Translating the Secret Psalm

The Opening Words of the Secret Psalm
How do you translate a prayer? How do you accurately communicate the meaning of an ancient Hebrew poem to a modern English-speaking audience? The translator must try to immerse his/herself into the original psalmist's culture, natural surroundings and language, and try to understand not only the true meaning of his poem but also his mindset and what he hoped to achieve by writing this poem.

For us, the translation of the text was not just an academic exercise; it was an integral part of the artistic process. We wanted the English reader to have the same kind of uplifting experience we had when we first read the words of this ancient psalm in its original Hebrew form.

The fact is that this psalm was written in Hebrew over two thousand years ago. Yet we can read it off the original parchment on which it was written without any difficulty. This is amazing! To think that the Hebrew letters we write today are almost identical to those written while the Second Temple stood in Jerusalem long ago, and that the words were read then as we read them today – is simply mind-boggling!

We know that many of the psalms that appear in the Book of Psalms were used for liturgical purposes: many were sung by the Levites in the Holy Temple on a daily basis as well as on holidays and other special occasions, and many were adopted into the official prayer services recited today.

How does one translate? There are two main criteria: there is the accurate translation, and there is the appropriate one. The former may be true to the letter of the original text, but may not do justice to the emotion the psalmist wished to convey. Similarly, the latter would be true to the psalmist's emotion but may take away from the precision of those ancient words, which contain so much sentiment despite their brevity. And since Hebrew and English are so different, both grammatically and linguistically, it is not always easy to combine both aspects, the accurate and the appropriate translations, and come to a pleasing result.

In addition to all of the above, since the subject at hand is an ancient Hebrew text - very much inspired from the bible - even before tackling the translation we had to explore the meaning of some of the unusual biblical Hebrew words. Furthermore, some of the words written on the original scroll are unclear, having been eaten away by the ravages of time. For these reasons, the scope of our investigation was not limited only to the history of the Second Temple period and to biblical Hebrew linguistics, but included also the study of Calligraphy and the development of ancient Hebrew characters. These aspects proved most helpful, and even essential, in the quest to translate the text correctly.

In order to illustrate this point, here are just two examples of translating challenges we encountered:

The first example pertains to the verse: “How they hope for thy redemption and mourn for thee, thy pure ones.” In the original Hebrew scroll, the last word of the verse can be read either as “always” or as “thy pure ones.” If we were to choose “always,” the translated verse would read “How they hope for thy redemption and always mourn for thee.”

The difference between the two optional readings lies in the deciphering of the last word of the verse. The scribe created an a-typical letter at the end of the word: its vertical stroke is a little too long for the word to be clearly read “always” but a little too short for the word to be clearly read “thy pure ones.” Careful examination of the scribe's script in the entire psalm, added to the other feminine singular pronouns that appear in the Hebrew text (“thy prophets”, “thy righteous ones”, “thy children”, “thy beloved”, which all end with the same-sounding suffix in Hebrew) lead us to prefer “thy pure ones” for our translation, in keeping with the rhythm of the text in its entirety.

The second example concerns the verse: “Thy praise is more pleasant, O Zion, than the scent of all spices.” The last word of the verse in the Hebrew text usually translates “world,” or the modern equivalent “universe.” In accordance, the verse would translate: “Thy praise is more pleasant, O Zion, than (anything in) the entire world.” In fact, most scholars – many of them not native Hebrew speakers – have translated this verse similarly, using the term “world.” This translation is difficult because it does not refer at all to the content of the first part of the Hebrew verse which reads “Thy praise is more pleasant to the nose, O Zion.” Add to this the fact that the spelling of the Hebrew word “world” can also be used as an abbreviated form of the word “spice”, and the result is our translation: “Thy praise is more pleasant, O Zion, than the scent of all spices,” which fuses into the text perfectly. Indeed, we have omitted from our translation the word “nose” which appears in the original text. Nevertheless, since the reference to “scent” definitely alludes to the sense of smell, the word “nose” was not essential to the translation. This is an example of where the text is not translated word-for-word but still remains accurate and true to its original spirit.

One other aspect needs to be discussed with regard to the translation of this psalm. The original Hebrew text consists of twenty-two verses, each verse beginning with one of the letters the Hebrew alphabet, in consecutive order, thus creating an acrostic poem. This lyrical style was quite popular in biblical times and was employed in many Psalms, among them Psalms 34, 119, and 145, in Proverbs 31, and throughout the book of Lamentations, just to name a few. It was used as an embellishing element that gave the text extra esthetic value. Unfortunately, this element is completely lost in translation but is still worth mentioning, nonetheless, as it proves not only that alphabetical acrostics were in use towards the end of the Second Temple period but also that the psalmist of this poem wished his poem to be comparable to, and perhaps be incorporated into, other psalms that appear in the Bible.

Despite the translation challenges, we believe that our translation of the text is both the most accurate and the most appropriate one. It succeeds in conveying the psalmist's true emotions, and his passionate love for Jerusalem. We hope you will love it as much as we do and that your love for Jerusalem will grow as a result.

The Secret Psalm Productions, 
P. O. Box 1223, Efrat 90435, Israel.

Tel: +972-52-348-5443 Fax: +972-2993-1462