Poetic translation of Psalms, guest post by Brenda Boerger


Wayne asked me to say a little about what I’ve been working on. I have a draft of a book called POET Psalms, in which the letters of POET stands for Poetic Oracle English Translation. My goal has been to convey Hebrew poetry using English verse forms together with devices such as rhyme, meter, sonics, and imagery. The expected result is scriptures which can be easily memorized or set to music. In fact, right now a friend is setting tunes to several of these and we plan to showcase them at BT2011 to be held here in Dallas October 14-18.

A counterweight to the goal of expressing the psalms poetically in English, is the balancing goal of preserving and drawing attention to some important Hebrew language poetic devices, (parallelism, imagery, acrostics, wordplay, and a number of word patterns, such as chiasmus, inclusio, refrain, hinge and aperture) in hopes that English readers might gain an appreciation of them artistically. I try to use as many of the Hebrew devices as possible, without compromising the natural structures and rhythms of English.

Balancing form, content, meaning, and poetic expression means that while I value the shapes and structures of the poetic forms incorporated, I also would rather make slight adjustments in the form, rather than distort the source text semantics. I have made heavy use of Welsh forms which seem particularly adaptable to the content of the Psalms. I also use formatting and fonts to reveal some of the structures of the Psalms.

And while not a slave to one-to-one lexical correspondences, I also try to maintain the uniqueness of words whose forms occur only once or very rarely in either the Psalter or the entire Old Testament.

I’ll let this be all for now except for giving a few examples below.

–Brenda Boerger, Ph.D (click on this link for information about me)


Psalm 23
by David
a psalm of trust
Tune:  (C.M.  Ascription, Ballerma, etc.)

1 Yahweh, good shepherd, I’m your sheep.
You give me what I need—

2 In verdant fields I eat and sleep,
Drink at streams where you lead.

3 You bring me back when I’ve gone wrong; [1]
Guide once more in your way.
For that’s one way your love is shown,
As you protect your name.

4 When I walk through dark times or storms, [2]
I’m calm, you’re at my side.
Your shepherd’s crook saves me from thorns,
Your club knocks threats aside.[3]

5 Then when I’m found, you throw a feast.[4]
You pour oil on your guest.
My foes seethe. I deserve it least.
But you serve me your best.
And though I should be serving you,
My goblet’s filled with wine.

6 With love and blessings you pursue.[5]
You host me for all time.

[1] 23:3  In his book, Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15, Kenneth E. Bailey (1992) spends 200 pages convincingly arguing for parallels between Psalm 23 and Luke 15 (the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son). His insightful analysis leads to slight adjustments and reinterpretations of standard renderings of this psalm. The Hebrew of verse three is literally, ‘he brings me back’ or ‘he causes me to repent’. And since only a sheep that has wandered off would have to be brought back, that is included, too.

[2] 23:4  The phrase “valley of the shadow of death” in many translations may not be the best representation of the Hebrew. The word translated ‘valley’ can also mean ‘in the midst’ and the word translated ‘shadow of death’ is elsewhere translated ‘darkness’. It may be a compound meaning ‘darkness of death’. Most scholars think it is a metaphor for great danger, which is the sense captured by POET’s ‘dark times or storms.’

[3] 23:4  The classic “Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me,” has problems, since one doesn’t normally think of tools or weapons as comforting. Instead the comfort comes from the feeling of safety when walking with a strong protector.  When sheep were caught in briars, the crook could be used to pull them out.

[4] 23:5  Bailey (1992) connects verse 5 to Luke 15’s feast celebrating the return of the prodigal son. Doing this in the presence of someone’s enemies meant that the one being feasted had the protection of the host. Preparing the table of the Lord in the Temple was fairly simple. But when the Lord prepares a table for us instead, the feast is extravagant. POET tries to capture some of these more obscure allusions which Bailey brings to light.

[5] 23:6  In line a, the traditional ‘goodness’ and ‘mercy’ are translated ‘blessings’ and ‘love’. This is the only place in the OT that the verb ‘pursue’ is used of good things. Usually one’s enemies pursue with intent to harm. So it is reassuring that the Lord pursues his own with blessings and love. Line b, reflects the custom of the Middle East, which allows a guest to stay in the home of his host for an extended time. Here Yahweh is seen as the one who hosts his people permanently.


Stay tuned! There’s more to come in subsequent posts.

5 thoughts on “Poetic translation of Psalms, guest post by Brenda Boerger

  1. Dru Brooke-Taylor says:

    I’m interested, as over the last few years, I’ve been doing something similar. All 150 + some key canticles are now on the website for the Bristol Diocese in England under ‘Worship and Liturgy’, where people can download them in pdf format. There’s also a preface, compulsory reading, that explains something of the background, philosophy etc. I don’t know if you found this, but I found that one has to take into account quite different elements as soon as one not only has to translate, but also to produce something that is singable. One even has to treat the metre itself differently according to whether one is writing to be read as poetry or sung.

    The web address is for the site itself is
    but it seems to be down this morning.

    I’m also intrigued by the reference to Welsh poetry. I don’t know Welsh but CM is a familiar English metre. Quite a lot of hymns have English and Welsh versions to the same tunes. Also, back in the days when psalms were normally sung in metre in English and when prayer books had an appendix of metrical versions at the back, the same also applied to Welsh prayer books. I think the usual version was written by Edmund Prys, Archdeacon of Merioneth. On the BBC’s Songs of Praise on Sunday evenings, it’s not that unusual for hymns to be sung with some verses in one language and some in the other.

    Some of us here would feel uncomfortable singing or reading the divine name. Do you have to make sure that it only appears in lines where ‘the LORD’ or ‘O LORD’ also scan?

    By the way, I’m fairly convinced that the standard translation found in virtually every version for Ps 131:2 is wrong. I feel slightly embarrassed saying this, as I’m no expert on the original languages, but it seems to me to be paediatric nonsense. For what it’s worth, my own version is
    ” But like a satïäted child ~ upon its mother’s breast
    So I have stilled and set my soul ~ in silence and in rest.”

  2. Brenda Boerger says:

    Hello Dru,

    Nice to know someone else is working with a similar goal.

    I’ve bookmarked the Bristol Diocese website to look at further later.

    I found the 24? Welsh forms in the following book, written by my poetry prof (now retired) at SUNY Oswego (NY). It was my main source of forms and he gave me his permission to cite him in the glossary of my book, where each form is briefly explained.

    Turco, Lewis. 2000. The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics. Third Edition. University Press of New England: USA.

    I think you’re on the right track with 131:2. My own for verses 2-3 reads:

    2 Instead deep down my soul’s at rest –
    Weaned child with head on mother’s breast.
    My heart’s content right to the core.
    3 So Israel, keep faith in the Lord.

    You’ll see I kept “weaned” but the head is “on” rather than “at” the breast, which I think was your concern–weaned children don’t nurse.


  3. Brenda Boerger says:


    Thank you for your comments and your email.

    Many of the 24? Welsh forms have been borrowed into English. My main reference for poetic forms was the following, written by my undergrad poetry professor at SUNY Oswego (NY), who is now retired.

    Turco, Lewis. 2000. The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics. Third Edition. University Press of New England: USA.

    Not being as close to them as you are, I have not been able to find as many Welsh tunes as I’d like.

  4. Dru Brooke-Taylor says:

    Hello Brenda again,

    My real issue with the usual translations of Ps 131 is that I’m not convinced the Hebrew word behind ‘weaned’ automatically means that. I’m no expert at all, but in dictionaries, the underlying word appears to have the idea of ‘completion’. Hence ‘wean’ because that means when the baby ceases to need suckling and moves on to mush and solid food. But the visual image here looks to me much more like a baby who is still suckling but is full, has finished (i.e. completed) and goes to sleep in deep and satisfied security on the mother’s breast.

    Besides, if in those times babies were suckled for much longer than the 3-6 months that is more usual these days, a weaned child would have been a toddler at least, as 1 Sam 1:24.

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