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« Faithful translation of the Psalms: Where KJV and Robert Alter miss the mark | Main | Psalm 35:4-6: Where KJV and Robert Alter miss the mark »


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Umm, John, you can run this anyway you want.

But all you are effectively arguing is that neither the KJV nor Alter are perfect -- which I think we can all agree with. My challenge to you was to find a translation which is better.

(I just looked at the NJB translation of Psalm 35 -- well, I won't spoil your fun when you look at it yourself. Let's just say -- it's bad.)

By the way, there is no scansion in the KJV. Most KJVs with scansion use the version made by Scrivner for his Cambridge Paragraph Edition (recently revised by Norton to the New Cambridge Paragraph Edition).

By the way, my God is the Lord of hosts. Even your messiah came not to bring peace but to bring a sword.

Bob MacDonald

where does the battle-axe come from? My KJV has - draw out also the spear and stop [the way] against them that persecute me.

Also and more important - why is salvation such a bad word? I have noted people don't like it - but surely we can't leave this word even to religious abuse.


Hi Bob,

I added into the post the relevant documentation from BDB and HALOT w.r.t. battle-axe.

"Salvation" is a great word. Don't get me wrong. However, in terms of what this psalm means, apart from a Christian context, "deliverance" is better (already RSV).

If you want a translation that tilts into the Christian metanarrative, the Grail Psalter shows the way:

1 O Lord, plead my cause against my foes;
fight those who fight me.
2 Take up your buckler and shield;
arise to help me.

3 Take up the javelin and the spear
against those who pursue me.
O Lord, say to my soul:
"I am your salvation."

The Grail Psalter is the only translation - before my own - that gets the scansion right throughout this subunit. The translator-stylist clearly has an excellent poetic ear.

Note that the pregnant silence in the Hebrew created by the mere 'say to my soul' was evidently considered intolerable by the translator-poet of this Psalter. 'O Lord' is added, without support from the Hebrew, Greek, or Latin!

"Spear," of course, is important, for christological reasons related to Calvary. But axe works too - John the Baptist! If you ask me, canonical reading is a blast.



I recommend that you not rely too heavily on either KJV or Alter. Besides being imperfect, as all translations are, both mislead in ways peculiar to each. For example, KJV relies on the Septuagint and Vulgate in many instances in which so doing deforms the sense of the Hebrew. Its scansion is implicit rather than explicit, and far too dependent on the Masoretic pesuqim. Finally, its English just isn't comprehensible to lots of people nowadays. I suspect you might agree with me that no one should be allowed to get a Ph.D. in English who doesn't know the KJV backwards and forwards. But such statements are put in the "old fart" file by the powers that be today. We both know that. A fortiori, how can we expect those without graduate degrees in English literature to read KJV with understanding?

As for Robert Alter's translation, it is excellent in some ways, but it has two serious defects: (1) its penchant for syntactic translliteration means that at the intersection of semantics and syntax, it rather often misleads; (2) its obsession with concordant translation results in some very wooden translation choices.

Furthermore, there is a lot to learn from translations like NJPSV, REB, NJB, NAB, and NIV. The translation technique they employ is problematic in its own right, but no less sophisticated than that of KJV and Alter. I don't think you have ever really faced up to that. You should.

Furthermore, translations like NJPSV, unlike RSV, ESV, and NRSV, do not set themselves in the Tyndale tradition. For those of us who value the Tyndale tradition, myself included, the result is often refreshing.

In short, I think KJV is of great value to someone who loves Holy Scripture and loves literature. Translations like NJPSV and Alter, on the other hand, are of considerable value for someone who wants to understand the Psalms outside of the Christian metanarrative. If your desire is to have poetry in translation, what Alter has done, what I try to do, is no doubt a fool's errand, but not without interest. If you want to read the Psalms in worship, the Grail Psalter and NIV are not bad. There may be better liturgical translations out there: it's not my area of expertise. And so on: different horses for different courses, as Peter Kirk put it above.


Of course, one should rely on the Hebrew (although, I would point out, no living person actually fully understands the Hebrew). It is rather easy for you to make up strawman arguments and then defeat them. But that is not the challenge I gave you. Here it is again: show me an existing English translation that betters Alter.

As far as I know, the Hobbins Psalter remains unpublished. And I might add, to those who know the literature, your own theories are quite speculative -- that doesn't mean that they are wrong, but you go out on a limb more often than not.

If you say -- the best translation depends on the purpose, then here is the purpose: for serious reading by well-educated non-specialists.

Furthermore, there is a lot to learn from translations like NJPSV, REB, NJB, NAB, and NIV. The translation technique they employ is problematic in its own right, but no less sophisticated than that of KJV and Alter.

There may be something to learn from them, but you have yet to show that their translation is as sophisticated as the KJV and Alter. I'm sorry -- you may love all your children equally, but there is no reason I should adopt as an axiom that all translations are equally good. Indeed, I suggest that your position is becoming absurd -- you are the only person I have ever heard who suggests are translations are equally sophisticated.

Indeed, your own analysis above shows that Alter is closest of all the major translations (minus the "missing line" -- which I agree is a problem.)

By the way, if you analyze the whole psalm against major other translations, you'll see that Alter's work looks better and better.

Again, I repeat my challenge:

Show me a translation which is better than Alter's.


Thank you, Iyov, for your suitably dry encouragement to produce a Hobbins Psalter. I've reached a certain level of confidence with the work of translation. It will, in terms of style, look more like Alter's than do other existing translations, but in other ways, it will be closer to the style and diction of NJPSV, Kugel, and Curzon. But I haven't figured out what to include - and not to include, in the accompanying notes.

Now that you have thrown KJV under the bus - spurred, perhaps, by my reminding you that it is, after all, a Christian translation - and you are left with Alter alone, and now that you have stated the purpose: for serious reading by well-educated non-specialists - irrespective of confessional commitments or the lack of them, it goes without saying - I find it easy to answer your question:

I would recommend NJPSV + Jewish Study Bible comment over Alter's translation + his notes. That's a fair comparison: Alter's translations have never been published without accompanying notes and introduction, and for good reason.

NJPSV Psalm 35 is every bit as good as Alter's, sometimes better. Here is Psalm 35:1-3:

O Lord, strive with my adversaries,
give battle to my foes,
take up shield and buckler,
and come to my defense;
ready the spear and javelin
against my pursuers;
tell me, "I am your deliverance."

True, NJPSV practices concordant translation less than I think justifiable, but Alter errs in the literalistic wooden direction, resulting in weird stuff like "I am your rescue," "my straits bring me out," "the word of the Lord is upright": the list goes on and on. But hey, if these sorts of expressions sound fine and dandy to you, if you don't mind oddities like "unsheathe the spear to the haft," lines and words accidentally omitted, and typos like "Lord kindness" for "Lord's kindness" (plenty of examples; I've never found things like this in NJPSV Psalms, which was vetted carefully), if you like the fact that Alter often takes a completely natural syntactical arrangement in Hebrew and transposes it without change into what is in effect a completely unnatural configuration in English, well then, you should prefer Alter.

I wish I could say that Alter engages in silent emendation less than NJPSV. But I'm not sure that this is the case.

Big families are wonderful, so I want my educated non-specialist reader of the Psalms to have 7 or 8 translations to read. You want me to choose between Maimonides and Nachmanides as it were, but I honestly see no reason to do so.

If the non-specialist in question knows a language other than English, besides reading the Psalms in, say, KJV, NJPSV, and the Hobbins Psalter when it comes out, or Alter's translation shorn of mechanical errors and a few of its weirder idiosyncracies, it is an education in the best sense of the word to read the Psalms in one's second languages.

For the rest, I like my Oxford Complete Parallel Bible (NRSV, REB, NAB, and NJB) very much, as you know. Through Logos, I line up the Hebrew, LXX, Vulgate, Targum, KJV, RSV, ESV, NRSV, etc., rather often. Educated readers of the Bible could do far worse. But don't take my Jewish Study Bible away from me. In a pinch, I can do without Alter, but not that.


Oh, I have not thrown the KJV under the bus -- by the way, the KJV relies particularly heavily on Jewish interpretation -- but that's another story. The KJV, in fact, is the most literal of the widely used translations on many levels.

Before I reply with a devastatingb rebuttal, let me ask you three more questions:

(1) If you had to rely on a translation without annotations (just ordinary translation notes), would you still maintain that the NJPS was better translation than Alter? (E.g., the ordinary translation notes of the NJPS and Alter's notes shorn of his interpretive and historical comments.)

(2) Do you make this claim on the whole of the Psalms or on just these three verses (of course, we both understand that by saying the "whole of the Psalms" we do not mean that every verse in translation surpasses another, but taken as a whole, one version surpasses another)?

(3) Finally, since you advice people to read multiple translations, pray tell how do you suggest that people divine meaning from conflicting translations? Majority vote?


(1) Yes, NJPSV Psalms is superior, for the reasons previously stated.

(2) Taken as a whole, all things considered, NJPSV Psalms surpasses Alter.

(3) Re: conflicting translations, and how one should go about deciding between them: the method would be the same you already use in deciding between KJV and Alter, now that you have retrieved KJV from under the bus where you threw it.

The rebuttal. I'm waiting. This sounds like fun.


You know, the "under the bus" metaphor doesn't quite work -- besides being inaccurate, it is a tired cliche after the whole Jeremiah Wright episode. But the main thing is, I'm not sure that throwing a book under a bus would damage the book. First, unlike a human being, books are small and unlikely to be struck by tires. And even if they were, books are quite robust, and are likely to survive the encounter with little damage other than tire marks. Finally, how would throwing a single KJV volume under a bus, even if it was destroyed, possibly have an impact on a book that must exist in the tens of millions of copies (if not hundreds of millions of copies)? If you want to be a translator, you'll need to come up with better metaphors than that.

The best thing about the KJV is that no one can ever accuse it of using an unfamiliar expression because, after all, tautologically, all the expressions in the KJV are, well, in the KJV and thus well-established in the English language.

As far as the rebuttal is concerned, it will come soon enough. It's taken me this long to pin you down, so you'll grant me a few days, I'm sure.

In the meanwhile, here is a snarky remark to tide you over.


The indestructible KJV! If it was good enough for Saint Paul, it's good enough for me.

In KJV territory, by your lights, all translation choices are above average. And all the women are strong. And all the men are good-looking. Your snark about Lake Wobegon recoils against you, since the Lake Wobegon effect, right under your nose, is at work in your evaluation of KJV.

As for your tremendous confidence in Alter's translation, I'm thinking you'll back down in the end. Alter himself is modest about the importance of his translation. It is not a case of false modesty. It's just how things are, and takes nothing away from the peculiar strengths of Alter's work.


How I pity you, John, because the next three years will be a living hell for you, as everyone else celebrates the 400th anniversary of ... something ...


I will celebrate too, but not by pretending that KJV provides privileged access to the grandeur or sense of the texts it translates.


Not privileged. Just the best written, and unusually faithful to the original.


That's all true.

But our knowledge of Hebrew lexicography, syntax, and prosody has improved considerably in the last four hundred years.

We also know a lot more about the ANE context of which the contents of the Bible are an expression. Many nuances in the text are known to us that could not possibly have been known to the KJV translators.

Furthermore, our understanding of how Language works, with a capital "L," is more advanced. Aspects of KJV translation technique fare poorly under the microscope of comparative linguistics and translation theory as understood today.

Finally, we are, at least potentially, heirs of the Enlightenment in a sense the KJV translators were not, with a greater sense of the extent to which earlier religious tradition, of which the contents of the Bible are esempla, differs from later religious tradition: see Kugel, though he draws the wrong conclusion.

In the end, then, a translation like NJPSV provides better access than KJV to the nuances of the texts it translates.

You will rightly note that KJV is, nonetheless, better written. That would be due to the fact that contemporary Bible scholars - to make a long story short - lack a proper classical education. That is true, generally speaking, but I don't think things are better in other language and lit specializations, or in academia generally.


You are right, we have more source texts and know more about cognate languages than the KJV translators did.

However, we also know more about psychology (and, according to you, "Language"), and I don't see you saying that Tony Kushner is a better playwright than Shakespeare, or that Allen Ginsberg is a better poet than Milton.


I could poop on Kushner and Ginsberg all day if I wanted to. I prefer, like you, to read Shakespeare and Milton.


I think "take hold" is too weak, it's more like "grasp" or "hold fast." More speculatively, your "take up" or Alter's "draw out" is more like "loose" or "launch," creating a nice antithesis.



"grasp" is better. I see that. Thank you. "Grasp hold" might be used to maintain iambism.

I admit that "loose" or "launch" is, in principle, possible. But I'd like to see a verb or two in a Semitic language with a semantic range that includes 'to empty' and 'to loose.' It sounds plausible, but I'm from the "show-me" state.


John -- Your semantic range test may be reasonable as a standard of scholarly demonstration, but it makes little sense as a literary criterion. If Palgrave were all we had of English literature, we couldn't possibly translate it by reference to the semantic range of Scandinavian royal annals and one surviving Schiller play.

That said, I think the Hebrew itself provides a pretty strong warrant for my reading (or at least a similar one). Clearly, in some verses the force of the verb l'harik has been transferred from the emptied container to the object that's been emptied or rather moved about in some emphatic fashion. Psalms 18, 43 and Cant 1, 3 both support such an interpretation, as does Gen 14,14 (the retainers are being turned out or sent in pursuit).

More directly to the point, the expression "l'harik cherev achrayhem" as it appears in Lev 26, 33, Ez 5,2 and elsewhere, can't mean to "unsheath a sword against" as in the otiose NJPS rendering. At the very least the sword is being drawn, but I think the prior examples, the context (scattering as before the wind) and the addition of the preposition all support the sense that the sword is not merely unsheathed or readied, but employed menacingly, in thorough pursuit, hence, "loosed."

If I were to speculate in earnest, I'd add that the sense of dire threat may well stem not merely from the generalized images of the drawn sword or spear, but from particular martial practices, akin perhaps to the horse opera cavalry officer's bellowed "charge" with drawn sword or to the deadly threat implicit in the expression "to draw upon" in the same tradition.



I like your style. Plus, you've given me a lot of texts from the Bible to re-read. I always appreciate that. I used to think the day would arrive when I might read a text in the miqra and not have new ideas fly onto the horizon. Alas, that day has not yet come, and I am, after all, happy that it hasn't.

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    A personal take on the faith delivered to the saints, by Bob MacDonald, whose parallel blog on the Psalms in Hebrew is a colorful and innovative experiment
  • The Sundry Times
    Gary Zimmerli's place, with comment on Bible translations and church renewal
  • Sunestauromai: living the crucified life
    by a scholar-pastor based in the Grand Canyon National Park
  • ta biblia
    blog dedicated to the New Testament and the history of Christian origins, by Giovanni Bazzana
  • Targuman
    by Christian Brady, targum specialist extraordinaire, and dean of Schreyer Honors College, Penn State University
  • Targuman
    on biblical and rabbinic literature, Christian theology, gadgetry, photography, and the odd comic, by Christian Brady, associate professor of ancient Hebrew and Jewish literature and dean of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State
  • The Biblia Hebraica Blog
    a blog about Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the history of the Ancient Near East and the classical world, Syro-Palestinian archaeology, early Judaism, early Christianity, New Testament interpretation, English Bible translations, biblical theology, religion and culture, philosophy, science fiction, and anything else relevant to the study of the Bible, by Douglas Magnum, PhD candidate, University of the Free State, South Africa
  • The Forbidden Gospels Blog
    by April DeConick, Professor of Biblical Studies, Rice University
  • The Naked Bible
    by Mike Heiser, academic editor at Logos Bible Software
  • The Reformed Reader
    by Andrew Compton, Ph.D. student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures (focus on Hebrew and Semitic Languages) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
  • The Sacred Page
    a blog written by three Catholic Ph.D.s who are professors of Scripture and Theology: Michael Barber, Brant Pitre and John Bergsma
  • The Talmud Blog
    a group blog on Talmud News, Reviews, Culture, Currents, and Criticism
  • Theological German
    a site for reading and discussing theological German, by Mark Alter
  • theoutwardquest
    seeking spirituality as an outward, not an inward quest, by David Corder
  • This Lamp
    Incisive comment on Bible translations in the archives, by Rick Mansfield
  • Thoughts on Antiquity
    By Chris Weimer and friends, posts of interest on ancient Greek and Roman topics (archive). Chris is a graduate student at the City University of New York in Classics
  • Threads from Henry's Web
    Wide-ranging comment by Henry Neufeld, educator, publisher, and author
  • Tête-à-Tête-Tête
    smart commentary by "smijer," a Unitarian-Universalist
  • Undeception
    A great blog by Mike Douglas, a graduate student in biblical studies
  • What I Learned From Aristotle
    the Judaica posts are informative (archive)
  • Bouncing into Graceland
    a delightful blog on biblical and theological themes, by Esteban Vázquez (archive)
  • Weblog
    by Justin Anthony Knapp, a fearless Wikipedian (archive)
  • Writing in the Dust
    A collection of quotes by Wesley Hill, a doctoral student in New Testament studies at Durham University (UK), and a Christian who seeks the charism of chastity
  • גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב
    by David Miller, Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism, Briercrest College & Seminary, Caronport, Saskatchewan, Canada
  • ואל-תמכר
    Buy truth and do not sell: wisdom, instruction, and understanding - a blog by Mitchell Powell, student of life at the intersection of Christ, Christianity, and Christendom
  • משלי אדם
    exploring wisdom literature, religion, and other academic pursuits, by Adam Couturier, M.A. in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)

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  • Ancient Hebrew Poetry is a weblog of John F. Hobbins. Opinions expressed herein do not reflect those of his professional affiliations. Unless otherwise indicated, the contents of Ancient Hebrew Poetry, including all text, images, and other media, are original and licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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