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Psalms in English

Because of the hymn project we’re undertaking, some of the RAM authors have been discussing the merits of the English metrical psalms. All of us see the importance of singing the psalms; not all of us are happy with the psalms commonly sung.

Psalms are poems. In their original Hebrew, they were easily recognized as such. Their use of Hebrew parallelism and other techniques set them apart from prose (see Robert Alter for what makes for biblical poetry). Unfortunately, much of that is literally lost in translation. English poetry is marked by such devices as rhyme and meter, and while Hebrew poetry does have rhyme, its parallelisms, acrostics and chiasms are what marked out Hebrew poetry to the Hebrew ear.

The attempt to convert Hebrew poetry into English poetry has not been that successful. Bible translators have translated the psalms into what are essentially units of prose – at least to the English ear. The King James translators probably came closest to capturing the poetic quality, particularly in Psalms such as Psalm 19, Psalm 23, or Psalm 42.

Of course, I am not arguing for Bible translations that paraphrase God’s Word. However, when it comes to singing the psalms, we need more than a literal translation of the Hebrew. The English psalter, with its metrical psalms have been attempts to turn the English translations of the Hebrew psalms into metric versifications. Some are better than others, but the results are often awkward, forced, and often downright clunky.

A number of hymns are actually paraphrases of psalms. Their success perhaps demonstrates the difference between the attempt to squeeze the literal English translation of a poem into a rhyming, metrical version and the attempt to simply capture the essence of a psalm in poetic language recognizable to the English ear and imagination.

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Here are some, for the purpose of comparing what they achieve, as opposed to their counterparts in the English Psalter:

O Lord, Our Lord, in All the Earth – Psalm 8

The Heavens Declare Thy Glory, Lord, – Psalm 19

Spacious Heav’ns Declare – Psalm 19

The King of Love My Shepherd Is – Psalm 23

Jesus Shall Reign – Psalm 72

Praise My Soul, the King of Heaven – Psalm 103

O Worship the King – Psalm 104

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty Psalm 103 & 150

David de Bruyn

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn currently pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

6 Responses to Psalms in English

  1. I get it. God wants to hear the content, but what this is saying is that He also wants the beauty of the Psalms imitated or reflected. The alternative of something ultra-paraphrastic, like Watts’ “psalms” where Great Britain appears in the “translation,” I don’t believe is the way to go. We are doing fine with the 1650, tending more towards literalness at the price of being a bit more of “translation English,” and I believe the way we ought to lean rather than towards paraphrasis. We’ve been singing psalms for a decade with the Scottish comprehensive psalter and I believe there is a match of the absolute truth of the psalm and the absolute beauty of the structure. What have we learned since then that causes us to want to tweak that? Have we really learned something they didn’t know?

  2. David,

    I’m also asking, was there an apostasy of beauty in the 1650 versification that we have recaptured or can recapture in this age in which we live? Why do we think that is the case?

  3. Hey, Kent. Thanks for the interaction.

    I think the point here is not to paraphrase, but to actually be more accurate in our translation. In other words, translation is more than word-to-word correspondence. Translation also necessary involves transferring the poetic beauty as well.

  4. Kent,

    Might we say falling short if not falling away?

    There is some gorgeous formal poetry being written today.

    This could be done. I’m just not sure that those capable would be interested.

  5. Hi,

    By accurate in the translation, you mean poetically or structurally accurate, to the original intended structure of the Hebrew text. I understood what was being said, but that I wondered how we are better prepared to reach further or stop falling short of intended beauty today than what they were in 1650. For the most part, people gave up psalm singing. Do we live in the generation that returns us to original beauty after leaving it for millennia?

    I attended a recital of a Jewish musician and he included the singing of a psalm in Hebrew. It sounded like this:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rn2Tw1IEAF0

    Except four parts, one of which was sung by the cantor for his synagogue.

    Would we be trying to emulate that?

  6. Hi, Kent. Two things. First, the point is not to “transplant” Jewish psalm structure to English. That’s kind of the thing we need to avoid. To try to exactly reproduce word for word and phrase for phrase is what got us much of the awkward psalmody in English that we have. Hebrew poetry and English poetry are just different; you can’t produce a 1 to 1 equivalence.

    The point is correspondence. To study and analyze what the psalmist was doing, and then translate that (both content and form) into theologically and aesthetically equivalent English poetry.

    I won’t speak for David, but that’s what I think is lacking. We either have English psalm versifications that do a good job transfering the content but are so wooden and awkward in their wording that they’re very difficult to sing, or we have English psalm paraphrases that are beautiful and singable but miss much of what the original psalmist intended.

    What we need is both content and aesthetic correspondence, and that is very difficult to do.

    As to the fact that we haven’t had any good psalmody for a long time, I think that goes without saying. In fact, as you mention, singing psalms (in English at least) fell out of favor, and it did exactly the psalms we had available to us in English were so poor. That’s exactly why Watts advocating singing hymns: he thought the English psalms were terrible.

    Maybe they did a better job in Latin and French; I don’t know. But my guess is that the Genevan psalter did do a better job of this, which is why after the first editions of the Genevan psalter, Calvin (the theologian) gave up writing psalm versifications and left it to the professional poet (under his theological direction).

    We just haven’t done the same very well in English yet.

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