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.
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