Josh Feigelson
Singing God's Praises: Psalms and Authenticity, p.3

Perhaps the real importance of Zalman's effort here is in the process, not the product. The danger of committing a translation like this to paper is that it becomes authoritative, a new orthodoxy, like Boorstin's Dioscorides. As Zalman himself likes to say, "When an idea becomes a movement, it stops moving." But the effort to translate the Psalms, to make them meaningful for us in our own terms, and thereby to become conduits for a two-way flow of shefa between the One and ourselves-that is the value of this book, not the particular words that Zalman chooses. It's almost as if Zalman wants his readers to find authenticity in the exercise of translation, not in the result.

In this regard, Zalman's words about reciting Psalms in his book Gate to the Heart are perhaps more important and more useful than his new translations:

Do you find yourself in the prayer? Or, in the case of one of the psalms, are you really exhorting all creation to praise G-d? Are you the sky and the sun and the moon praising? Are you the flora and fauna? Are you the kings of the earth, the old people and children? With each Halleluyah simulate that praising creature in some way. Are you just out of Egypt, redeemed by G-d, led dry shod through the split sea? Treat the text as a model for adoration. Each time you mention the music of an instrument, become the instrument, hear it on the inside and offer the consciousness of the sound to G-d.
(Gate to the Heart, pp. 17-18)

I frankly find these words more helpful than any of the translations, but that's likely because I am comfortable praying in Hebrew, and reciting the Psalms to me is like wearing an old pair of blue jeans. For the davenner who works better from an English translation, Zalman's translation may be helpful, when coupled with his method.

A better translation from a language standpoint, however, is Norman Fischer's Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms. Fischer is a poet, as well as a Zen abbot, and he acknowledges in his excellent introductory essay that his is not a translation directly from the Hebrew: "Since I am a poet and a religious practitioner, and not a Hebraist, my work with the Psalms rests largely on the work of translators. In that sense they are 'versions' rather than translations, perhaps as much original English-language poems as faithful replicas of the Hebrew text." (p. xii)

While still formally and thematically framed by the Hebrew originals, Fischer's versions are linguistically freer and richer, and they read beautifully. Here is how JPS renders the opening of Psalm 96 (I quoted Zalman's translation above):

Sing to the Lord a new song,
sing to the Lord all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless His name,
proclaim His victory day after day.
Tell of His glory among the nations,
His wondrous deeds among all peoples.
And here is Fischer's version:

I sing a new song to you and the earth sings too
I sing and my song blesses your unsayable name
Day by day announcing the utter presence of things
Day by day evoking your glory among the nations
Calling forth your miracles among all the peoples

This is poetry on a level that Zalman's translation just can't match. Even the capitalization style is noteworthy: Fischer addresses God as "you," not "You." The style is comfortable and intimate, almost conversational, but still at enough of a remove to feel set-apart and holy.

At times, Fischer's translation feels too far-removed from the text. A literal translation of Psalm 96 bears little resemblance to Fischer's words. Thus, while Fischer's version is much better for contemporary ears and hearts, his distance from the original brings into high relief the question of the authenticity of the text itself. He is not quite translating Psalms, as he admits-so is this Psalms at all? Does it matter? If it doesn't, what's the point of this project?

Fischer answers this question in his introduction, with a sharp insight: "Buddhism begins with suffering and the end of suffering." In contrast, "the Psalms make it clear that suffering is not to be escaped or bypassedů I would go so far as to say that for Western Buddhist practitioners, a sensitive and informed appreciation of the problematic themes included and so powerfully expressed in the Psalms is probably a necessity." (pp. xvi-xvii) Fischer is starting from Buddhism and using the Psalms to inform his Buddhist practice, and thus he has less at stake in the question of the authenticity of his translation. His work feels more comfortable in its own skin than Zalman's as a consequence.

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September 2004

Singing God's Praises:
Psalms and Authenticity
Josh Feigelson

Two Prayers for the Days of Awe
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

How can you be gay and Jewish?
Jay Michaelson

Hiding your Sins
Hal Sirowitz

Retrato de Familia
Bara Sapir

Jews and Bush
An Online Resource Guide

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From previous issues:

Two Rituals
Joshua Bolton

The Spiritual Foundations of Bushism
Jay Michaelson

God Likes New Things
Abraham Joshua Heschel
trans. by Jonathan Boyarin