|A Review of
Translated by Pamela Greenberg.
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
For thousands of years, the Psalms have been the heartbeat that pulsed life and kept rhythm for the people of God, but sometimes their familiarity can subtly breed mindlessness; we mouth the familiar words and yet miss the power of their words to engage with the oft-brutal realities of living in a fallen world and to transform our hearts and minds. Out of this familiar milieu emerges Pamela Greenberg’s delightful new translation, The Complete Psalms, which breathes the crisp air of new life into these liturgical songs. Indeed, Greenberg identifies the compelling force behind her translation as “the impulse of shiru l’Adonai shir chadash, the imperative to sing to God a new song” (xvii). Her translation process flowed from the tension between the poetic, an attempt “to replicate the emotional passion of the psalms,” and the literal, which in the end resulted in a [dialogical] “middle ground between strict literality and poetic engagement, with the hopes of awakening for the reader new possibilities for speaking with God.”
Consider her verdant translation of the familiar Psalm 100:
Shout out with joy, all who live on earth.
Serve the Holy One with rejoicing.
Come before the Upholder with a ringing cry.
Know that God is a source of wonder.
You created us, and it is to our Creator we belong.
We are shepherded by heavenly guidance.
Come into the divine gates with thankfulness,
the holy courtyards shining with praise.
Be thankful, awed by the Holy Name.
For God is good;
your kindness is toward the world.
From generation to generation, you remain faithful.
We see in this sample psalm, one of the most refreshing facets of Greenberg’s translation: the diversity of names with which she refers to God, a diversity we should remember that is in the original text, but that many English translations fail in their attempts to convey (or perhaps the failure is with us as readers, having a certain subset of names that we thoughtlessly reduce to the name God). Greenberg notes in her introduction that her choices were often guided by the etymology of the original names; the name Adonai that is translated “the Upholder” in the above psalm, for instance, comes from a root that means “support for a pole of the tabernacle.” Additionally, she says that she wrestled with the issue of the pronouns to use in reference to God, but grew “increasingly convinced of the need to translate divinity in a way that was neither masculine or feminine.
Over the past few months, I have worked my way through many of the psalms that Greenberg has translated here. Sometimes I find myself faltering a bit with the language, like a hiker treading carefully over new and unfamiliar terrain, and yet there is a breathtaking beauty to this new world, not to mention a sense of déjà vu. In The Complete Psalms, Greenberg has plumbed the depths of not only the text in its original manuscripts, but also the tradition of what the manifold passages have signified among the people of God. Her careful, poetic renderings serve to give us a much needed jolt from the slumber of familiar translations, and to the extent that we are faithful to the way of the biblical text can help resurrect us into the wholeness of the Person that is the Word of God. I look forward to continued meditation upon these lively, wonder-full new translations and to the joy of sharing them with others.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com