Review: The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary

The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary
The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary by Robert Alter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If I must judge this book in terms of quality, I can only say that it is the best worst translation of the Books of Psalms I have yet encountered.

It is the worst because it seems that Alter intentionally — even gleefully — goes out of his way to render some of the best known passages in a way that makes them anywhere from slightly different to altogether unrecognizable. His favorite targets for “correction” are any verses that Christians have traditionally pointed to as Messianic and/or Eucharistic. There is hardly a verse of this sort that is not the target of Alter’s alterations.

One particularly atrocious example is Alter’s translation of Psalm 2:12. Where nearly all English translations of this verse have something like “kiss the son lest he be angry and you be lost,” Alter renders the verse entirely differently: “with purity be armed, / lest He rage and you be lost on the way.” His justifies this innovation with a lengthy footnote that amounts to saying that his worldview cannot handle the verse as it lays so he has chosen to alter the Hebrew word bar (son) to bor (purity) and depart from what even he refers to as “the usual sense of the verb nashqu” (to kiss) to an infrequently used meaning of “to bear arms.” The result is what even he admits is “an idiom … not otherwise attested to in the Bible.” In short, he’s altered, gone with a minority use of a word, and created an idiom that doesn’t exist, all to avoid the obvious translation of the text because it shakes up his assumptions. Further examples are unnecessary to this review, but rampant throughout the text.

The positive side of the book, and why I say it is “the best” (in a sense), is also because it is, as can be seen from the example above, often so different from what we are used to. This difference forces the reader to slow down and look deeper. It forces us to reevaluate the text and our preconceived notions of it. I just wish Alter had more frequently reevaluated his preconceived notions of it.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in an alternative perspective on the Book of Psalms and the opportunity to get to know it a little deeper. If you do decide to read it, I highly recommend reading this translation alongside at least one or two others, such as those offered by the Orthodox Study Bible (which relies on the Septuagint to the exclusion of the Masoretic) and, of course, the poetic and influential King James Version. With these alternatives side-by-side, one is given the opportunity to delve with much greater clarity and depth into these 150 wonderful poetic expressions of the human experience.

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