MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
For thousands of years, the Psalms have been a powerful part of first Jewish, and then Christian liturgy. In translation, they contain some of the most memorable lines ever written in English: Yea, thou I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.
The Hebraist Robert Alter has just published a new translation of the Psalms. And among the most noteworthy absences from his version is the soul. Why Psalms with no soul and no salvation? Robert Alter says those are concepts superimposed on the ancient poems in more recent times.
Mr. ROBERT ALTER (Author, "The Book of Psalms"): The problem with Psalms, and I think with biblical poetry in general, is that there's a kind of veneer - like those thick layers of veneer that were put down on paintings in the Victorian period so you couldn't see the true colors. So we have very common Hebrew word nefesh, which means life breath. And you can hear the breathing sound, I think, in that sound nefesh. And later translations represent this as soul.
Now, for me, this is a misrepresentation because the orientation of the biblical world is very much here and now. There's no split between soul and body. And frankly, as much as this may cause discomfort to certain pious, readers, there's no notion of the survival of the soul after death.
So I scrupulously avoided soul in order not to give the wrong impression. Instead, I represented it as, sometimes, as life breath or life, often as being or even occasionally essential being. And then surprisingly, nefesh also by association, what the linguist call metonymy - when things are compared because they're contiguous with each other - nefesh also means throat or neck. And a good many times I translated that way.
SIEGEL: Now, you cite the first line of Psalm 69, which in the King James version is: Save me, oh God, for the waters are come in unto my soul - which as, you point out, it's pretty hard to figure out what that means.
Mr. ALTER: For sure. And of course, what it really is - if you read on in the Psalm - the following lines show you that it's an image of drowning, which is a common metaphor for death in the Psalms. And so what it really means is the waters have come up to my neck. And in another moment, they're going to be over my head and I will drown.
SIEGEL: Come up to my neck is a little bit less mystifying than the waters are come in unto my soul.
Mr. ALTER: Yes.
SIEGEL: Now, I want you to - well, read a psalm and tell us what you've done with it in your translation. Psalm 8.
Mr. ALTER: Okay. For the lead player on the Gittith, a David Psalm. Lord our master, how majestic your name in all the earth, whose splendor was told over the heavens. From the mouth of babes and sucklings you founded strength on account of your foes to put an end to enemy and avenger. When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you fixed firm. What is man that you should note him and the human creature that you pay him heed; and you make him little less than the gods with glory and grandeur, you crown him. You make him rule over the work of your hands. All things you set under his feet: sheep and oxen, all together, and also the beasts of the field, birds of the heavens and fish of the sea, what moves on the paths of the seas. Lord our master, how majestic your name in all the earth.
Now I guess the first thing I would say about that - and I hope listeners could pick up something of this in my reading - is that I've tried to create an English approximation of the strong rhythms of the Hebrew. Generally, a line of poetry in the Bible is made up of two parts that parallel each other. And they have approximately three - there's no rhyme - but they have approximately three accented syllables in each half of the line that answer each other. And I've tried to do that.
One of the ways you do this is to look for compact English words because the English translations tend to be much wordier than the Hebrew original. So, for example, instead of saying what is man that you should consider him - which I think a lot of translations do - I use note, a single syllable and that preserves the rhythm.
SIEGEL: Is there any particular - a verse or, for that matter, entire psalm, which in this project came clear to you in a way that it hadn't before, and just struck you in a totally different light once you were studying it for the purpose of translation?
Mr. ALTER: Well - yeah - I think, of course, they are kind of microscopic discoveries when you say, aha, that's what that metaphor is really pointing toward. But I think that what really struck me was a number of psalms which - when you look at them closely, turn out to be amazing survivals of mythological ways of thinking. So, for example, just the beginning of the first couple of lines of Psalm 82: God takes his stand in the divine assembly; in the midst of the gods, he renders judgment.
I honestly think that's what the Hebrew means, and I came to see that working on the translation; that is, you have an assembly of gods with a small G. And our God, the big guy, presides over this assembly. And in this quite amazing psalm, what God does is berate the lesser gods for not conducting their mandate to administer justice on earth because you look around and there's injustice everywhere. So, at the end of the psalm, what God says to him - to the other gods - is that He's going to demote them from their divinity - and I'll read just a few words here.
As for me, I had thought you were gods, and the sons of the most high were you all. Yet indeed, like humans you shall die, and like one of the princes, fall. You're going to be demoted to human status. You haven't done your job of administering justice.
That's an amazing thing for me and it certainly is rather different from people's preconceptions of what the psalms are like.
SIEGEL: Sounds like something that Zeus would do on top of Mount Olympus.
Mr. ALTER: Exactly. Exactly.
SIEGEL: Well, Robert Alter, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. ALTER: Oh, it's been a pleasure talking with you.
SIEGEL: Robert Alter is the translator, most recently, of "The Book of Psalms."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.