The Prayers of the Psalter


Dom Henry Wansbrough

Excerpts from


A feature of poetry most difficult to reproduce in a foreign language, and most easily lost in pedestrian translations, is economy of language. It requires a poet to bring out the full richness of a language, and few translators are poets; it is therefore not to be expected that a translation will give a fair impression of the linguistic richness of any poem. This is particularly so in the case of a lapidary language like Hebrew , which is rich in imagery and few in words, resembling finely carved blocks of masonry. The impression of the language can often be similar to that of gnomic popular wisdom, ‘Faint heart ne’er won fair lady’, in which all superfluity is pared down. A similar impression is given by the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins who often seems to throw out great blocks of sense without concessions to the continuity-words of prose. For example, the opening lines of Harry Ploughman:

Hard as hurdle arms, with a broth of goldish flue
Breathed round; the rack of ribs; the scooped flank; lank
Rope-over thigh; knee-nave; and barrelled shank -
Head and foot, shoulder and shank -
By a grey eye’s heed steered well, one crew, fall to;
Stand at stress. Each limb’s barrowy brawn, his thew
That somewhere curded, onewhere sucked or sank...

Birds in a Tree

Birds in a Tree
by Artists at Turvey

By contrast, a phrase like ‘he has made you great’, which in English requires several little auxiliary words, is expressed in Hebrew by a single word. This adds dignity and solemnity to the language. The first stanza of Psalm 28 has 29 words in the Grail English translation, but only 16 in the Hebrew, four in each line. The first stanza of Psalm 27 has 23 words in the Grail English, 11 in the Hebrew.

In poetry, especially, the dignity of the language is further enhanced by the omission of little auxiliary words such as ‘the’, so that Psalm 81.3 reads more literally

‘Justify weak, orphan // defend afflicted, needy’
(‘Do justice for the weak and the orphan // defend the afflicted and the needy’).

or ‘which’, so that Psalm 117.22 reads more literally (and clumsily in English)

‘Stone builders rejected // become corner stone’.
(‘The stone which the builders rejected // has become the corner stone’)

Here each word has its own accent, and the effect is clearly one of great strength - again as in the third line of the Manley Hopkins poem quoted above, where all the words but one have their own accent. In Hebrew the inflections of the words which knit the sentence together and provide the sense are given by modifications to the words themselves, so that in Psalm 110.1 the six strong words

‘Thank Yahweh full-hearted // in-meeting of-just and-assembly’
provide ‘I will thank the Lord with all my heart // in the meeting of the just and their assembly’.

Another example is the opening of Psalm 23, the ‘Good Shepherd Psalm’. In the Hebrew the first couplet has just four words (seven syllables): Yahweh ro‘i, lo ehsah, yielding a translation:

‘The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.’

The feeling of the Hebrew poetry is powerfully rendered by the psalms of the old Latin breviary, where the translator’s reverence for the sacred Hebrew text has led him to reproduce the Hebrew words and concepts in a way which often yields very awkward, ‘chunky’ Latin and is sometimes almost unintelligible without knowledge of the Hebrew original. 1