthage THEN i CAME

    a. Which is clearer?
    b. Which sounds better?
    c. Which is a better translation?

  13. John Radcliffe says:


    Thanks for the review link. Now I can stop wondering whether I should buy it, and can save my money instead.

  14. Dru says:

    Sorry David it has taken me so long to get back.

    As simple English, No 1 “I came to Carthage” is the natural order. But if you are Eliot, you are entitled to choose option 3 as what fits best with what you want to say.

    He is writing in English. This is an allusion in the course of an independent work. He is not writing a translation. The next line is supposed to be a reference to Buddha’s Fire Sermon, but whatever else might be in the text, any association of Carthage and fire is inevitably also a reference to Dido.

    Translating Augustine’s sentence as a translation, though produces another problem.

    It is 43 years since I last did any Latin, and I was not all that good at it. It is my memory that in Latin the verb usually went at the end. What we were taught was mainly Latin of the C1s BC and AD. Augustine was writing 300 years later. So this may or may not apply. If it does, “Veni Carthaginem” is itself an inversion.

    If so in my view it’s reasonable to translate it either by an inversion in English, or, more dynamically, in whatever way English naturally would choose, using the same register as Augustine, to express what he was using the inversion to express.

    So we are back again to “Translation comes from somewhere, the language and literature of the original, but it also goes somewhere, into the language and literature of the translation language.”

    To translate St Augustine, I would need a thorough literary understanding of both Latin and English. Without the former, I cannot really hear what he is saying. Without the latter, I could not do him justice. I certainly do not have the former. So whatever my skills with my own language, I’d have to defer on this one.

    Maria Boulding’s translation, by the way, which in biblical terms would probably count as fairly dynamic, is “So I arrived at Carthage, where the din of scandalous love-affairs raged cauldron-like around me”.

    I realise we’re now quite a long way from Alter’s Psalter, but I would say this is interesting, and discursively relevant.

  15. Dru says:

    I don’t know whether anyone’s still reading this particular blog. There have been so many other interesting ones since. But I’ve been thinking further about the idea of metrical/prosodic/rhythmic equivalence, and the difficulty of finding a suitable way of transmitting poetry from one language to another. Those who followed Alter’s lecture might notice I’ve deliberately dropped the word ‘formal’ from the phrase as Nathan expressed it. there’s a reason for that which I hope will gradually emerge.

    With the psalms, there’s an additional difficulty as to whether one wants to retain any singability in the target language.

    I made the statement that I thought Alter’s phrase, ‘Free me, Lord, from evil folk’, would read aloud better with the addition ‘Free me, O Lord, from evil folk’.

    That though is the tension between representing the metre of the original and getting a rhythm that works more naturally as metre in the target.

    There is though an additional point to bear in mind about English metre. Take a conventional Common or Ballad Metre psalm verse (Ps 42:1).

    “As pants the hart for cooling streams
    ~ when heated in the chase:
    So longs my soul, O God, for thee
    ~ and thy refreshing grace.”

    That is in the form 8 6 8 6. It is regularly Iambic, but the way many CM tunes are sung, the unstressed syllables are given nearly comparable length to the stressed ones. So the tune can take a certain amount of metric flexibility. One has to rely on ones ear to know what one can get away with. A person who had been taught metre in a language which was not actually there own, might not be able to tell what liberties one could or could not get away with.

    Even within the line some iambic stresses are more equal than others. A line does not usually work with stresses that are all ‘really important’ as meaning. ‘In’ in the second line is metrically stressed, and is read that way, but it is not as important as a word as ‘heat’ or ‘chase’.

    Now we have another, in Long Metre, 8 8 8 8. It is about 150 years older, and if anything is even more familiar. It is Ps 100:1

    “All people that on earth do dwell,
    Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice:
    Him serve with fear his praise forth tell.
    Come ye before him and rejoice.”

    Metrically this is not quite so regular. The first line is. The second either starts with a trochee, or with a dactyl and then has a foot with only one syllable in it. It is possible that technically the third verse starts with a spondee, but one really has to play these things by ear. As read poetry it’s probably a bit naive, but as a hymn to its familiar tune, it can hardly be bettered. It works if you are an English speaker. But could you tell that, if in 1000 years time you were a scholar studying ancient English verse and trying to understand how it scanned, what it sounded like – particularly if by then, the Latin alphabet was a strange and almost forgotten script.

    Where are we getting to?

    I’ve set these two verses out in a different way because as lines they work quite differently. Singing Ps 100 in Long Metre, each 4 foot (8 syllable) line naturally end stops. Even if the words enjamb, the tune doesn’t. Also, there’s no real difference in effect between the ends of lines 1, 2 or 3.

    The opposite is true with Ps 42. In Common Metre, even if your musicians stop for a breath at the end of lines 1 or 3, you can cheerfully enjamb from line 1 to 2 or from line 3 to 4. By and large though, Common Metre tunes if they are being sung without repeats, symphonies etc, work best if one has as short as possible a caesura at the end of those lines. This applies even if there is a break in the sense at that point..

    However, you have to have a break at the end of line 2. As far as psalms are concerned, there must be the equivalent of a half line break at that point. Some examples exist where this principle is broken, and it does not work. This is Ps 68:2 from the Scottish psalter.

    “As smoke is driv’n, so drive thou them;
    ~ as fire melts wax away,
    Before God’s face let wicked men
    ~ so perish and decay.”

    The punctuation and grammar indicates that “As fire melts wax away” is translated as belonging to the wicked men perishing and decaying. The effect in Common Metre is to attach it in stead to the driven smoke.

    The reason for this is that although Common Metre is described as 8 6 8 6, or occasionally as 14 14, there’s actually a silent foot at the end of the two six syllable lines. This is partly because even as spoken verse, it works that way. In addition, it is ballad metre and is designed to be sung. And, however one divides up the tune, the number of bars is normally a multiple of four or eight – the same total as for a Long Metre tune.

    So how about Alter’s line ‘Free me, Lord, from evil folk’, in comparison with the version which I believe works more naturally as an English line, ‘Free me, O Lord, from evil folk’?

    It is my belief that Alter’s original line as poetry rather than prose probably reads slightly better in English, if one puts a small pause before ‘Lord’, corresponding to the missing unstressed syllable in the second imaginary iamb. I also think this is true even if one is not thinking of it as formal metrical verse. I do not know, though whether that makes it a less faithful rendering into English of what Alter feels Biblical Hebrew sounded like, as poetry or song to a person whose native language it was.

    So that still leaves it an open question whether the aim of ‘metrical/prosodic/rhythmic equivalence’ is to try and convey in the target language something of how the metre works in the original language, or to translate poetry in the original language into a poetic form in the target language that is poetry in that language with something of a comparable or suitable register.

    Is trying to get the translation in the target language to convey what Hebrew verse sounds like, more formally equivalent? Is trying to get the translation in the target language to sound more like poetry as the target language knows it, more ‘dynamic’?

  16. Jeremy Pierce says:

    I can’t believe no one has nitpicked about “Alter’s Psalter Falters” not being alliteration but just plain old rhyme. Alliteration is repetition of initial consonant sounds.

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