Robert Alter’s monumental translation of the Hebrew Bible, the subject of Mosaic’s February essay and the responses to it, aims above all to preserve the literary qualities of the original. In his own review, Meir Soloveichik points to instances where Alter succeeds in “captur[ing] the cadences of the Bible . . . better than anyone who has attempted it before,” and even exceeds the King James. Nonetheless, to Soloveichik the new translation’s “astonishingly insightful renderings,” based on “sensitive readings” of the text do not make up for its deficiencies. Just one example comes from the translation of the book of Psalms:
The most surprising, and jarring, diversion from the King James version of the Psalms can be found in Alter’s translation of the phrase that appears more than any other in that entire book: the Hebrew words mizmor l’David. It introduces many of the Psalms, and in the King James, as in so many other translations, the words are rendered as “a psalm of David.” . . .
The Psalms are a window into David’s mind, and there we find a man who, though flawed, lives at every moment with a sense of the intimacy of God. Alter rejects all of this. “The Davidic authorship enshrined in Jewish and Christian tradition,” he informs us in his introduction to the Psalms, “has no credible historical grounding.” Therefore, for mizmor l’David, he gives us “a David psalm”. . . .
The problem is, however, that the Psalms that begin mizmor l’David often ask the reader to see into David’s soul at moments in David’s life and career, as expressed by David himself. Thus Psalm 51 begins, in Alter’s version: “For the lead player, a David psalm, upon Nathan the prophet’s coming to him when he had come to be with Bathsheba.” A similar passage presents itself in the third Psalm, where Alter gives us “a David psalm, when he fled from Absalom his son.” Such ascriptions, Alter comments, “have no historical authority.” . . .
Alter is certainly entitled to his opinion. At the same time, the phrase, as written, is meant to ascribe the reflection to David. The text, as it currently stands, is insisting that it is indeed a Psalm of David. In inverting the words mizmor and l’David, Alter violates his own rule of representing the order and rhythm of Israelite syntax in order to emphasize that these Psalms are not authored by David himself. But if the Hebrew is presenting David as the author, why translate this differently? Is the obligation to uproot the traditional ascription of authorship so important as to deviate from the simpler meaning of the Hebrew itself?