Psalms are Poetry

The last few mornings I’ve been reading Psalms, with nine English Versions up on the computer screen. I’ve been reading and thinking about  bringing them into the Nkonya language.

It’s a particular challenge, because the Psalms are art and poetry as well as message.

After only a handful of days I’m still working on plotting the translations as to their various characteristics. However I do have some initial favourites and least favourites.  I have discovered that while I want a psalm to be accurate I also want it to touch me with it’s beauty. I want elegance of line and cadence. I want my emotions engaged.

The New Century Version , which I’ve often consulted when translating narrative passages goes to the bottom of the list here.  It has basically jettisoned any attempt at the poetical in it’s dedication to the simple and straightforward.  The Today’s English Version also suffers in that direction.

A number of translations cluster at mid-range.  The New American Standard Version does better than one would expect. Hebrew is a language of heart and passion. If you keep close to the original text much of that emotion actually spills over. In poetry it doesn’t matter so much if the wording is a little unusual. The Revised English Version also gets a nod from me for its creative turn of mind. It is quite flavourful.

The two translations that most consistently wax lyrical are the New Living Translation and the New International Version. They are quite different in style. The New Living has a full rich flavour.  If it were a cupcake it would be generously iced.

The New International opts for a fairly spare rendering. However it is characterized by lovely turns of phrase that wear well and satisfy.  It’s translation of Psalm 65:8, for instance, is nicely evocative.

“Where morning dawns and evening fades
you call forth songs of joy.”

This particular verse, has called forth a rich spectrum of renderings in English.  Looking at it in a variety of translations highlights many of the issues involved. (Consider that homework- perhaps a future blog.)

Here’s a bit more from Psalm 65, in the NIV, my current favourite.

It’s a nice passage to read as winter passes out.

You care for the land and water it. . .
You drench its furrows
and level its ridges;
you soften it with showers
and bless its crops.

You crown the year with your bounty,
and your carts overflow with abundance.
The grasslands of the desert overflow;
the hills are clothed with gladness.
The meadows are covered with flocks
and the valleys are mantled with grain;
they shout for joy and sing.

“Drench” is such a nice verb-I have this urge to run out and wriggle my toes in moist loam. I also love the image of fields “mantled with grain.”  I can see the heavy richness of August wheat fields around Red Deer.

There are 150 Psalms to bring into Nkonya and I have yet to work on even one.  Doubtless my initial impressions will be modified many times. I’m looking forward to the exercise though.



  1. scott said

    …to discuss the Holy Books with the learned men seven hours every day….

    Pretty sweet.

  2. scott said

    If the psalms are poetry you should find an Nkonya poet to work with the translation effort.

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