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The Book of Psalms, Alter's Translation-- A Critical Review,
This review is from: The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (Hardcover)
Update: Jan. 2010
I wrote to Prof. Alter to inquire about any other biblical translations because, quite frankly, his translation (and, Prof. Everett Fox' translation) are some of the most exciting and intriguing books to be published in any genre. Here is Prof. Alter's response:
Dear Mr. Lawrence,
Many thanks for your enthusiastic response. The next installment of my Bible translations, the Wisdom Books (Job, Qohelet, Proverbs) will be published in October .
***** ***** *****
I've come to expect excellence from Professor Alter, especially after first reading The NY Times review of his "The Five Books of Moses" (Sept. 2004). It was a wonderful translation. I then purchased his translations of Genesis and The David Story based on (I & II Samuel), both books read like a novel. The David Story, in particular, I found to be an exceptionally vivid portrait of David, although I don't agree with Prof. Alter's conservative supposition of David's relationship with Michal and Jonathan. Minor point, but usually Alter, the intellectual, in his annotations is known to challenge orthodoxy. The Book of Psalms, although not a biographical sketch, is written in the typical Alter style.
Take for instance a troubling Psalm for translation. Psalm 2: A declaration of God's dominion.
Serve The Lord with fear/ and rejoice with trembling/Kiss The Son, lest he be angry...
Artscroll, Tehillim (2006)
Serve The Lord with awe/That you may rejoice, When there is trembling...
Worship the Lord in fear/ and exult in trembling/ With purity be armed...
The strength of Alter's writings is, indeed, by his willingness to employ by etymology and analytical reasoning (and not by tradition) to find some satisfactory conclusion. This is what separates Alter from the bunch. All of this comes to focus when Alter stops to talk about the root meaning of words and then transposes them in familiar territory.
The Lord is my light and my salvation; Whom shall I fear?
Adonai, is my light and my life. Whom shall I fear?
The Lord is my light and my rescue. Whom should I fear?
It is in these moments, that Alter's vision provokes deep thought when considering historical usage of words. Take for instance, the meaning of the word, "salvation." Here's Alter's comments:
"Salvation is the term that the translators in 1611 chose to represent the Hebrew yeshu'ah, and it has shown more than a little persistence in the various modern versions...[and] comes to designate a global process of messianic redemption. But in Psalms, this noun and its cognate verb hoshi'a are strictly directed to the here and now. Hoshi'a means to get someone out of a tight fix, to rescue him. When the tight fix involves the threat of enemies on the battlefield, yeshu'ah can mean `victory.' More commonly, both the noun and the verb indicate `rescue.'
In Hebrew, there are two words for the familiar English equivalent, "salvation." As Rabbi Avi Weiss of South Florida once commented, there is a distinct difference between what is commonly held as an understanding of the term and it's true meaning as both relates to being `saved:' Hatzalah and yeshu'ah. "Hatzalah requires no action on the part of the person being saved. Yeshu'ah, on the other hand, is the process whereby the recipient of the salvation participates in helping him or herself."
I love this book already. The book is noticeably light for a book about 500 pages. The text is black (about 14pt) with the annotations (about 12pt.) on cream colored paper and has a red placeholder that Professor Alter should have insisted on when WW Norton published "The Five Books." Anyway, differences in opinion is always a good thing: it forces you to re-think and verify what you hold to be true. This translation will definitely challenge you.