New Translation Is a Song to the Psalms

BY Tom LeGro  April 1, 2010 at 3:49 PM EST

'The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation'Pamela Greenberg turned to the Book of Psalms during a dark time in her life. To help combat depression she flipped through the ancient songs in Hebrew, taking time to translate the ones that spoke out to her on any given day. Over time, Greenberg found she had translated so many, she decided to do them all.

Her collection, “The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation,” was published last month, in time for Passover and Holy Week.

“If I were to think of a project, something that hasn’t been translated before, I would not pick the Psalms,” Greenberg said. “The Psalms, in a way, picked me.”

Greenberg, who has an M.F.A. in creative writing and master’s degree in Jewish studies, spent a year in rabbinical school before turning to writing full time. Reading the Psalms, she was struck by their poetic qualities and their powerful ability to voice despair while giving hope.

“I think the Psalms are the most honest and direct forms of religious speech,” Greenberg said. “They speak to our fears: our fear of death; our fear of mortality; our fear of abandonment by God. The psalmist speaks those fears to God and in speaking them to God, a relationship develops.”

As a poet and translator, Greenberg strove to be true to the Psalms’ lyrical nature. “In the original Hebrew, they are very musical. It is clear the Psalms were meant to be chanted, sung, accompanied by music,” she said. “The musicality of the Psalms is part of what gives them their depth of emotion.”

Listen to a conversation with Greenberg:

Writing in the Washington Post, poet Mary Karr described Greenberg’s work as “delicious new translations,” adding, “Greenberg has lifted the old language from spider webs and mothballs, breathing new air into the songs.”

Listen to Greenberg read from “The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation”:

Editor’s note: For more about Greenberg and her collection of Psalms, visit WNET’s Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.