The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary
by Robert Alter
Norton, 518 pp., $35.00
Biblical style in English carries on it the palpable impress of the Protestant martyr William Tyndale (1494–1536). Strangled and then burned, with the approval of Henry VIII, for publishing an English version of the New Testament despite the opposition of the Church, Tyndale did not have time to complete his translation of the Christian Old Testament, as he had the New. All English Bibles after Tyndale manifest his continued presence, and not only because he was the crucial forerunner. It is not excessive to judge that, after Shakespeare and Chaucer, Tyndale may be the greatest writer in the language. We go about daily—many of us—unknowingly repeating sentences, phrases, and words invented as much by Tyndale as by Shakespeare. The Geneva Bible (1560) was Shakespeare’s resource from Shylock and Falstaff in 1596 onward, and continued to be favored by John Milton. For most of the English, it yielded to the Authorized Version or King James Bible (1611), which maintains its hold on the English-speaking world almost until this moment. Both the Geneva and King James Bibles follow Tyndale wherever they can, so that he remains, with Shakespeare, a comprehensive influence upon us.
David Daniell, Tyndale’s biographer, has written persuasively concerning the translator’s effect on Shakespeare’s various styles in the later tragedies. Tyndale is the master, when he chooses to be, of a style of plain speaking: short pronouncements held together by parataxis, with no subordinate clauses. “Parataxis” is a word I employ reluctantly (it makes my students unhappy) but there is no good substitute for it, whether in discussing Tyndale and Shakespeare, or Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound. The word is from the Greek for “placing side by side” and emphasizes a way of juxtaposing phrases that is central to the style of biblical Hebrew, with its syntactically parallel clauses, which tend also to possess a parallelism of meaning. Here is a well-known example by Ezra Pound:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
—”In a Station of the Metro”
Shakespeare’s grand gift, for phrasing so memorably that we find the language inevitable, is very nearly matched by Tyndale’s outspoken directness of address, what Daniell calls his “everyday manner,” and his aversion to Latinity. Getting Tyndale out of my head seems to me impossible: “Let there be light, and there was light”; “In him we live and move and have our being”; “Am I my brother’s keeper?”; “The signs of the times”; “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”; “For you have wrestled with gods and men and have prevailed”; and scores of others. Whether I immerse myself in the Geneva or the King James Bible, Tyndale’s genius (though not his Protestant zeal) enriches me.
As a Jewish reader, I tend to be aware that these are Christian Bibles, and therefore alien to me spiritually though not as language and as imaginative experience. Whatever questionings about Robert Alter’s versions …