In The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary Robert Alter has published a new translation of the Book of Psalms that attempts to offer a translation that is truer to the original Hebrew. Why do we need a new translation? As Adam Kirch argues in a New Republic book review, most English translations of the Psalms take a distinctively Christian point of view that distorts the original meaning of the Psalms:
This assumption was crucial to the way King James's committee of scholars, and subsequent Christian translators, turned the Psalms into English. It guided their decisions about how to render many Hebrew terms: if the Psalms were essentially a Christian text, then it was not just legitimate but imperative to employ the Christian theological vocabulary of sin and soul and salvation. And that vocabulary, which for English readers became the very language of the Psalms, itself sanctioned the belief that the Psalmist thought in Christian concepts. Take Psalm 2, verse 7, which reads, in the King James Version: "I will declare the decree: the Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee." Elsewhere in the Psalm it is clear that the speaker of this line is a king of Israel, and that the divine power he claims is simply the ability to defeat his foes in battle: "Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel." Yet the text virtually insists that we take the "Son" to be Jesus Christ: not only is the noun capitalized, so is the pronoun, and the word "begotten" comes straight out of the Nicene Creed ("I believe ... in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God").
The translators' work of Christianizing the Psalms was not always so blatant. In Psalm 23, possibly the best known of all the King James versions, the third verse begins, "He restoreth my soul." Inevitably the phrase makes us think of resurrection, and it retroactively turns the Psalmist's imagery of "green pastures" and "still waters" into metaphors for heaven. By the time we reach the end of the poem--"and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever"--it is impossible to read "for ever" as meaning anything but "eternally," in the time-without-end of the redeemed soul.
One of the tasks that Robert Alter undertakes in his extraordinary new translation of the Psalms is to undo this Christian orientation. As he writes in his introduction, he has deliberately set out to evacuate the covert theological assumptions of the Authorized Version: "the pointed absence of 'soul' and 'salvation,'" as Alter notes, are only the most obvious signs of this program. It extends even to capitalization, as can be seen in Alter's version of Psalm 2. Where the King James Version has "Thou art my Son," leaving no doubt that the second person belongs to the Second Person of the Trinity, Alter has "You are My son," restricting the honorific capital to the speaker, God. Again, in Psalm 23, in place of "He restoreth my soul," Alter's version reads "My life He brings back": "the Hebrew nefesh," Alter explains of the noun at issue, "does not mean 'soul' but 'life breath' or 'life.'" In the same poem, Alter's Psalmist concludes by asking to live in the house of the Lord not "for ever" but "for many long days"--the true meaning of the Hebrew l'orech yamim. "The viewpoint of the poem," his note explains, "is in and of the here and now and is in no way eschatological."
The combined effect of these changes is to remove the Psalms from the Christian drama of sin and redemption, and to situate them firmly in this world. This does not mean that Alter's Psalms automatically become a more Jewish text--a point worth emphasizing, because the equation of Christianity with the transcendent and Judaism with the immanent is an old and frequently unpleasant trope of Christian apologetics.
The result of his new transaltion, according to Alter, is that the Psalms better reflect the "warrior culture" prevalent throughtout the Psalms:
It is good to have an English version of the Psalms that is liberated from this sort of interpretation. For the fact is that Alter's systematic return to the original Hebrew text leaves his Psalms estranged from the ethical language of both Judaism and Christianity. "We are all accustomed to think of Psalms, justifiably, as a religious book," he writes, "but its religious character is not the same as that of the Christian and Jewish traditions that variously evolved over the centuries after the Bible." Instead of looking forward to their "fulfillment" in some messianic antitype, Alter's Psalms look backward--to the warrior culture that produced them, obsessed with honor, shame, and revenge; and even to the polytheistic Canaanite mythology that lurked in the background of Israelite religion.
Read the entire review here.