The basic rule
of thumb of good translation, it seems to me, is to be as literal as possible
and as free as necessary. Still, it is my firm conviction that translations in
the King James tradition – I’m thinking of the KJV itself, the RSV, the NRSV, the
ESV, the NKJV, and the HCSB - are too literal in some places and too free in
Furthermore, the freshness of the original is often obscured in this translation tradition. The classical translation choices they preserve - a number of which go back to the Vulgate and/or the Septuagint – are now the exclusive patrimony of religious environments. Words like sin, iniquity, transgression, and righteousness, for example, are no longer faithful equivalents - and sometimes never were - to the Hebrew words they render.
The Hebrew words in question were used in a wide variety of contexts – political, familial, and so on. The English words used to translate them are almost exclusively churchy; they have become barriers to understanding for literate and unread interpreters alike.
The classical liturgical language of the church is a treasure in its own right, but if we wish to hear the Psalms according to the sense they had before Christianity and rabbinic Judaism appropriated them for their respective purposes, it is essential to retranslate the Psalms into literary English designed to go behind the interpretive traditions of which they are now a part.
This is not necessarily an anti-traditional move. In both Christian and Jewish tradition, streams of interpretation have diligently sought to elucidate the sense of the original even if the result was at odds with tradition. Jerome comes to mind, who sought after the hebraica veritas. Yefet ben-Ali, Ibn Ezra, and Samuele Davide Luzzatto come to mind among Jewish interpreters.
Recent translations of Psalm 51 which are traditionally anti-traditional as just defined include those of James Kugel and Robert Alter. The new translation of the Jewish Publication Society (NJPSV) which preceded them moves along the same lines. If modern philological insights suggest that a traditional understanding of the Hebrew requires revision, these translations do not hesitate to render accordingly. For an analysis of Kugel and Alter’s translations of Psalm 51:3-12, go here, here, here, and here.
My translation of Psalm 51 stands within the NJPSV-Kugel-Alter tradition, but goes its own way when it seemed better to do so. I am trying to translate Psalm 51 into what I take to be fluent literary English. I look forward to comments from readers. Where have I failed to be literary? Where have I failed to be fluent? What kind of explanatory notes might be helpful?
Here is a one page pdf of the translation.