06 March 2008

Fallible human voices

The 92nd Street Y blog has a video clip of Robert Alter and Marilynne Robinson discussing the former's recent translation of The Book of Psalms (the viewing of which immediately improved the quality of my day):

Aside from the interesting discussion of translation and the structure of Hebrew poetry, I was captivated by what Robinson had to say about the writers of the Bible:
They feel weakness and you feel the burden of their humanity in something that is nevertheless received as being a sacred testimony. You know, I mean, it seems to me that that's one of the most poignant and powerful things about scripture--that it situates the testimony of the sacred in fallible human voices, which are only extraordinary, only more beautiful, because you sense the frailty. The frailty's insisted upon. And here we have this enormous disproportion between the grandeur of God that's reported in the psalm and the sense of the presumed triviality of the human person, the human perceiver of these stars, and so on. You know, the psalm says, You crowned human beings; you gave them the glory that they have and, therefore, even though it is, in a sense, secondary to what they are, it is also utterly real, you know. There's just an extraordinary complexity of the human presence, the human testimony in a sacred literature. It's very, very remarkable.
On Sunday night when we heard that Chávez was sending troops to our border, lines from Psalm 27 that I had memorized as a child ran through my head. Here they are in Alter's translation:
Though a camp is marshaled against me,
           my heart shall not fear.
Though battle is roused against me,
           nonetheless do I trust.
(via ReadySteadyBlog)


Imani said...

And yet I'll have to side with Mr. Harold Bloom in opining that, for poetics, it's hard to top Ye Olde King James.

Though an army may encamp against me,
My heart shall not fear;
Though war may rise against me,
In this I
will be confident.

My thoughts are with you and with other friends of mine continuing their Spanish studies in Colombia.

amcorrea said...

Thank you so much, Imani.

Yes, I neglected to mention that this is the version tied in with my brain cells. (I believe that it's one of the reasons I wound up studying literature in the first place.)
Annie Dillard has a lovely riff on this idea in An American Childhood.

Jana Swartwood said...

In my limited knowledge, I can definitely support what they said here about Hebrew poetry. I took a translation course on Psalms, and it was by far the most enriching thing I have done yet in my masters program. There is such an exquisite depth of history and experience surrounding every word of every psalm, and as this translator reminds us, each word carries with it a number of significant images. Even with what we lose in translation. Or the words we only see once and have to guess at. There's such a richness in it all.

On another topic, I am praying for your safety and that of your loved ones.