Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Difficulty of Psalm 90

I just posted various versions of what we call Psalm 90:1-3.  It's poetry to be sung that takes a rhetorical turn right at verse 3.  Of course, it goes on in a unique way.  And it's difficult.

This particular passage is unique for several reasons.  First, it is the one and only Psalm that the Sefer Tehillim attribute(s) to Moses.  Second, therefore, readers might expect and indeed may find in this particular text some reflections -- and even some language -- from Chumash, or Torah, attributed also to Moses.  Third, the language is gendered as are the reflections.  Forth, as noted already, there's a major turn in this Psalm 90, right at what we call verse 3.  Fifth, this makes for some interesting decisions that translators must make.  Sixth, when the first translators translate, they are back in Egypt under new domination, making a decision about which way to turn with the language of translation (i.e., whether to go with imperial Greek or playful Greek).  Seventh, when women translators translate, they are making decisions about which ways to turn with the gender(s) of the languages.  (Moses, we re-member, is birthed from a woman by women, rebirthed by a woman from the Egyptian river; the word Moses is a translated name from a woman's Egyptian into playful Hebrew.  Moses, who is remembering where he comes from in this Psalm, is its authoritative voice.)

This passage, the poem to be sung and heard in the sweetest way possible, is difficult in at least four ways.  Is the author (whoever she or he is) intending to tell, to force, to negotiate, or to transform (herself and her readers and listeners)?  Is the intent to inform, to perform, to reform, or to transform?  For us listeners and readers, is the difficulty epiphenomenal, tactical, modal, or ontological?  These are questions of the sort that Gorgias asked of Helen when he asks the difficult question of why she'd abandon the men of Greece (i.e., "(1) she obeyed the gods' commands; (2) she was carried off by force; (3) she was persuaded by speech; (4) she succumbed to love.")  These are the sorts of questions that Jesus gets his listeners listening to (i.e., when Mark's Jesus tells the parable of seed, falling by the wayside, falling on hard ground, falling among thorns, falling and dying in good soil).  So these are Jewish questions if they seem like those of a Greek sophist about a woman.  The Jewish literary critic George Steiner, when he's thinking on difficulty in poetry, asks the questions. 

(I've been thinking about some of these things while talking, again, with several people over at Better Bibles Blog.  The question that came up recently is whether a particular English translation of a particular Psalm is better than others.  One astute commenter, Theophrastus, at one point suggested the poem sounded simply saccharine but not nearly as sweet as the Tellihim.  I think, to be precise, he said something like it sounded like doggerel to him.  I agreed.  And our comments were censored, excised, without explanation or warning, by the editors of BBB.  The conversation has continued.  The best we might do now, as if with a clipped tongue or a missing hand, is to let the poet translators speak with writing that is better than the doggerel.  I'm sure, in part, that's what has motivated this post of mine here.  But I do think there are many other very good reasons to read and to listen to good translations of the Psalms.)


Bob MacDonald said...

O blessed joy that thinks in fours!!! and refuses to be better.

I love it - Mary Herbert's is stunning.

I should have cited psalm 90 in my own response to JC which I could not post for the spam words!

Lovely posts - and may you long have health from Hashem to teach and prod - with such shrewd sayings.

J. K. Gayle said...


Isn't Mary Herbert just fantastic? Thank you for reading. I've been looking for your Psalm 90 translation; would you remind us where it's posted? Thank you for your kind words to me!

Bob MacDonald said...

I see your problem in finding psalm 90. In my psalter second pass, I packaged psalm 90 with psalm 40 - weird! Here is a more recent pairing with psalm 91 from last January.

All the psalms are linked on this page.