Friday, April 16, 2010

Pamela Greenberg Translates the Psalms

Pamela Greenberg has written The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation.  [published in its completed form, yesterday; HT Ruth Abrams at]

This may be one of the most important Bible translations in our day for several reasons.  It stands apart, in substantive ways, from previous attempts to render the ancient Hebrew poetry into English.  The publisher's blurb starts to get at some of these ways:
Traditional translations—from those of the medieval Jewish commentator Rashi to early Christian commentators to the King James version—have downplayed anger at God and reinterpreted the Psalms in ways that would be doctrinally more palatable, but which flatten the richness and subtlety of the Hebrew verse. Greenberg's translation aims to restore the poetry and vibrancy of the Psalms as a prayerful act, replicating their emotional passion while both wrestling with the text as living liturgy and remaining as true as possible to the originals.
And a reviewer at the Library Journal says:
She is, naturally, up against stiff competition—along with the committee that brought forth the Authorized Version, the likes of the Countess of Pembroke, Isaac Watts, and, more recently, biblical scholar Robert Alter. Greenberg's version speaks with a directness and simplicity that distinguishes it from the magniloquence of most other versions. 
What strikes me most about Greenberg's work -- what makes her translation entirely fresh and distinctive -- is not just the restored and vibrant poetry, or its "directness and simplicity."  (I've just posted her Psalm 2, so you can hear and see for yourself).  What is genuinely impressive in her rendering is how personal this is to her.  Greenberg lends her voice, her spiritual angst and transformation, to her renderings.  This sort of dynamic subjectivity is critical to the voices of the psalmists.

Sometimes, more often than not, translators miss this critical need.  Greenberg explains:
        Since all translation is part interpretation, bringing one’s own ideas to the psalms is inevitable. The difficulty is that allegiance to preconceived ideas of piety has often resulted in a flattening of the richness and subtle poetry of the original. For readers of English, this has been a tragic loss. It is precisely the psalms’ refusal to engage in theological piety— their overflowing into wild jubilance or anger or deeply wrenching despair— that allows them to resonate as perennial expressions of the human desire to stand simply and unabashedly before God.
She insists, “The psalms have touched people because they reflect the lived experience of religion, not neat theological doctrine.”

Greenberg explains how poetry -- but its personal, transformative power -- is so central to the psalms and to her translating of the psalms:
        My central motivation in this translation was the impulse of shiru l’Adonai shir chadash, the imperative to sing to God a new song. I wanted to render the original in such a way that it might be more useful and alive for liturgical and meditative reflection. In doing so, I wanted to find ways to struggle with the poetry and vibrancy of the original psalms while at the same time wrestling with them as pieces of living liturgy. Because my central aim was to bring the text more fully alive as an act of prayer, I did not limit myself to translating any given word in the same way each time it appears. While consistency of language is useful as a pedagogical drumbeat, awakening a reader to repetitions that might otherwise be lost, poetry was for me a higher imperative.
There is much much more to say about Greenberg's translation and her translating, but I'll just say two additional things:

First, the personal, transformative stuff of Greenberg's translating includes her work on this project with respect to her Jewishness and her gender.  Second, her translation (i.e., the physical book or digital copy) that you and I can hold in our hands and read with our eyes (and I hope many many of us will) can't easily be -- and shouldn't at all be -- separated from who Greenberg is and is becoming.

Susannah Heschel, who writes the book's forward, says that "Jewish life receives its flavor from the psalms." But she's already noted that:
       The psalms appeal to all people, regardless of religious commitments, because they strive to give voice to the human soul. Elusive and often unknowable, our souls and their passions inspire our lives and quest for religious meaning. Not under the discipline of particular theological doctrine, the psalms are free to express the religiosity that gives rise to a wide range of religious commitments, giving them a universal relevance. People of all faiths partake of their invigorating emotional music.
What's so important in this statement of the forward is that it allows us readers to hear from Greenberg some of her own story of spiritual journeying, before and now after she's encountered the psalms in the context of various ways of entering her Jewish faith.

Greenberg makes some important notes about gender, and about gendered language, in Hebrew and in English.  Her decisions as a creative writer, a poet, a reader of Hebrew, and as a translator, are just fascinating.  She is, of course, a woman who's translating without any one else's help, much less the help of a man.  And she acknowledges how important it is to hear "the psalms speak equally to either gender."  But she goes on to say:
In some instances, however, I thought the masculine pronoun important to retain. For one thing, the “he” of the psalms is often a way for the psalmist to articulate his own predicament (and yes, the overwhelming likelihood is that the psalms were written by a man or men), a dynamic of the psalms I felt it important to retain. For another, avoiding the specificity of gender sometimes made the psalm feel too abstract. Translation is always a flawed art, and a translator is always making choices about competing claims. I made such choices as best as I could.
When you read her translation of Psalm 2, you'll see how she keeps "kings" as exclusively masculine (vs. "kings and queens" or "monarchs").   You'll hear how she leaves the gender of God in your reader's mind.  And you'll note, nonetheless, how personal and interactive (and feminine) the voice of God to the singer / listener:
God said to me, You are my child.
I give birth to you each day.
(There's a short biographical blurb on Greenberg here.  And here's Heschel's Introduction, the Acknowledgments, Greenberg's story and translator methodology notes, and her translation of the first four Psalms.)

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