Psalm 22 (23): A Poor Attempt at an Idiomatic Translation of the Church’s Text

Biblioblogdom is abuzz once again with talk of idiomatic and literary translations of Scripture, and this most recent round has been aptly summarized by ElShaddai Edwards. I don’t generally contribute to these discussions, but I recently remembered a translational exercise I undertook about a year ago in which I attempted to produce idiomatic English translations of the ecclesiastical Greek text of several Psalms. (It goes without saying that these are not meant for use in public worship, but they grew out of my frustration with the translation of the ecclesiastical Psalter more commonly in use among English-speaking Orthodox, the Psalter According to the Seventy, which is basically incomprehensible at many points.) I’ve decided to post one of my translation drafts from time to time in order to gather input on translation theory and practice from others who might be interested to give it. My goal in this exercise was to render each Psalm coherently in contemporary, idiomatic English, taking liberties where necessary, but bearing in mind that form also can communicate meaning (and sometimes quite clearly!). But naturally, I have my limitationsas you might imagine, my Spanish substratum threatened to make the whole exercise an utter failure at every turn!I’ll start this week with Psalm 22 (23). The ecclesiatical Greek text is given below, followed by my draft. For Rahlfs’ (semi-)critical text, which differs from the ecclesiastical text in some rather minor ways, see here. For the Hebrew text, along with a fresh translation into English and a very helpful supporting bibliography, see John Hobbins’ recent post. I have followed here John’s arrangement of the Psalm for practical reasonsin particular, to facilitate synoptic comparison.

ΨΑΛΜΟΣ ΚΒ´
Ψαλμὸς τῷ Δαυΐδ.

Κύριος ποιμαίνει με,
   καὶ οὐδέν με ὑστερήσει.
Εἰς τόπον χλόης, ἐκεῖ με κατεσκήνωσεν.
   ἐπὶ ὕδατος ἀναπαύσεως ἐξέθρεψέ με.
      Τὴν ψυχήν μου ἐπέστρεψεν,
ὡδήγησέ με ἐπὶ τρίβους δικαιοσύνης,
   ἕνεκεν τοῦ ὀνόματος αὐτοῦ.

Ἐὰν γὰρ καὶ πορευθῶ ἐν μέσῳ σκιᾶς θανάτου,
   οὐ φοβηθήσομαι κακά,
ὅτι σὺ μετ᾿ ἐμοῦ εἶ.
   Ἡ ῥάβδος σου καὶ ἡ βακτηρία σου
      αὗταί με παρεκάλεσαν.

Ἡτοίμασας ἐνώπιόν μου τράπεζαν,
   ἐξ ἐναντίας τῶν θλιβόντων με.
Ἐλίπανας ἐν ἐλαίῳ τὴν κεφαλήν μου,
   καὶ τὸ ποτήριόν σου μεθύσκον με ὡσεὶ κράτιστον.

Καὶ τὸ ἔλεός σου καταδιώξει με
   πάσας τὰς ἡμέρας τῆς ζωῆς μου,
καὶ τὸ κατοικεῖν με ἐν οἴκῳ Κυρίου
   εἰς μακρότητα ἡμερῶν.

PSALM 22
A Psalm concerning David.

The LORD shepherds me,
   and I will lack nothing.
He made me encamp in a verdant place,
   he reared me by refreshing waters.
      He turned my soul around,
he guided me along paths of justice
   for his name's sake.

Even if I walked amid death’s shadow,
   I would fear no evils,
because you are with me;
   your rod and your staff
      have comforted me.

You prepared a table before me
   in front of those who afflict me.
You anointed my head with oil,
   and your strong cup inebriated me.

And your mercy will pursue me
   all the days of my life,
and the LORD's house will be my dwelling
   for as long as I live.
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11 responses to “Psalm 22 (23): A Poor Attempt at an Idiomatic Translation of the Church’s Text

  1. Even if I walked amid death’s shadow,

    Is “amid” the right verb here? Amidst? I read that as “Even if I walked surrounded by death’s shadow”, yet amid seems to denote being among a plurality of things or conditions. So perhaps either “I walked amid(st) death’s shadows” or instead “I walked in/through death’s shadow” if you wanted the singular shadow. Just a thought… good stuff!

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  2. I’m going to take the easy way out here and comment generally, rather than specifically :-) First, I’ll say that I just started reading your blog, and I’m enjoying it so far.

    You describe the Psalter According to the Seventy as “basically incomprehensible at many points,” which is probably an appropriate criticism. I guess my question is, is that altogether a bad thing? After reading Kevin Edgecomb’s review of the OSB yesterday, I took another look at NETS (whose official title I love, BTW) and ended up perusing the intro, where they explain their methodology.

    Now, in general, I tend to favor more idiomatic translation (and it seems to me that with a Bible translated for a specific tradition like Orthodoxy, it should be more feasible to do that than in some other settings). But the NETS folks do make an important point about the GOT (LXX if we’re not being scrupulous). It is, in fact, a translation–and at times an absurdly literal one. Should our English translations read any better than the original would have read to a Koine Greek audience?

    I’m not saying this is necessarily a suitable justification to produce bad translation. If we’re going to be intentional about rendering the translationese of the source, we should carefully analyze in each passage just what sort of translation it was to start with. If it was translated elegantly, we should follow suit. Also, there’s a danger here in completely garbling the meaning by adding layer upon layer of overly literal translation. It would need to be done with careful attention to the (presumed) Hebrew text.

    All of which raises a follow-up question in my mind. How did the Slavonic read to its contemporary Slavs? My understanding is that it was also translationese, intended to mimic very closely the Greek, even synthesize a new language that resembled Greek in many of its features. How much does such a thing have in common with our English translations like the Psalter According to the Seventy?

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  3. I used to trust your judgment until you said your translation is a “poor attempt.” You’ve said other, richer things like “All translators are traitors, and should be tried as such.” So none of us wants your excuses or your threats of your “Spanish substratum.” None of that acquits you here. More more more, please, about your “frustration with the translation of the ecclesiastical Psalter more commonly in use among English-speaking Orthodox” and it’s basic incomprehensibility “at many points.” More more more, please, about your “liberties.” Yes you must “take” them; all of us heretics must partake of what’s “necessary, but bearing in mind that form also can communicate meaning.” More more more clarity, please, that your “quite clearly!” [English exclamation point retained] is only “sometimes[!]” [point added].

    And “draft” schmapht. Your links to somebody else’s “(semi-)critical text” and to Hobbins’ post and “Hebrew text” makes you no less responsible for following his “arrangement.” But whose “practical reasons”?

    You know I’m ranting here, green. Yes, green is the color of the neophyte, and of the jealous. But in my native Vietnamese, it’s also blue. Blue like jazz, one writer says. Have I made no sense here? We’re talking much about you:

    ¡brillante! ¡bravo!

    “refreshing” and “turned . . . around,” I quote! And then ask treacherous questions again.

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  4. Very nice, Stefan. “Your strong cup inebriated me” got me thinking: could it be so? Why haven’t I converted yet to orthodoxy? Pietersma’s translation, more literal, is interesting as well, “your cup was intoxicating like the best.”

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  5. Esteban, that’s beautiful! It’s much, much nicer than the others. It has the umami of a good translation: the indescribable quality that is a sum of its parts, and then some. Are you familiar with the Thomson translation from 1808? Yours reminded me of it, though yours is much better. Here:

    The Lord is my shepherd,
    I shall want nothing.
    In a verdant pasture, He hath fixed my abode.
    He hath fed me by gently flowing water
    and restored my soul.
    He hath led me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
    For though I walk amidst the shades of death:
    I will fear no ills, because Thou art with me;
    Thy rod and Thy staff have been my comfort.
    Thou hast spread a table before me;
    in the presence of them who afflict me.
    With oil Thou hast anointed my head;
    and Thine exhilarating cup is the very best.
    Thy mercy will surely follow me all the days of my life;
    and my dwelling shall be in the house of the Lord to length of days.

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  6. ElShaddai> I really struggled with that line because, frankly, I didn’t know how to phrase it in a way that didn’t sound clunky. “Amid death’s shadow” was the best I could come up with, and I didn’t find it very satisfactory. You’re quite right, of course, that “amid” requires either a plural or a mass noun as a complement–and as you see, I couldn’t break myself from form there, and (incorrectly) left a singular, “death’s shadows.” I played around with “deadly/deathly darkness,” which would have resolved idiomatically the genitive and complemented “amid” correctly; I can’t remember why I didn’t go with it in the end, but it’s looking mighty good to me now!

    I don’t really like either “in” (since it’s basically meaningless in a context like this) or “through” (because, to my mind, that would shift the emphasis to the action of walking, where it does not lie).

    Thanks for this–it really puts my mind to work!

    Trevor> How dare you hijack my comment area with relevant observations?! ;-)

    That the HTM Psalter (which, make no mistake, is really a fine piece of work) ends up being incomprehensible at many turns is truly a bad thing. Now, let it be known to every nation, kindred and tongue that I’m not talking about high-register vocabulary, heavily hypotactic syntax, archaic verb endings and the like. All of this quite alright by me–in fact, for a long time I used the Coverdale Psalter as an alternative to the HTM Psalter, and lately I’ve started to use Michael Asser’s LXX-KJV Psalter, about which I wrote earlier. Rather, my concern is that the meaning of many Psalms is often unnecessarily obscured by awkward word choices and syntactical infelicities (i.e., bad English). So the problem with the HTM Psalter is that at many junctures it falls short of its own goal, which is to produce a beautiful, dignified, and solemn translation in literary Jacobean English. This goal differs radically from that of the NETS, which is to produce a “translation of a translation,” that is to say, a text that reproduces in English the “translationese” feel of the Old Greek.

    But here you (quite rightly) ask: “Should our English translations read any better than the original would have read to a Koine Greek audience?” Well, of course not, if our goal is to convey how the Old Greek read to its early Hellenistic audience–but this is not the goal of a liturgical translation (as Pietersma notes in his introduction to the NETS, and in this paper on translating the Psalms). What’s more, note that the original Hellenistic audience is long gone by the time we get to our liturgical texts, which unfailingly treat their Greek Bible as an original Greek composition, incorporating its very wording into metrical hymns and other “native Greek” endeavors. For liturgical purposes, then, we should treat it likewise.

    I believe that the case of Slavonic (i.e., The True Language of The True God) has little in common with the task of biblical and liturgical translation into English. Slavonic translations started to appear at a point of great fluidity in the development of the Slavic languages, which made it possible to import wholesale the syntax of another language and have that be a formative, rather than destructive, influence. Therefore, what we have in the Slavonic books is something quite remarkable: a kind of mirror image of the Greek, but alas, in an entirely different language! (I have written a bit about that here.) Needless to say, this is far removed from the situation in which translate Greek (and Slavonic!) texts into English.

    And thanks for reading! I’m glad you’re enjoying it here so far–but don’t worry, I’ll be taking care of that in a hurry. ;-)

    Kurk> My “Spanish substratum” threatens no one but me, alas! :-) But (since you ask so insistently) it also helps me realize at the level of real personal communication (i.e., mine) that “form,” while able to communicate meaning clearly in some instances (and great to pay lip service to), can be a hindrance in others. I can say “Mi mamá me dio aliento,” which can be formally rendered as “My mom gave me breath,” but does not mean that she gave me life, but rather that she encouraged me. And so form leads us astray. But I don’t believe in dispensing with form as matter of principle. That seems to be popular these days; I just find it irritating.

    And the practical reasons are mine, of course. Why, John had such a nice arrangement of the text, so finely argued and heavily supported, that I felt that coming up with my own, just because, would have been pretentious!

    Also, no Donald Miller mentions in this blog, please. I do try to keep things clean around here. ;-)

    John> I’m telling you, you’re missing out! We’re all about inebriating strong cups. ;-)

    Is that quotation from Pieterma’s Comparative Psalter? Interestingly, his final text in the NETS was “and your cup was supremely intoxicating.” I take the ὡσεὶ κράτιστον to describe the cup rather than the intoxication–“strong cup,” that is, the best stuff. And because it is the best it “gladdens a human heart” (cfr. Psalm 103:15, LXX), saturating it and bringing it to the point of inebriation, intoxication (the meaning of μεθύσκω). Anyway, that’s what lies behind my “and your strong cup inebriated me.” Your thoughts would be greatly appreciated!

    Kevin> Many thanks for your exceedingly kind words! I too am struck by the similarities between my rendering and Thomson’s; it all makes me think that maybe I haven’t deviated too much from the “true English sense.” I’m not too familiar with his translation, unfortunately, even though the reference section of the UPR library has a copy; I will try to better acquaint myself with it in the future.

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  7. What’s more, note that the original Hellenistic audience is long gone by the time we get to our liturgical texts, which unfailingly treat their Greek Bible as an original Greek composition, incorporating its very wording into metrical hymns and other “native Greek” endeavors. For liturgical purposes, then, we should treat it likewise.

    Precisely! As I understand it, they didn’t re-cast the language but simply accepted it as it stood and if anything adapted their own language to it. Isn’t there a big difference between “treating” texts as if they were written for a later linguistic and functional context and actually adapting those same texts to fit more naturally? They didn’t manipulate the Greek of the Bible to conform to their own preconceptions about what was idiomatic and contemporary–they left it as it came to them and made everything else fit it. Aren’t we in a sense getting it backward if we strive for idiomatic English translations and then promptly set them to foreign (Greek or Slavic) arrangements?

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  8. Yes, Esteban, I was quoting from Pietersma’s Comparative Psalter. It never crossed my mind that he might have revised his translation of the Psalms here and there for the subsequent edition. Now I know I will have to check both in the future.

    I would guess it’s more likely that the “ws” adjunct modifies the verb rather than the noun, but that knee-jerk reaction needs to be checked against a wide-ranging corpus of Hellenistic literature. Someday that should be possible in Logos, and might even be done now, to some extent. However, I’m easily frustrated by attempts to look into these matters in a systematic fashion.

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  9. Google reader prints your greek in very big letters!

    I really like your translation – I have not read my NETS on this one yet and will look forward to it.

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  10. Bob> The formatting of this post has been the bane of my soul! I have thought of scraping it entirely, and may just do that a little later.

    Many thanks for your comments regarding my “idiomatic rendering.” I do plan to post other Psalms (perhaps LXX 23 or LXX 115 next), and your input would be greatly appreciated!

    John> I think it quite wonderful that Pietersma has published, in fact, two LXX Psalters; I reference both versions often, and learn much from studying the differences.

    I’m really very intrigued by your “knee-jerk reaction,” and wish that the matter could be more easily researched. To my mind, the more I look at the text, the more it makes sense to me in the way I have translated it.

    Trevor> As a point of fact, while our liturgical texts treat the LXX as native Greek literature, those same texts are full of instances in which the LXX’s style was altered, smoothed over, and even subjected to periphrasis in order to give them a more natural “feel.” There was no question, of course, of changing the text of the LXX itself, as that was received from antiquity; but when our liturgical texts make use of it, they do in fact recast the LXX’s words in poetic fashion. However, you’re quite right in noting that interaction with such texts also transforms language: I have certainly experienced this in Hispanic and Black Protestant church contexts, where one can find people who speak with words taken straight out of the 1602 Reina Valera and the 1611 King James Version. It is true, then, that the language of the services was heavily influenced by the LXX, but the services still were not written in Septuagintal Greek, but rather in the best Greek style of the day, which in many cases, is that of the Atticizing “Second Sophistic.”

    I don’t believe it’s backward to attempt idiomatic (i.e., contemporary) translations of the Church’s text for personal use. If that were the case, there would be no need for translations into modern Greek, Serbian, Bulgarian, Romanian, etc., which do in fact exist and are widely used in editions actively distributed by the Local Orthodox Churches. And as for liturgical translations, once again, our English language situation is radically different from that of the Slavs in the IX century and of the Greeks at the height of the composition of liturgical hymnody. We have a long tradition of literary English to take into account (the language of the Slavs was not even written before the Cyrillomethodian mission), and our language lacks the syntactical flexibility of Greek. But thankfully we do have also a long tradition of Biblical and liturgical English, which linguistic framework should be the basis, I believe, of any and all attempts at English translation of Orthodox liturgical texts. But high, literary, and liturgical, while certainly spelling “difficult,” does in no wise mean “incomprehensible.”

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  11. More than 2000 years later, I can read it and appreciate it, in my native Greek language. Very empowering. God bless you.

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