A Thematic Approach to the Translation of the Psalms
The book of Psalms is a wonderful and inspirational book to translate, but it is also one of the more difficult and complex books of the Bible. There are several reasons for this. First of all, with 2,461 verses, it is the longest book of the Bible. At ten verses a day, the first draft would take 246 days to complete. The second draft would take approximately 82 days. If the work of the review committee and the consultant checking take a minimum two weeks, the entire amount of time spent on completing the translation of the book of Psalms would be a total of 342 days or more, an estimated work time of over a year and a half!
In addition, the poetic nature of the Psalms, with its rich imagery and sometimes ambiguous language, requires special training. They contain such a wide variety of vocabulary and expressions that sometimes the translator wonders if it is possible to match all the Hebrew synonyms with words in his language.
These factors are further complicated by the fact that the Psalms contain an assortment of many themes: political plots, liturgy, social life, the nature of God and our relationship with Him, and so on. A translator must also be very familiar with the historical and geographical background of the Bible, because the psalmist may suddenly allude to a distant event without making any explicit reference to the historical context.
The variety of genres in the Psalms also presents challenges. Certain songs were written to praise God, others were complaints or pleas, and still others give advice or warnings, promises of blessing or threats of punishment. This complexity constitutes yet another layer of difficulty for the translator, especially if he decides to translate them in canonical order (i.e numerical order), starting with Psalm 1. This first Psalm gives advice. In contrast, Psalm 2 talks about nationsplotting against God's chosen people, while Psalm 3 describes how the psalmist trusts in God in a dangerous situation. Psalm 4 and onwards call on God for help. If a translator translates a Psalm according to its canonical order, the genre and language change so frequently that he/she struggles to remember how he translated certain key words and expressions of a Psalm of the same genre some weeks or days earlier.
However, as we read through the Psalms, we recognize that the themes and the vocabulary are often repeated. For example, Psalm 8 is the first of many praise Psalms; Psalm 10 has the same theme of calling on God for help as Psalm 4. Because of these repeated themes, the suggestion arose to regroup the Psalms according to genres and themes in order to facilitate translation. If one translates by grouping all the Psalms with the same themes, he/she will be able to exegete the passages with the same vocabulary and discourse features together, producing a higher quality text with a higher consistency in the translation of terms and expressions. Furthermore, the translation will be done more rapidly since repeated expressions will come in quick succession within the thematic group, facilitating rapid recall and, in some cases, copying and pasting.
This article presents an organization of the Psalms by genre and by theme, which will facilitate both the exegesis and the translation task. We propose that, instead of translating the Psalms in canonical order, the translators translate them in order of their genres and themes. The task remains to classify the Psalms in a way that would best suit the needs of the translator.Link to the full text:
A Thematic Approach to the Translation of the Psalms (PDF)