Poetic translation of Psalm 1, by Brenda Boerger

Psalm 1
a wisdom psalm
heroic sonnet [1]

1 The wise[2] one’s walk will show the way [3] to go—
Don’t walk your course by wicked people’s chart,
Don’t stand around with sinners on the road,
Don’t stay with those who rip our God apart!

2 For you must love the Teachings[4] of the Lord,
Absorbing lessons deep within your heart.
So murmur them when waking at first light,
Recite their verses far into the night.

3 You’ll be a tree that’s rooted near a stream.
Each branch will bear much fruit in its own time.
Your leaves will grow out lush and full and green.
You’ll prosper, for that follows God’s design.

4 Not so the wicked, for they won’t obey.
They’re just dry chaff blown at the wind’s command.

5 Now with the pure of heart they cannot stay,
For at God’s judgment they all fail to stand.

6 While Yahweh guards the path the godly walk, [5]
The wicked way is doomed, trails off to naught.

[1] 1 subtitles To give the heroic sonnet its 18 lines, verses 2-3 are expanded.

[2] 1:1  See ‘wisdom psalm’ and ‘blessed’ in the Glossary. Psalm 1 starts both Book 1, and the first half of the Psalter. See also the footnote at Psalm 73, the wisdom psalm which starts the second half of the Psalter.

[3] 1:1  POET’s alliteration in, “wise one’s walk will show the way” reflects a similar Hebrew phonological pattern, reported by Goerling, p. 5. “… ‘Fortunate is the man …’ at the front of the Psalter. The importance…is underlined by the assonances of the sibilants ašre’ haiš ašer. These poetical devices are difficult or impossible to reproduce in a receptor language. However, a translator needs to be aware of source language poetical or rhetorical devices and their function in order to at least reproduce an equivalent rhetorical effect.”

[4] 1:2,6  See Torah, YHWH, and chiasmus in the Glossary.

[5] 1:6  In Psalm 1 the change in font highlights the chiastic pattern:  walk, stand, stay (verse 1) and stay, stand, walk (verses 5, 6). Hebrew only has ‘stand’ in verses 5-6, but POET fills out the chiasmus because ‘stay’ and ‘walk’ seemed to be inherently present in the context, and chiasmus is a highly valued feature of Hebrew prose and poetry.

11 thoughts on “Poetic translation of Psalm 1, by Brenda Boerger

  1. J. K. Gayle says:

    Brenda Boerger,
    Your translation is just fantastic! What wonderful sensitivity to the Hebrew language and such an interesting and pleasing rendering into poetic English!

    Thank you for sharing!

  2. Dru Brooke-Taylor says:

    Thank you. This is most interesting. I like the alliterations. Am I right that some of the rhymes follow Gaelic rather that English conventions? Would one sing this to 4 x four line verses, in which case one is left with a half verse at the end, or 3 x six line verses. Have you got a recommendation for a tune?

  3. Brenda Boerger says:

    J.K., Dru, and Wayne–

    Thank you so much for your stimulating comments.

    The normal sonnet form is 14 lines of iambic pentameter verse, with the rhyme schemes varying depending on whether it is Shakespearean, Spencerian, Petrarchan, Sicilian, or other kinds of sonnets, some of which have variations within them. The heroic sonnet (heroic means ‘iambic pentameter’) is composed of two heroic octaves (2×8 lines) plus a heroic couplet. In Psalm 1, the first heroic octave is an ottava rima (abababcc) and the second is composed of two Sicilian quatrains (dede-fgfg), followed by the heroic couplet (hh).

    I use the following link to try to match hymn tunes with my renderings of the Psalms:

    There one can track a tune by its hymn title, the tune name, the meter, or other. For this psalm, I’d suggest any of the iambic hymns in the meter, (such as Ellingham, “Thy Kingdom come, O Father Hear Our Prayer”) used twice per octave for a total of four verses, and then repeat the music of the last two line of the hymn tune to sing the final two lines of the psalm. Or alternatively, a tune for (“doubled” and repeat the last two lines. Of the six on the website “American Hymn” fits best. I’m not familiar with the tune. The hymn set to it is “Angel of Peace.”

    On the hymn website, after checking a meter and listening to it once through there, one can go to the hymn name and listen to the same tune over and over, and thereby sing through an entire song.

    There are hymns with meter, but they break the Psalm in the middle of an abab rhyme scheme and for my taste, are therefore not to be preferred.

  4. bobmacdonald says:

    Brenda – you have taken on a very difficult job in my opinion – one I myself have shied away from. I assume you are aware of the Psalter of Sir Philip Sydney and his sister the Countess of Pembroke whose poetry shines with so much variety of rhythm. I can admire only from a distance. I have their book open here. I looked at psalm 1 next to the Hebrew here.

    Be determined and creative – I hope we hear some of the results.

  5. Dru Brooke-Taylor says:

    Oxford has recently reissued the Sidney Psalter, ISBN 978 0 19 921793 9.

    I regret I’ve tended to chicken out of replicating Hebrew verse forms, apart from the half lines pattern. It is difficult enough retaining the imagery and fitting the English metre. I also in 119 tried to ensure that I used the same English word all the way through, to translate each of the key words that are repeated through the psalm.

    I did, however, make one attempt to replicate an acrostic. I am not sure how well this really works in English – which is one of the reasons I’ve eschewed doing it again. I wanted to see whether it was worth the effort of even trying before I got to 119, and decided it wasn’t.

    This is my 111. What do you all think? As English has no corresponding distinction between the sounds of Aleph and ‘Ayin, I chose ‘a’ for one and ‘e’ for the other. I also decided that as English is used to alliteration, and used at one time to use it in stead of rhyme, English speakers won’t notice the single appearance of a sound. One has to alliterate them. Otherwise people won’t hear them at all. So each line has at least two other alliterations with the first word, one in the first half of the verse and the other in the second.

    Despite the way this is set out, it is in Common Metre, 8686 and can be sung to most of the many tunes in that metre.

    1. Alleluia with all my heart ~ I’ll thank, acclaim the Lord.
    Before the band of the righteous ~ his counsel spread abroad.

    2. Great are the works of our good Lord ~ his people to ignite
    Desired by those that delve in them ~ that in his works delight.

    3. His deeds hold honour, majesty; ~ how splendours them attend.
    While his wide righteousness shall wear ~ for ever without end.

    4. Zest for the marvels, he with zeal ~ as Zion’s Lord proclaims,
    Choosing grace, charity and love ~ as chief causes he names.

    5. To those in terror and his fear ~ he gives his tribes his food.
    You hold in mind your covenant ~ of yore that you’ve imbued.

    6. Keenly he showed his countryfolk ~ the power that his works cast.
    Lavished on them the lands of all ~ the nations, first to last.

    7. My works are just, my deeds faithful ~ the Lord makes all demur.
    Now his commandments and notions ~ are nothing else but sure.

    8. So they stand firm throughout all time ~ resolute and steadfast.
    Each done in truth and equity ~ for ever they shall last.

    9. Providing pure redemption, he ~ held his people in hand,
    Setting his covenant in stone; ~ it shall forever stand.

    10. Quake and quail at his holy name ~ which quickens as its fruit.
    Reverence for the righteous Lord ~ is wisdom’s start and root.

    11. Shrewd shall be those who understand ~ and do what he shall say.
    To all times shall his praise endure ~ and holy tribute pay.

  6. bobmacdonald says:

    Dru – nice. I delight in the play of the acrostic as Wisdom does in the last chapter of Proverbs (see this reading here from Tim’s 5 minute Bible)

    I translated all the acrostics as acrostic and I explained my rationale here. My acrostics are quite weird.

  7. Brenda Boerger says:


    Yes, I have a collection of as many versions of the Psalter as I get my hands on. Most of the older ones use archaic forms and twisted syntax, such that the meaning is obscured (to me, at least). My goal has been to err in the favor of comprehension, with occasional stretching of the reader when justified by the poetic form.

    I also translated the acrostics as acrostics, but unlike what it seems you and Dru have done in following the Hebrew, I followed the English alphabet to give English readers the flavor of what was done in Hebrew. Here’s PS 25. Not one I’m happy with yet, but it gives you an idea of how I’ve tackled them. I actually started the entire enterprise working on PS 119, partly in response to Nida’s saying in The Bible Translator 33.4:435-439 that it couldn’t be done or was folly to try. I thought surely the richness of English ought to be able to do it if any language could. And in fact, we also did in the vernacular translation I worked on in the Solomon Islands.

    Enough for this one,

    Psalm 25
    by David
    an acrostic wisdom psalm of trust
    rhymed quatrains
    Tune: “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” ( St. Denio)

    1 Almighty God, Yahweh, worship you I must—
    All I am, my Master, I lay at your feet,
    2 Because I have made you the base of my trust.
    But don’t let me falter or suffer defeat.

    Conquer adversaries so they cannot gloat.
    Creator, recall that I count on your name.
    3 Dependence on you, Lord, is what gets my vote.
    Deceitful and treacherous ones will be shamed.

    4 Enable me, Lord, to know each thing you teach.
    Equip me to follow your well laid out path.
    5 Feed me with the fundamentals that you preach—
    For it’s you who frees me, my God, when I ask.

    God, daily I count on your help to enfold.
    6 Grant me your compassionate mercy and love—
    Here are heaven’s instruments from times of old.
    Here’s help that you’ve sent down to folks from above.

    7 Instead of recording all my wickedness,
    Irrational, insolent iniquities,
    Just judge, Lord, with goodness and your gentleness.
    Join justice, faithfulness, and charity, please!

    8 King Yahweh, it’s you who are kind, good, and true,
    Kindly you teach sinners to do what is right.
    9 Let all humble people learn from what you do.
    Lead those who are lowly to live by your light.

    10 Much mercy and truth you show all those who will
    Make keeping your covenant their major aim.
    11 Now pardon the magnitude of my great guilt,
    Never ever fail, Lord, to honor your name.

    12 Only those who come to you in great respect,
    Obtain the instructions found in your decree—
    13 Placed under your providence, those you select
    Possess the land given for their progeny.

    14 Quickly the Lord Yahweh directs all those who
    Quake at his name, and conveys covenant law.
    15 Redeemer, I always rely on you to
    Remove me from peril, rescue me from wrong.

    16 So smile down your favor; don’t let it depart,
    Since I am alone here and often oppressed.
    17 Take all of the troubles that torment my heart.
    Transform all my trials, disperse my distress.

    18 Unfailingly recognize my anguish, pain.
    Utter your forgiveness for iniquity.
    19 Voracious foes venture to vanquish and gain,
    Vindictive with venom and hostility.

    20 Won’t you rescue me now from certain defeat?
    Won’t you come deliver me, my bodyguard?
    Expect me to show that my trust is extreme,
    Exhibiting dependence on who you are.

    21 Your honest integrity will keep me safe.
    You are who I yearn for; you are my desire.
    22 Oh, Zion needs Yahweh, so it can be saved.
    Oh, Zion seeks rescue from out of the fire.

  8. Brenda Boerger says:

    Dru, and everyone —

    In this article I talk about translating the acrostics, Boerger, Brenda H. 1997. Extending Translation Principles for Poetry and Biblical Acrostics. Notes on Translation 11(2):35-56. Dallas: SIL. I don’t have a link to it. That’s where I discuss the ten principles I use for translating Biblical poetry and how I applied them to PS 111, 112 and 119.

    I agree that alliteration strengthens the acrostic effect for English readers.

    In a footnote to PS 33, a commentator said that ANY 22 verse Psalm would suggest an acrostic to Hebrew readers, even if it was not itself an acrostic. So I used PS 33 to attempt a DOUBLE ACROSTIC–one in which the first and last letter of the line are identical, sequencing through the alphabet.

    Psalm 33
    a psalm of praise
    double acrostic
    Tune: “Joyful, Joyful” ( Hymn to Joy)

    1 All God’s subjects, you should praise him. Sing with joy, “Hallelu-Ya!”
    Because praise becomes the upright, Praising him should be your job.
    2 Craft your harp songs with thanksgiving, You lyre-strumming maniac.
    3 Cheer God with new compositions, Using skill no one can match.
    Dress your voices with your joy and Harmonize each worship sound.

    4 Every action shows God’s faithful. Yahweh’s words are always true.
    5 For God does what’s just & righteous, Loves us long and give us proof.
    6 God’s word made the sky-borne bodies, Crafting heaven by his song.

    7 He made storehouses of oceans, Gathering all the seas on earth.
    8 I say, you should worship Yahweh. Stand in awe of God, say I.
    9 Just think how his word created All that lies within his raj.
    10 King Yahweh sees kingdoms plotting, And confounds the foe’s attack.

    11 Lord God’s plans all stand forever, As he executes his will.
    12 Mark blessings of Jacob’s people Chosen by the great I AM.
    Needing Yahweh, and his blessings— Every woman, child and man.
    13 On high, God looks down from heaven, Knowing all we think and do.

    14 Peering down he sees all of us, Testing every people group.
    15 Quickened by God, our creator, He knows those at home or suq.
    Realizing what we’re thinking, He perceives us from afar.
    So his judgments always follow From our actions, words and thoughts.

    16 Shrewdest kings lose with battalions. Heroes, too, fall in the clash.
    17 Triumph’s not found in one’s stallions. A war horse can’t deliver that.
    18 Unrelenting, God looks after Those who say, I’ll worship you.
    Victory comes to the one who Trusts in Yahweh’s constant love.

    19 When there’s famine, God the savior Rescues from starvation’s maw.
    20 Expect God to come and help you. He’s your shield and battle ax.
    21 Yes, delighting in the master, We will trust his holy way.
    22 Zion’s hope, we wait for mercy, Which your lovingkindness sends.

  9. bobmacdonald says:

    Interesting idea making a 22 verse poem an acrostic. Yes 33 maybe should celebrate 32, but it is 34 that celebrates the two prior poems. Each acrostic has a prior poem that is significant (36 and 110 are the 2 Oracles – hence the acrostics following them). So I think 33 is a hidden acrostic if it is one at all. Besides there must not be a perfect acrostic in Book 1. It would spoil the pattern. This too is why there can be no missing nun in 145.

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