Minister Translating Earthy Psalms Into 'American'

March 24, 1991|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff writer

Eugene H. Peterson has an unusual reason for translating an ancient Hebrew book.

He wants people to be honest.

The Presbyterian minister hopes that his new translation of the Psalms into "American" -- which three publishers are bidding for -- will teach people to face God honestly. "I hope to give people access to prayer which is real, as over against being nice," says Peterson, 62, pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air.

In Hebrew, the language in which the Psalms were written, the prayers of King David don't sound smooth and elegant, argues Peterson, who earneda master's degree in Semitic languages from Johns Hopkins University.

The Hebrew Psalms are rough, earthy, forceful -- and often not very pleasant. David whines. He says nasty things about his enemies. He throws himself upon the mercies of God. He doesn't pretend.

"People try to be nice before God. But we're not all that nice," says Peterson.

So the elegant phrases of the traditional King James Version, in Psalm 5, become in Peterson's version a bold yelp for help.

"Listen, Yahweh! Pay attention! Can you make sense of these ramblings, my thunder-clap cries? I need your help. Every morning, you'll hear me at it again. Every morning, I lay out the pieces of my life on your altar and watch for fire to descend."

Peterson's translation of Psalm 11, in which David laments that evil's prevalence makes it seem that God has disappeared, could be an essay on modern times.

"Yahweh hasn't moved to the mountains, his holy address hasn't changed.He's in charge as always, his eyes taking everything in, his eyelidsunblinking, examining Adam's unruly brood.

"The good and the bad get the same test. . . . Fail the test and you're out, out in a stormof firestones, drinking from a canteen filled with hot desert wind."

Peterson started out as an academic in biblical languages and OldTestament at Johns Hopkins. While teaching at New York Theological Seminary in New York City, the then-27-year-old was asked by a former professor to write a commentary on the Psalms.

The project was nearly complete when the publisher went bankrupt. Three years of work went into the files, just about the time that Peterson made a discovery: He didn't want to be a scholar after all. He wanted close to the spiritual action.

But life and God, he says, had other plans. As a new professor, he wasn't making enough money to support his wife and the baby they were expecting. So he took extra work as an associate pastor at a nearby church in White Plains, N.Y.

An economic opportunity turned into a religious one as he worked with the senior pastor at the church. "I observed this wonderful person, an honest man of great integrity, and realized I liked what he did," Peterson says.

Thirty years after starting Christ Our King Presbyterian church from scratch in Bel Air, Peterson is still the pastor. He wrote two books about the Psalms before tackling his latest project -- translating theminto the really common tongue. The minister had long wanted to put the Psalms into what he calls colloquial American, which sounds similar to Hebrew.

"Modern American poetry has some similarities to Hebrew poetry," he explains. "Both are unrhymed. Sometimes there are internal rhymes in Hebrew, a lot of sound play, but little actual rhyming."

"Hebrew poetry has a meter, but it's disturbed. It's roughened up," Peterson says. "There are unexpected things in it. In a sonnet you know what's coming, but in Hebrew and modern American you get surprises, some odd juxtapositions that surprise you, a lot of metaphor -- sometimes odd metaphors.

"It's the kind of thing (T.S.) Eliot did so well," he says, referring to a poem by the British author in which Eliot compares dusk to " 'A patient etherized upon a table.' . . .Hebrew does that too."

Three years ago, he sat down and translated Psalm 1, on a whim.

For Peterson, the work pulled together yearsof study and ministry, including the files of his dormant commentarywork on the Psalms. "It was a matter of ripeness, of noticing thingsand storing them away for all those years," he says.

Since then, he's worked on them in the edges of his spare time, or, as he puts it: "Waiting for red lights, walking in the woods, mowing the lawn, cleaning the garage, hearing American speech and listening for the Hebrew original beneath it."

Peterson emphasizes that superb translations of the Psalms exist in versions such as the King James, but he believes that no one in this century has attempted to take the Psalms and translate them from the Hebrew into the way people talk.

"If I'mdoing anything useful, it's that my orientation has been a parish," he says. "For years I've been listening to people and praying with them, with these Psalms in the background, and a lot of it in Hebrew."

But he's not out for novelty.

"I think it's criminal that writers sometimes think that because they're writing about God, they don'thave to write well."

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