It’s not often I laugh out loud in an Italian restaurant in Lower Saxony when reading a review of a new translation of the Psalms.  For so many reasons.  However, this is precisely what I did when reading Eliot Weinberger’s review of Robert Alter’s recent effort in the London Review of Books (read the whole article free there – or even better, subscribe!).

Some of my favourite bits:

[Alter] is partial to Victorian language, perhaps in the belief that it is more ‘poetic’.  […]  [T]he famous line ‘I have been young and now am old’ (37) has been turned into A.E. Housman: ‘A lad I was, and now I am old.’

Worse, like many writing poems for the first time, he is in love with inverted syntax: the trees ‘fresh and full of sap they are’ (92); ‘they fix to the string their arrow’ (11); ‘His handiwork sky declares’ (19, better known as ‘the firmament sheweth his handywork’); ‘orphans they murder’ (94). Sometimes he merely inverts the King James phrases. ‘For I am poor and needy’ (86) becomes ‘for lowly and needy am I’; ‘The sea is his, and he made it’ (95) turns into ‘His is the sea and He made it’; or similarly, ‘Thy way is in the sea’ (77) is now ‘In the sea was Your way.’ There are inversions on nearly every page and after a while, wonder, one does, if it’s not the swamp of Yoda the Jedi Master we’re in.


The incessant inversion, combined with the predilection for possessives, leads to many examples of the kind where la plume de ma tante would become ‘My aunt’s is the pen.’ The first line of Psalm 24 is straightforward in the King James: ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.’ Alter’s line needs to be diagrammed: ‘The Lord’s is the earth and its fullness.’

He seems to have no ear for American English, from the alpha (2: ‘Why are the nations aroused,/and the peoples murmur vain things?’) to the omega (150: ‘Let all that has breath praise Yah’ – a construct rather like ‘All who is going should get on the bus’). He is oblivious to American slang, not realising that Psalm 66 (KJ: ‘Make a joyful noise unto God . . . Say unto God, how terrible art thou in thy works!’) in his version (‘Shout out to God . . . Say to God, ‘‘How awesome Your deeds”’) sounds like a Christian rock band warming up the crowd. He sometimes slips out of register: ‘The wicked man borrows and will not pay,/but the just gives free of charge’ (37). And he apparently can’t hear that the line ‘Free me, Lord, from evil folk’ (140) is best spoken in the voice of George Bush.

Inversion, the possessive, the unpronounceable and an unfortunate word-choice all converge in Psalm 18, where he transforms a dull line in the King James (‘As soon as they hear of me, they shall obey me: the strangers shall submit themselves unto me’) into: ‘At the mere ear’s report they obeyed me,/aliens cringed before me.’ There are many other lines that would cause the meek to tremble, though perhaps not aliens to cringe. Among them: ‘With their dewlaps they speak haughty words’ (17); ‘All day long I go about gloomy’ (38); […] ‘I hate committing transgressions’ (101); ‘I resemble the wilderness jackdaw’ (102); […] and, perhaps the worst of all, the anatomically perplexing ‘The wicked backslide from the very womb’ (58). But fortunately, as Edward Dahlberg once remarked, ‘there are many psalms that even the droning of a priest cannot kill.’