Robert Alter. The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary. New York: Norton, 2007.
Robert Alter is well-known among biblical scholars. A number of his books and essays are valued for their attention to the artistry of biblical poetry and narrative. A select bibliography with students of ancient Hebrew poetry in mind is offered below.
Alter’s previous translation and commentary of 1-2 Samuel, Genesis, and the entire Torah showcase his gifts as a translator and exegete. His translation and commentary on the Psalms follows suit. One can hardly read a page of Alter’s translation work without noting that at this and that point the rendering he offers surpasses all previous in fidelity to the sense and poetic shape of the original.
This review has two parts. In this post I discuss aspects of Alter’s introduction to his translation and commentary. In a following post, I go on to demonstrate by way of example that no translation, not even Alter’s, should be seen as the final word on the subject. There is always more to learn.
Alter’s introduction to his translation is cursory in its first two sections (Historical Contexts and Assembling the Book). His comments nevertheless situate his work in the mainstream of historical-critical scholarship. He is careful to note that Davidic authorship of the some of the psalms cannot be ruled out, but cannot be affirmed with confidence either.
The next section, The Poetry of the Psalms, summarizes the formal system of biblical poetry. Alter, and Benjamin Harshav on whom he depends, describe, I’m convinced, a fundamentally solid working model of how ancient Hebrew poetry works.
There are prosodic issues that Alter does not adequately address. In particular, the parts or “versets” of his lines contain from two to four beats, such that his division of lines into parts sometimes seems arbitrary. Why posit a two-beat verset in one case, and a four-beat verset in another? Alter does not explain.
I argue elsewhere that enjambment is more common in ancient Hebrew poetry than usually thought. Verse Alter scans as a single 4+4 line I construe as two 2+2 lines, and I posit two part lines of 3+3 at the longest. A third verset of 2 or 3 beats may be joined to a core structure of 2+2, 3+2, 2+3, or 3+3.
When that is done, an interesting thing happens. Ancient Hebrew poetry can be shown to adhere to a length rule whereby poems and subcomponents of poems contain, as a rule, 12, 18, 22, 28, or 36 lines. If this is true, the phenomenon Alter calls interlinear parallelism turns out to be more common than usually thought.
I don’t expect my text model to catch on any time soon. I would be happy if the Harshav-Alter approach was more widely accepted. A number of other text models of ancient Hebrew poetry are well-entrenched, and those who follow them are not likely to switch horses. A majority of scholars refuse to touch the topic. More precisely, they approach the topic from a strictly intuitive point of view.
Alter goes on to comment on the Psalms’ use of figurative language. He notes that the figures the psalmists employ are traditional enough to create a sense of familiarity among its first intended users, but fresh enough to surprise and hold the attention.
In The Challenge of Translating the Psalms, Alter notes that “The various modern English versions are only occasionally eloquent and sometimes altogether flat-footed and, more often than not, arythmic” (xxix). Alter sets out to do better. He seeks to capture in some way the “terrific rhythmic compactness” of the original. This is a laudable goal. My own attempts to do likewise are in evidence on this blog.
He also chooses to reproduce examples of syntactic inversion from source to target language. This is problematic, because in 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 downranked 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.
Alter fails to take into account the complexity of ancient Hebrew poetry’s texture in this respect. The result is that he treats all cases of inversion as if they were examples of topic-fronting. Syntactic inversion is one way of signaling topic-fronting in English, so when syntactic inversion signals that in Hebrew, it is appropriate to duplicate it in English. Not so in the case of chiasm. Admittedly, sometimes chiasm can be mimicked in English without giving mixed signals to the reader. But often, the use of syntactic inversion in mimickry of an underlying chiasm gives precisely the wrong signal to the reader. It suggests a contrast in focus when there is none.
Alter strives to exclude inappropriate theological language, no matter how traditional, from his translation of the Psalms. This is absolutely necessary if the psalms are to be read on their own terms. He also seeks to maintain the concreteness of the figures in the original. Once again, this is a laudable goal, and Alter succeeds where others have failed.
In the final section of the introduction, he treats The Text of the Psalms. Here Alter is delightfully contrarian in his willingness to translate based on small-scale emendations where these seem both reasonable and necessary. But an incomprehensible text is not emended if a text-critically plausible emendation thereof does not come to mind.
In my next post, I go over an example of Alter’s translation efforts with a fine-toothed comb. But I wish to reiterate what I said at the beginning of this post: Alter’s translation surpasses all previous in terms of faithfulness to the original on many individual points. For that reason alone, the volume deserves to be on the shelf of every discerning Bible reader.
Select Bibliography of Robert Alter
The Art of Biblical Poetry"> (New York: Basic Books, 1985; Fr. trans. L'art de la poésie biblique [tr. Christine Leroy and Jean-Pierre Sonnet; Le livre et le rouleau; Bruxelles: Lessius, 2003]); “The Characteristics of Ancient Hebrew Poetry,” in The Literary Guide to the Bible (ed. Robert Alter and Frank Kermode; Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1987; Fr. trans. Encyclopédie littéraire de la Bible [tr. Pierre-Emmanuel Dauzat; Paris: Bayard, 2003]) 611-624; “Psalms,” in idem, 244-62; The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel (New York: Norton, 1999); The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (New York: Norton, 2004); The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (New York: Norton, 2007).
 The formulation of the problem is my own. Nonetheless, I wish to thank Robert Holmstedt for supplying me with forthcoming work that relates to this and related issues, in particular: “Word Order and Information Structure in Ruth and Jonah: A Generative-Typological Analysis,” Journal of Semitic Studies (forthcoming).