This is the third installment of a review of Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (New York: Norton, 2007). As noted in the first installment, Alter’s translation marks an improvement over previous translations in instance after specific instance.
Alter’s translation of Ps 6:1-4 was the object of study in the last installment. Here, Ps 1:1-2 is the focus of attention. Topics of discussion include prosody, chiasm, syntactic inversion, and translation issues.
You have to have a strong love for Hebrew and the Psalms to appreciate these posts. The first rule of pedagogy says that an effective presentation is more important than substance, and I keep ignoring that rule, don’t I? The way to make someone remember what you want to say is to wrap it in things like mystery, food, sex, and blood. Just ask the prophet Ezekiel, or any ordinary human being on the planet.
If that’s what you’re lookin’ for, wait for the next post. In memory of Rick Mansfield and Lingamish, former bloggers who must have temporarily got a life to judge from the paucity of recent posts on their respective sites, I’ve arranged all on my own for a Bible version cage match between …
James Kugel vs. Robert Alter
אַשְׁרֵי הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר
בְּתוֹרַת יהוה חֶפְצֹו
Happy the man who has not walked in the wicked’s counsel,
nor in the way of offenders has stood,
nor in the session of scoffers has sat.
But the Lord’s teaching is his desire,
and His teaching he murmurs day and night.
Happy the man
who does not walk
in the counsel of evil men,
and does not stand
in the way of offenders,
and does not sit
in the company of naysayers.
On the contrary,
his pleasure is in the Lord’s direction;
he calls his direction to mind
day and night.
The Importance of Prosody
I lay out the Hebrew and my translation in accordance with a working hypothesis that concerns the lineation of ancient Hebrew poetry. On this hypothesis, ancient Hebrew verse is characterized by “pulses” or “versets” of two to three beats occurring in “packets” of twos and threes, called “lines.” Lines on their part occur in “clusters” of twos and threes, called “strophes.”
This understanding of the prosody of ancient Hebrew verse shares a number of the assumptions that rule Alter’s approach to the prosody of ancient Hebrew prosody. Both of us, in accordance with a well-established school of thought, understand ancient Hebrew verse in terms of what prosodists call “strong-stress” meter. Both of us likewise are well-aware that ancient Hebrew poetry does not hew to a monotonous meter like the iambic pentameter familiar to students of English poetry.
But a line, from Alter’s point of view, contains 4 to 8 beats if dyadic; 6 to 12 if triadic. A line, on my hypothesis, is subject to less variation by half. If dyadic, it has a 4 to 6 beat range. If triadic, a 6 to 9 beat range.
In short, you can drive a Hummer through Alter’s definition. The text model I work with allows right of way to smaller vehicles only.
On what grounds does Alter decide to segment a text into – I continue the metaphor – stretch limousines of up to eight seats, as opposed to four, five, and six-seaters, if dyadic; and stretch vans of up to twelve seats, as opposed to six to nine-seaters, if triadic? He does not say.
Alter is not against dividing the text into short lines composed of short versets. Take Ps 69:4-5, for example:
רַבּוּ מִשַּׂעֲרוֹת רֹאשִׁי
I format the Hebrew in accordance with the lineation of Alter’s translation:
My eyes fail
from hoping for my God.
More numerous than the hairs of my head
are my unprovoked foes.
My destroyers grow strong,
my lying foes.
What I have not stolen,
should I then give back?
Ps 137:1-4 is another example of a text Alter divides into compact versets. Once again, Alter’s lineation is impeccable:
עַל נַהֲרוֹת בָּבֶל
שָׁם יָשַׁבְנוּ גַּם־בָּכִינוּ
כִּי־שָׁם שְׁאֵלוּנוּ שׁוֹבֵינוּ
שִׁירוּ־לָנוּ מִשִּׁיר צִיּוֹן
אֵיךְ נָשִׁיר אֶת־שִׁיר־יהוה
עַל אַדְמַת נֵכָר
By Babylon’s streams
there we sat, oh we wept,
when we recalled Zion.
On the poplars there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors had asked of us
words of song,
and our plunderers – rejoicing:
“Sing us from Zion’s songs.”
How can we sing a song of the Lord
on foreign soil?
On this division, enjambment and interlinear parallelisms recur with regularity.
But, in the case of Psalm 1:1-2, Alter opts for long lines. His first line, triadic, is a 15 seat stretch limousine (a seat = a strong stress)! If one opts for short lines, against which there are no obvious arguments, the interlinear parallelisms which run through the subunit are more palpable. Admittedly, my scansion of כי אם at the beginning of 1:2 as a distinct verset is audacious, but my basic point is that a subdivision of 1:1-2 into compact versets is not out of the question. The result, in fact, is a more ordered whole.
Interesting things fall out if one tests the possibility that compact versets characterize ancient Hebrew verse. A new kind of triadic line makes it appearance: the (2:2):3 line (and variations thereof). This is hardly revolutionary. It is a straightforward re-analysis of the “Siebenter” (“sevener”) of the classical German school of ancient Hebrew prosody. More significantly, 4:4 lines (and variations) are re-analyzed as pairs of lines, 2:2, followed by 2:2.
In consequence of the above, it can be shown that a length rule was operative in the composition of ancient Hebrew verse. Poems turn out to contain a set number of lines: 12, 18, 22, 28, and 36, and combinations thereof. Are you from Missouri, the “Show Me” state, and you are not taking my word for an answer? Elsewhere on this blog, you will find numerous worked examples which accord with the length rule: Isa 1:2-20; 5:1-7; 40:1-11; Lam 1; Nahum 1:2-13; Pss 2, 6, 46, 104, 111-112, 137; Song of Songs 1:2-14.
Syntactic Inversion, Topic-Fronting, and the Trope of Chiasm
Psalm 1:1-2 in the Hebrew is characterized by syntactic inversions. As I put it in the first installment in this series:
[I]n ancient Hebrew poetry, inversion occurs for two distinct reasons. Sometimes, as in ancient Hebrew prose, inversion serves to front an element of a clause or other construction in order to mark the element as the topic-in-context. Other elements of the construction are simultaneously down-ranked to the status of background information. On other occasions, inversion has another function. It is a poetic trope known as chiasm, whose function is to more tightly knit together two adjacent versets, lines, or larger prosodic units. In the latter case, a change in topic is not being signaled.
In Psalm 1:1-2, in my view, both kinds of inversion are attested. In 1:1, there is a double chiasm. In 1:2, there is a double topic-fronting. In 1:1, inversion has binding force and serves the knit the whole more closely together. In 1:2, inversion functions across the 1:1-2 subunit and serves on the pragmatic level to contrast alternative sources of direction: the counsel of evil men vs. the Lord’s direction.
My translation of תורה by direction is a bit unusual. Passages like Ps 25:12; 29:11; 86:11; and 119:35 suggests that the meaning ירה has in the Hiphil, ‘direct,’ is activated in the noun תורה in contexts which contain elements capable of triggering a construal in that sense.
In 1:1, the double chiasm has no contrastive function. Indeed, the chiasms of 1:1, if reproduced in English as Alter does, do not mislead the reader into thinking that simultaneous fronting one element and downgrading of another is going on. It just comes across unusual word order of the kind of poetry often contains. On the other hand, the contrast marked by topic-fronting across 1:1-2 as a whole does not stand out so as clearly. In fact, I would argue that the tight internal weave of 1:1, signaled by a double chiasm in the original, is best signaled in English by a concordant syntactic order of its parts.
Alter consistently translates חטאים with ‘offenders,’ a marked improvement over the traditional ‘sinners,’ which has, unlike the Hebrew, a wholly religious cast in the English language. On similar grounds, I avoid translating as ‘the wicked,’ substituting ‘evil men’ in this instance. The sequence ‘evil men’/ ‘offenders’ / ‘naysayers’ moves from the generic to the more specific. Alter translates the last term,לצים , with ‘scoffers,’ which has the advantage of literalness. ‘Naysayers,’ my translation, is an attempt to bring out the kind of scoffers referred to. They are, it seems to me, to be thought of as those quoted in Ps 3:3; 10:11, 13; 12:5; 14:1; etc.
הגה in ancient Hebrew does not, in my view, mean ‘murmur,’ though a long tradition of lexicography, on which Alter apparently depends, thinks otherwise. Attention to the paradigmatic contexts in which the verb occurs rules a meaning like ‘murmur’ out. A lion הגה’s in ancient Hebrew (‘roar,’ Isa 31:4). So does a dove (‘coo,’ Is 34:14; Ps 59:11); raging nations (‘babble,’ Ps 2:1); the praise-filled worshipper (‘recite,’ Ps 35:28); the enunciator of deceit (‘prattle,’ Job 27:4) and the enunciator of wisdom (‘recite,’ Ps 37:30). So does someone who ‘recites’ from the Torah day and night (Ps 1:2). A common semantic denominator of recursivity is discernible across the various paradigmatic contexts. Indistinct and low-volume acoustic expression are not marked by this verb.
It is not obvious how to convey הגה by a single verb in English. My translation ‘call to mind’ in 1:2 is a cop-out, though similar to the translation choices made by the ancient versions (e.g. ‘meditate’). ‘His teaching is on his lips day and night’ is an alternative translation in context, also non-literal, which captures features of the sense of the original with greater saliency.