3. The translation tension

Putting psalms into metre produces an immediate difficulty. It inhibits the translator’s freedom to translate the words accurately or reproduce those features of Hebrew poetry that can be replicated in another language.

Chanting psalms as prose resolves that tension at the expense of adopting a solution that is so incompatible with the musical idioms of the target language that it has not proved capable of taking root in it. It also can only be done by people who have been specially trained.

A number of popular choruses have been built round individual verses, but it is probably beyond the work of a lifetime to produce a set of compositions in this mode to cover the entire psalter. They also tend to be fairly repetitive, which makes a whole psalm very long.   Furthermore, as this is a recent style, most examples are likely to be governed by restrictive and expensive copyrights. This is not a suitable vehicle from which to produce a complete psalter as a key resource for liturgical use.

It would be great if God would raise up someone with the talent to do this in a more exciting way, but so far this has not happened. I suspect I was born thirty years too soon to be able to do this. There is a lot of scope for someone who,

  • Can write modern music well,
  • Can write singable words well (which is not the same as being a poet) AND
  • Is willing to submit themselves to the text.

Of these three points, the third is particularly important. Much of what people think might cover the ground is seriously insufficient. For example,

  • “I lift my eyes to the quiet hills” might be a nice evening hymn. It is undoubtedly inspired by Psalm 121, but it is a travesty of what Psalm 121 is actually about.
  • “As a deer pants for the water” is inspired by Psalm 42, but it only renders two verses of it.  After its first verse it goes off on a digression of its own It is a worthy digression. It makes a good hymn. But it is not Psalm 42.  It does not even address the sort of issues found in the next three verses,

“3  My tears have been my bread day and night:
while all day long they say to me, ‘Where is now your God?’ 

4. Now when I think on these things, I pour out my soul:
how I went with the multitude and led the procession to the house of God,

5   With the voice of praise and thanksgiving:
among those who kept holy day.”  (CW).

People do not usually write hymns about this sort of thing.  Perhaps that is why so many of us like ‘Abide with me’. Songwriters don’t want to bare their souls that way. If they did, the festival circuit probably would not accept the results.

The psalms include things we probably do not want to sing (e.g. Ps 109), but because they are objectively ‘just there’, they provide us with a way of meeting some of the less comfortable areas of the Christian life or the human psyche.

The intention of this collection has to be to produce a singable version of each psalm that is as near as one can get to the scripture behind it as possible while being compatible with the metre one is using. As said earlier, singability is not the same thing as a good poem as poetry. Good poetry does not always fit a singable metre.

Inevitably, there have to be compromises. Where possible though, I have tried to retain as much as I can not just of the underlying thoughts of the original but its metaphors and idiom, even if sometimes this makes the translation less fluent. It is unsatisfactory to interpose ones own thoughts, spiritual responses or perceptions between the original and the worshipper. However worthy the motive, once one does that, one has failed.