Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | January 8, 2009

Another Psaltery Thought or Two

In reading over St. Ephraim’s psalter and its better known Old Testament inspiration, I began to wonder about the course through which the rendition of the psalms into English has wandered. For example, I have long preferred the Lancelot Andrewes “King James Version” – and not just because it was part of my fifth grade memory – literally the first piece we ever memorized, but because it’s always seemed more poetic. Thomas Cranmer’s rendition in the Book of Common Prayer runs a close second… but it is this same Twenty-Third psalm where he just doesn’t quite cut the mustard. And so this seems to be where I look first at a new Bible… can I pray that twenty-third, or does it leave me feeling like I’m in typing class? The sad fact is that in some respects, the plain language movement in the Roman Catholic church left me at the side of the road thinking there just had to be more. As one priest I know complained with respect to a group he’d joined praying the hours, “They seriously can’t expect people to pray some of that language.” And though that was another time and another place, in my hubris, I concurred and put the effort aside.

But if we do care about the language we use for prayer, then many subsequent translations just seem unworthy by comparison… though in truth I haven’t done the survey work. I mean once you’ve tried the Reader’s Digest “dumb it down” approach… once… you’re through. To paraphrase James Bond, “Once is Definitely Enough.” Yet Darwin’s “Survival of the Fittest” fails to explain the proliferation of the least fit… other than that there must be something wrong with my perspective on what should survive. Imagine that. Hmmm. Well, at least initially it seemed more appropriate to think of the old adage that “Bad money chases out the bad”… by which is meant that debased currency will result in hoarding of the more valued… and thus only the poor coinage circulates. But that overstates the case, too.

Then there was last spring’s infamous Bible Study class. Fact is, it seems to engendered something of a reluctant change of heart…  leading me to admit of greater diversity on the subject. Of course it helps being Orthodox… as part of that “decision” for me involved letting go of my tenacious hold on the lilting KJV language no matter how archaic it might seem. Sure enough, the Antiochian Western Rite does not require this sort of “give up”… but the decision for Orthodoxy ultimately is not about a rite, but about a faith and relationship with Jesus Christ…. and I love both rites…. but at least officially… was able to keep “my” KJV.

But in the Bible Study, we delved in to the language of the Gospels and issues with translation from Greek into English… and contrasted the job with that done into Slavonic where the sense of irony, the idiom, and the image were “better” maintained. Much comment was made about “using someone else’s language leading us to think someone else’s thoughts” and our need for the Orthodox Church to insist that its Bible reflect its worship. Yes, this even included handwringing over the word “worship” and its etymology… so we did the whole bit. And yes, we also did the by now overly familiar pet peeve over “evil” vs. “evil one” in The Lord’s Prayer… for the zillionth time.

So I got it, and was ready to finally relay, “Houston, we’ve got a problem.” Indeed, I capitulated and started seeking out some better translations. In the end, I settled for “minor corrections” with better notes.  So now I’ve got this really over-powering book of the Gospels that’s longer than the new OT and NT version of the Orthodox Study Bible combined… ’cause of all those notes. And by my sophmoric gearhead, thicker’s better, right? And those notes… longer than the actual text… I mean they’re great… and cover all the things our lecturer suggested needed covering… though with a lighter hand in terms of actually making changes to language we already know. So my understanding ought to quadrupple or something… if I could actually squeeze out the time to read them. And the text… but that’s another issue with my motivation.

So there is a rub here, and modest steps are worth taking. But… and I mean I’m not sure how newsworthy this really is…  duh…  my take on it is that the language thing at the end of the day may be of less concern than that we’re actually reading these texts. You might not want something with goofy androgynous language or other changes that have a serious impact on understanding the story… but it is easy to go over board. Been there, done that. I still think it’s fair to say  there’s no particular reason to settle for pedestrian language… but there’s equally no reason to allow the meaning to be obscured. But if the key thrust in transformation is less about specific language than about the image formed in the mind, then perhaps our respect for the meaning, the spirit of the text, should trump our hold on the literal language, or the “power” of expression. Maybe some of us might even be circumspect enough to not demand poetry, power, and its like… y’know… ’cause all the passions stirred up in the heart… well… they could be a problem, huh?

Maybe the answer seems to lie in the simple notion that I’ve gone down this road so that you don’t have to, and now you can just go back about your routine.  I mean… the gain in understanding is less than one might wish for… it’s there, it’s solid, but maybe we would do just as well to get Rosetta Stone, learn Greek, and avoid the intermediaries? You make the call.

But since I don’t have the language gene, I’ve gone with the flow… and I’ve lately “flowed over” to reading the Psalms in “American English”.. by which the authors mean something just short of Hemingway’s terseness. And without addressing their preference for the Masoretic over the Septuagint in terms of their sources…. the project claims to have endeavored to match the imagery and reserve of the Hebrew of the period. And the result immediately conveys a clarity the KJV requires an accompanying text like Fr. Pat Reardon’s to deliver. So all I can say is, “Hmmmm.”

As further ID… the text was completed in 1966 by the Monks of New Skete and chanted, revised, and chanted some more over the intervening 18 years before publication, and there has been a sincere effort to match the text to its original intention, and sung in worship. I’ve even tried this when the house is empty… but it needs some notation to be more than guesswork… and my dog hates guesswork…. and chanting leaves him guessing about when we’re actually going to the kitchen and filling the bowl.  But it is something of a pleasure to see that these things can be managed…. that clarity and poetic power (to my traditionalist ears) do not have to be estranged.

So there you are: Transformation from textual snob of one sort, to textual snob of another. I don’t know if that’s better or not… but it is different… so it must be a transformation of sorts, huh? Yep, I learned something. Yet all the same, I wonder from the yellowed pages of my “new” copy whether “demand” ever materialized… or the whether the judgment of (publishing) history has already been rendered… as much as this confession inevitably renders a judgment on this writer. Moi. Now, can we all say, “Hmmmmm?”


  1. Its funny how we get attached to translations. I’m an NAS person myself – although it is clunky in the Psalms.

  2. Yeah, at our Church I chant from the HTM materials and really don’t like them in a lot of places. Its almost like they went out of their way to tongue tie the text. sigh. I’d rather chant from the NASV, which is kind of what I grew up on and like the fact it retains the “KJV” language in poetry and prayer. The more places I visit and people I talk to, it seems to almost boil down to “what you are used to”.

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