Wayne Leman has done a great service by working through my translation of Psalm 51 and noting problematic aspects as he sees them. It is highly instructive to think through issues of translation calmly and constructively. Wayne’s comments provide an excellent jumping-off point for doing so.
In this post, I record Wayne’s observations on my translation of Psalm 51:3-5 and respond as best I know how. My purpose is not to resolve issues so much as to pose the right questions and suggest a path or paths by which the questions might be explored.
3 Favor me, God, in your kindness,
in your great mercy
erase my crimes.
W’s comment re “in your kindness” and “in your great mercy”: I suggest this is not literary English, but, rather syntactic transliteration from the biblical language. English does not naturally use "in ___" phrases like this, as far as I know.
My response: REB, NAB, NJB, and Kugel all translate with "in ___" phrases here. I follow their example. But that doesn’t settle the question. What is needed is a tagged and searchable database of literary English against which the question might be probed.
W’s comment re “erase my crimes”: I don't think crimes can be erased in English. A record of crimes can, however, be erased. We cannot erase something which has already been done.
My response: “erase my/your crime/s” is acceptable English. Google them and you will discover I am not inventing an idiom. I did so only after Wayne sowed a seed of doubt in my mind, and I discovered that Barbara Elison Rosenblit translates Psalm 51 here just as I have. Her entire translation of the psalm is worth looking at. But the following point needs to be made: if an idiom turns out to occur only in religious language, that is one thing. If it is used in a variety of contexts, that is another. It turns out that the idiom under consideration is not restricted to religious use, but also occurs in secular song lyrics, political journalism, and novels. That makes it all the more usable in a translation of Psalm 51. Let me reformulate the assertion as a question: if an idiom occurs across a wide swath of genres in the target language, and constitutes a dynamic equivalent to its counterpart in the source language, does that make it a good candidate for use in translation?
4 Wash me clean of my misdeed,
purify me of my offense.
5 My crimes I know,
my offense is ever before me.
W’s comment re “ever before me”: Hebraism; not natural literary English; natural literary English would be more like: "I continually remember my offense."
My response: “ever before me” IS a biblish phrase, going back to KJV at the latest. It is fun to google it and see how it has nonetheless entered the bloodstream of literary English. In my view, it has become natural literary English. Let me reformulate this assertion as a question: how deeply embedded must a biblish phrase become in English literature before it is deemed natural literary English?