David Ker is sick of the word “ouch!” He would like to “poke someone with a stick” -that “someone” being me. I recommend David pray Psalm 35:1-3 – in my translation – with me as his persecutor. He might prepare a YouTube video with the Lord coming after me with an axe. That would be a faithful translation. I don’t like “ouch!” either. I like “shriek.” The psalms shriek. All great literature shrieks -- bringing to life the primal word from its carcass.
Below the fold, I offer Psalm 35:4-6 in Hebrew and in English translation. Two translations, while excellent in many ways - KJV and that of Robert Alter - are reviewed and found wanting. I pick on KJV and Alter because they are among the better English Psalters we have.
5 4 יֵבֹשׁוּ וְיִכָּלְמוּ מְבַקְשֵׁי נַפְשִׁי
6 יִסֹּגוּ אָחוֹר וְיַחְפְּרוּ חֹשְׁבֵי רָעָתִי
7 5 יִהְיוּ כְּמֹץ לִפְנֵי־רוּחַ וּמַלְאַךְ יְהוָה דּוֹחֶה
8 6 יְהִי־דַרְכָּם חֹשֶׁךְ וַחֲלַקְלַקּוֹת וּמַלְאַךְ יְהוָה רֹדְפָם
5 4 Let those who seek my life be shamed and disgraced;
6 let those who plan my harm fall back, and pale!
7 5 Let them be like chaff before the wind, יהוה’s angel the driver;
8 6 Let their way be dark and slippery, יהוה’s angel their pursuer!
KJV [scansion not original]
4 Let them be confounded and put to shame that seek after my soul:
Let them be turned back and brought to confusion that devise my hurt.
5 Let them be as chaff before the wind: And let the angel of the Lord chase them.
6 Let their way be dark and slippery And let the angel of the Lord persecute them.
4 Let them be shamed and disgraced,
who seek my life.
Let them retreat, be abased,
who plot harm against me.
5 Let them be like chaff before the wind,
with the Lord’s messenger driving.
6 May their way be darkness and slippery paths,
with the Lord’s messenger chasing them.
Volitive expressions in Hebrew require pre-position of the verb with explicit subject, if any, following. That is the natural word order. In English, the natural word order of volitive expressions requires the preposition of Let or May with explicit subject, if any, following, and a be x-ed phrase to cap things off at the end. KJV and Alter nevertheless transpose the Hebrew word order into English without change. In so doing, the translations replace a natural configuration in Hebrew with an unnatural configuration in English. The Hebrew and English syntactic configurations are faux amis, false friends, like English “library” and French “librairie” (bookstore). KJV and Alter’s fidelity to the syntax of the Hebrew is only apparent.
A phrase in KJV is pseudo-literal: ‘seek after my soul.’ It is not the soul of the supplicant his persecutors seek; it is his life, literally, his life-breath.
KJV ‘be turned back and brought to confusion’ is an example of over-translation. KJV over-translates relatively often. The verbs in Hebrew are not passive causatives (‘be caused to do something’). יסגו אחור is a simple passive, whereas ויחפרו, practically speaking, is a stative. KJV ‘persecute’ is another example of over-translation. The meaning of רדף is far more general: ‘pursue’ or ‘chase’ fits the bill.
KJV ‘And let the angel of the Lord chase / persecute them’ unnecessarily departs from the syntax of the Hebrew. In point of fact, KJV levels through volitives found elsewhere in context: leveling is a common smoothing technique of translators everywhere. A closer approximation to the syntax of the Hebrew in translation may have been considered unnatural by the KJV translators. These are judgment calls by definition. Alter’s translation and mine reflect the conclusion that it is possible to hew closer to the syntax of the Hebrew in this pair of instances than KJV did.
Alter breaks up the sequence of volitive Let’s with a May, but there is no contextual justification for this.
Alter’s ‘Let them retreat, be abased’ is problematic on two counts. It unnecessarily removes the conjunction, destroying a part of the parallelism with the preceding line, and it translates the verb חפר in an unprecedented way. Admittedly, it is not easy to find an English equivalent for the verb חפר. Something like ‘blanch /discolor’ is the meaning: vegetation ‘blanches /discolors’ after a drought; the moon ‘blanches /discolors’ in an apocalyptic cataclysm; a person ‘blanches /discolors’ in a moment of humiliation. “Be abashed” is a traditional rendering of חפר: has this become “be abased” by a typographical error in Alter’s translation?
Alter’s ‘plot harm against me’ unnecessarily departs from the phraseology of the Hebrew and eliminates part of the parallelism with the preceding ‘seek my life.’ KJV ‘seek after my soul’ / ‘devise my hurt’ is better on this count; better still: ‘seek my life’ / ‘plan my harm.’
Alter’s ‘with the Lord’s messenger driving’ is unusual wording, though not incomprehensible. In my judgment, “יהוה’s angel the driver” more closely hews to the syntax of the original, and is more natural in terms of diction. To be sure, it requires a skillful reader to deliver the expression well.
Ancient Hebrew lacks adjectives almost entirely and employs nouns where adjectives are natural in English. This does not deter Alter from translating nouns as nouns even if the result is odd, as in ‘May their way be darkness and slippery paths.’ KJV on its part tends to avoid such wooden expressions. If one unpacks the expression linguistically, without regard to felicitous translation, one has: ‘Let (the attributes of) their way be darkness and slippery spots.’ That is atrocious from the point of view of style; hence the more natural, less literal, “Let their way be dark and slippery” (KJV).
Psalm 35 Series