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Eliot Weinberger on a new translation of the Psalms

The full article is more than worth reading, but I just wanted to share an extract from Eliot Weinberger’s review of Robert Alter’s 2007 translation of the Psalms. Alter puportedly wanted to strip away the anachronous Christian-isms of the King James version, and go back to the original Hebrew weltanschauung it encapsulates.

The following paragraph is so insightful and incisive that I feel it is worth reproducing whole, not least because it also illustrates many of the core issues involved in translating between radically disparate languages:

His de-Christianisation is largely in the avoidance of frequent King James terms such as ‘salvation’, ‘soul’, ‘mercy’, ‘sin’ and its sister, ‘iniquity’. He translates the KJ line ‘my soul thirsteth for thee’ (63) as ‘My throat thirsts for You,’ explaining in the introduction that although the Hebrew word nefesh ‘means “life breath” and, by extension, “life” or “essential being” . . . by metonymy, it is also a term for the throat (the passage through which the breath travels)’ – a translation, in other words, more literal than the original. Elsewhere, ‘my soul’ becomes ‘my being’, or sometimes merely ‘I’. For ‘sin’ he prefers ‘offence’; for ‘mercy’, ‘kindness’. For ‘iniquity’ he often chooses ‘mischief’, which, in American English, is more likely to be associated with frat-boy pranks on Halloween than treachery in the desert. Thus the KJ ‘they cast iniquity upon me’ (55) becomes ‘they bring mischief down upon me’ and the KJ ‘Iniquities prevail against me’ (65) becomes ‘My deeds of mischief are too much for me.’ The strangest choice of all is the replacement of the often reiterated ‘salvation’ and its cognates with ‘rescue’ (the noun), in ways that seem to have no connection with English as it is spoken: ‘rescue is the Lord’s’ (3) or ‘the cup of rescue I lift’ (116) or the KJ ‘A horse is a vain thing for safety’ (33), which becomes the incomprehensible ‘The horse is a lie for rescue.’

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