Darmstadt Haggadah illuminated manuscript page with drawings and Hebrew text

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Making Peace with Imperfection

Translating the Psalms involves wrestling with questions of meaning.

Darmstadt Haggadah. Wikimedia Commons, CC-PD

By Pamela Greenberg

For Jews and Christians around the world, the Psalms stand at the muddy heart of religious life. They are the words we turn to when somebody we love dies, or that we read in the dark when we feel most afraid or alone. They, along with the prophetic writings, arise during times of struggles for justice, and erupt in equal measure when we find ourselves overflowing with thanks. They were chanted in the ancient Israelite Temple, and their words make up the fertile soil of Jewish and Christian devotion. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote an essay in which he upholds prayer as urgent and necessary, a “home for the soul.” He quotes, unsurprisingly, from the Psalms. After being imprisoned by the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to his parents saying that he read the Psalms every day. Marianne Robinson draws heavily upon them in her book Gilead. One can see why they are so powerful to so many. Their language is rife with wonder at the beauty of existence, but also overflows with anguish and protest, offering a way of speaking to the continuum of human existence. In the honesty of their address to God, the Psalms give us a paradigm for holy speech, a poetic expression of gratitude and longing.

The clear and lucid voice of those ancient poems speaks with the voice of what Franz Kafka says literature should be, “an axe to smash the frozen sea of the heart.” But for those of us who are both scholars and religious practitioners, the Psalms can be thorny. To begin with, we are confronted with the delicate question of how exactly to think about them. Are they divinely inspired, or do they stand as human creations, poetry directed toward God?

That question has caused theologians and commentators to engage in all manner of linguistic acrobatics. Thomas Merton, for instance, writes on one page that “the Psalms are the songs of men who knew who God was,” but on the next page, he states that “The Psalms are . . . the revealed word of God, . . . the words which God Himself has indicated to be those which He likes to hear from us”—two very different conceptions of the Psalms and their origins. The same kinds of acrobatics are found in Jewish sources. Saadia Gaon divides the Psalms into five books, just like the Torah, and sees them as containing primarily instruction to David from God. But Abraham Ibn Ezra affirms the Psalms as sacred poetry, sidestepping the question of divine origins.

The question of divine inspiration versus human creation is not purely academic. It influences the very way we think about and approach the Psalms. If we see them as originating from God, as divinely inspired, we probably feel more constrained to literal word-for-word translations. If we see them as human creations addressed to God, we are more likely to see them as poetry and prayer. Questions of authorship are silent issues lurking behind all biblical translation, but in biblical poetry such as the Psalms or the Song of Songs, the question of divine speech versus human utterance becomes particularly complex. Nowhere, perhaps, is the struggle over text and how to interpret it so present.

The potpourri of thinking about the Psalms can easily draw us into a swamp of theological and religious confusion. Some have constructed a false dichotomy of choosing between an allegiance to God and an allegiance to poetry. Others have accused those who have translated creatively of a lack of academic rigor. To me, as a translator of these verses, as a person who has prayed the Psalms, and as a poet who has wrestled with their language for some time, sorting out competing claims was not easy. I felt compelled to take the Psalms seriously as biblical text, but I wanted to wrestle fearlessly and honestly with them as lived and human language. And that, it seems to me, is what we are called upon to do. The Psalms are both poetry and scripture, prayer and holy speech. By discussing some of the issues I encountered in my recent translation of the Psalms, I hope to uncover some useful issues concerning translation of biblical text and, in particular, of biblical poetry.

My own journey toward the Psalms began through a combination of happenstance and mystery. When I first started reading the Psalms, I knew no Hebrew and was just beginning to set forth on my own complicated (and often comic) religious journey. I was propelled by my own spiritual need, a sharp hunger to believe in a God that upheld me. My longing was intense. I felt convinced that without a belief in God, I would not survive. Like many before me, I turned to the Psalms as a way of learning how to talk to God. Partly in order to read them, I began teaching myself Hebrew. Because of the emotional intensity with which I encountered them, along with the fact that I was still stumbling over language, my first attempts at translation involved a fairly loose poetic engagement with the text. When elements spoke to me strongly, my own poetic inclination took over. I used creative imagery and metaphors to render what I felt to be the emotion of the original. Later, as I embarked on a master’s program in Jewish studies, and perhaps with a nervous eye for “what the scholars would think,” I arrived at a more deliberate, literal, and admittedly drier rendition of the text. Finally, I came to peace with the fact that although I wanted to remain loyal to the original text, the Psalms were essentially prayers.To render them in a way that ignored this aspect undermined, in a sense, my understanding of the Holy Name. The translation itself settled into what it had been from the beginning: a spiritual practice, a poetic quest, and prayer.

Other influences were at work while I was working on the translation. During this time, I spent a year in rabbinical school and worked as a chaplain at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston. When I encountered the many nuances and varieties of suffering—the woman who was in the hospital with leukemia from the day she gave birth to her son, another woman dying of breast cancer in her early forties, the man facing amputation the next day—it became clear to me that the Psalms need to resonate at least as much for the woman in an isolation unit, facing her own mortality, as for those scholars who want to debate the meaning and origins of a given word.

Besides my own allegiance to the text, then, I wanted to create something poetic that spoke to the needs of spiritual seekers—the heartbroken, the lonely, and the afraid. I wrestled with questions of meaning, not just with nitty-gritty questions of language and grammar. I wanted to make the translation meaningful to people struggling to live a life of faith. More than anything, I wanted to recreate for the reader the experience of prayer. And so I arrived at lines like these from Psalm 6:

Be gentle, my Physician, for I am feeble.
Heal me, for my bones shudder with terror.

My soul multiplies terrors—
and you, God, how long must I wait?

Poetry is the clearest and most concise way we have of expressing emotion, and I tried to bring my own poetic sensibilities to the English, asking questions as I went along about what the language could mean in context, and more particularly about what it might mean to those of us praying it. This meant, among other things, that I did not always translate the same word in the same way. Psalms 103 and 104 both begin with the same lines in Hebrew, Barkhi nafshi et Adonai, which in a simple rendering might mean “Bless, oh my soul [or life], God.” But I questioned what it might mean to “bless” God. Certainly one could translate the word as “praise,” but that word didn’t seem to do justice to the emotion of the psalm. I arrived, then, in Psalm 103 at “Be wild, my soul, for the Source of Wonder,” and in Psalm 104, “Stand in wonder, my soul, before the Eternal.” True, this obscures the parallel for the reader, but I had the luxury of translating a text that has been translated into English many times. Conveying the power of each individual psalm felt more important than elucidating parallels.

The Psalms are a far cry from pious, if by pious we mean spiritually perfected. They speak from the truth of human experience, not from the heights of what ought to be.

Choosing the right word was never easy. At a reading I gave at the Jewish Theological Seminary, an eminent scholar criticized my use of the word “soul,” admonishing me with what I already knew—that there is no sense of the separation of body and soul in ancient Hebrew. Such division is essentially a Greek concept, and not part of the ancient Semitic worldview. On one level he was absolutely right. But I chose the word “soul” for another reason, because in our modern idiom there is no other word that connotes that part of ourselves standing in relation to God. No other word equally connotes soulfulness, a state of spiritual yearning.

You might notice another aspect of my translation of Psalms 103 and 104. Though the Hebrew is the same in both psalms, the language used to refer to God is different. Because I came to see the Psalms as standing both as poems and prayers, and because picturing God as masculine is an obstacle in prayer for so many, I decided—with a strong nudge from my editor—to refer to the divine in ways that were neither masculine nor feminine. I embarked upon this journey with no small amount of trepidation. The past examples I witnessed of such translations always sounded painful and clumsy to my ear—phrasing like “God is good to God’s people.” In order to avoid such traffic jams of the tongue, I arrived at two main strategies. The first was to use the second-person address toward God, a fitting strategy for the Psalms, given that so many already address God directly. But when context made such an approach impossible, I came up with names for God according to the meaning of the Hebrew or the context of a given psalm. To my surprise, rendering the Psalms as gender-neutral was not as painful as I had thought it would be, and offered creative opportunities to arrive at evocative names and attributes for God. For some people, though, that is still fiddling too much with the text. Ultimately, in this issue and others, I settled on a preference for poetic power over word-for-word literalism.

Because the Psalms are also prayers, and in many ways serve as the prototype for prayer in Jewish and Christian contexts, I felt an urge to convey them in ways that felt prayerful. Prayerful, however, is different from pious. The Psalms are a far cry from pious, if by pious we mean spiritually perfected. They speak from the truth of human experience, not from the heights of what ought to be. They certainly do not speak from the realms of theology. They arise often out of a sense of estrangement from God, an attempt to recapture the light of God in a fractured world. They are full of tension, replete with despair.

They are not always easy to stomach, theologically speaking. Often, for instance, the vision of the suffering of the enemy brings downright pleasure. Take Psalm 35:

Their road will be dark and slippery,
with an angel of God in close pursuit.

For without cause they have hidden a trap for me.
For no reason they have dug snares for my soul.

May the dark of devastation come upon them suddenly.

And the trap that is hidden,
may it tangle around their legs,
bringing them down into utter dark.

My soul will exult in the Holy One. . . .

I did not feel a need to prettify such emotion. Desire for revenge and visions of the enemy’s destruction are a deeply human, if perhaps not spiritually perfect, response. I was also keenly aware of the long tradition of rendering the enemy in metaphorical ways to refer to things like economic injustice, racism, and addiction. Most of the time, I was content to let the anger of the Psalms stand, allowing the reader to interpret the concept of “enemy” or obstructer in the way that seemed most personally useful.

On the other hand, people have used the Psalms for inspiration and guidance, often in confused ways. The oyev and rasha (traditionally translated as “enemy” or “evil one”) make frequent appearances in the Psalms, sometimes dark and anonymous, sometimes named. I wrestled with traditional translations of such words because of their associations. In particular, I tended to steer away from a translation of the rasha as “evil,” partly out of a sense that the word in Hebrew is tied to actions, not character, and partly because religious literature has been used all too often to demonize the other.

But how was I to deal with the most problematic words or verses? Jewish thought in the early centuries of the Common Era offers two different answers to the question about how to interpret scriptural text. One answer is the Mishnah, the rabbinic attempt to create from the Torah a series of divinely ordained laws about how people should live. The Mishnah involved an attempt to make the biblical prescriptions relevant to what was then contemporary life. It certainly did not limit itself to a literal reading of the text, but neither was it a radically creative reinterpretation. The second approach, which came soon afterwards, was midrash, a word whose root means “to seek.” It approached the text in a different way, attempting to draw from the stories theological insights and religious truths, to create new narratives to fill in the spaces of the received holy text, to create a searching religious sensibility, an air of holiness, a way of thinking about God.

I struggled, in particular, with psalms like Psalm 137. Growing up as a secular Jew, I knew it first through its reggae version written by the Melodians and popularized by Bob Marley. There, the rhythm obscured the sadness of the opening verses from me, but the song also left out the even more difficult ending. The last lines of that psalm seem, when read literally, to declare the praiseworthiness of the one who smashes Babylonian infants against a rock. If the psalm had simply expressed an urge for revenge, I would not have been quite so disturbed. But the fact that this was not only a poem but a prayer, and that it declared a person who committed such violence ashrei—meaning “happy” or “content”—gave me pause. I had my own two-year-old son, and simply could not render such a line at face value. So I wound up doing what Jews have done for thousands of years: I wrestled with finding a way to hold on to the meaning of the text and to reinterpret it in a way that seemed more spiritually useful.

I felt it important to hold on to the anger and the wish for revenge, but I wanted to emphasize a different aspect. And so instead of praise for those who smashed children against rocks, I arrived at this: “One day, you, too, will see your brightest future shattered against a rock.” I converted “children” into a metaphor for what they represent: our hopes and dreams, one aspect of existence that gives brightness to our lives. But instead of declaring the act praiseworthy, I rendered the line in a way that is more truthful to human experience. Suffering in some form comes to us all. Those who inflict it most cruelly tend to think themselves to be invulnerable, but of course they are not. It was this truth that I wanted to emphasize.

Such an approach to translation occasionally put me at odds with scholars and writers, some of whom got downright apoplectic at anything other than a fixed allegiance to what they believe to be the literal, original meaning of the text. And though I understand such a reaction, and even have sympathy with these defenders of the so-called literal, I also made peace with my rendition of the Psalms as prayer. I see myself as part of a long tradition of personal and creative engagement with the text.

Some difficulties I encountered in translation, though, were purely practical. When reading most scholarly translations of the Psalms, you will encounter again and again the phrase “meaning of Hebrew uncertain.” This is because the very language of the Psalms, as with much of poetry, often defies easy interpretation. In the case of the Psalms, the language is either from a dialect of Hebrew that scholars no longer understand, or has been corrupted in the process of transmission. Many translators have decided to let such ambiguous passages stand, even if they don’t seem to make much sense in context. It seemed to me, however, that if part of my goal was to create a feeling of prayer, I needed to create a unified whole. And so I was compelled to wrestle with the question of what the language seemed to mean, as I did while praying them.

Psalm 39 is an example of a psalm in which the ending remains unclear. In the context of the psalm, I arrived at the following translation, a heartbreaking expression of alienation from God.1 Here is the line in context:

You gnaw away like a moth
everything in which we find delight.

And so it is futile, all human beliefs—Selah.

Hear my prayer, God.
Turn your ears toward my cry for help.

Do not deafen yourself to the voice of my tears.
Because a stranger I am with you,
a sojourner like my fathers before.

Turn your gaze from me,
that I may rekindle contentment,
before I walk away and converse with you no more.

Taking the text as both scripture and prayer meant that translation questions became religious questions. I prayed about some issues, literally putting on a tallis and tefillin while typing on my computer. The resulting translation is quite literal, often to the point of trying to coax out the layered meaning of Hebrew roots and researching nuances of etymology. An example of this is the root rechem, meaning in one form “compassion” and in another “womb.” In Psalm 18, the speaker uses a form of this verb, addressed to God. But what could it mean to have compassion for God? I could understand that emotion in some contexts, but not in the context of the psalm. And so, in order to bring out fully what seemed to be the meaning of the original, I have this:

I will love you the way a mother loves
her womb’s child.

The love, then, is understood as unconditional.

At the same time, I wanted to take nothing for granted. I questioned even traditional and familiar renderings of words like mitzvot, a word that has almost universally been translated simply as “commandments,” or sometimes as “law.” This kind of reductionist understanding has contributed to supersessionist ideology, and I never felt that such a translation captured what the word means in a Jewish context. For Jews, mitzvot are nothing short of the meeting place between heaven and earth. Ideally, mitzvot are infused with love, not reluctant foot-shuffling obligation. And so I wrestled with the question of how to translate the concept. Sometimes I arrived at wording like “the things God asks us to do” or “God’s will.” These phrases seemed better, but at times it was difficult to arrive at a truly adequate word or phrase.

Making peace with imperfection is a necessity for all translation, but becomes particularly acute when we are talking about biblical prayer, where so much seems to be at stake. On the one hand, I felt a religious obligation and compulsion to “get it right,” and on the other, “getting it right” was sometimes like trying to grab hold of a slippery eel. The words themselves are difficult enough. But I was also engaging with the Psalms as prayer, a dynamic and transformative process, so my understanding of them changed every time I prayed them. Even now, I find myself reading them slightly differently, or emphasizing distinct aspects as I pray them in the Hebrew. This is, perhaps, an issue particular to biblical poetry. I could only hope that whatever I came up with would somehow be sufficient. I kept in mind Leonard Cohen’s famous lyrics from “Anthem”:

Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

And so I made what, at times, was an uneasy peace. Poetry and scripture. Midrash and prayer. These days I feel comfortable with my choice of emphasizing the human dimension of poetry, but in some ways the dilemmas I faced go to the heart of religious life. We do the best we can sorting out competing claims. The lines we draw can always only be our best and most approximate guesses. We try to be honest. We try to respect the text while searching fearlessly for its meaning and relevance. And we look in the cracks for the light.

Notes:

  1. Notes to this and other translation decisions can be found at www.thecompletepsalms.com.

Pamela Greenberg is a writer, poet, and translator. Her translation of the Psalms, The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation, appeared in April 2010 from Bloomsbury.

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