David Mitchell James’ A Psalter for Prayer (2011)
This book comprises a version of the Psalms, together with some traditional material from the Church Slavonic Psalter, beautifully presented in large type on thick paper, so that it is suitable for public liturgical as well as private devotional reading. The register of the English is sonorous and dignified, its language somehow churchy and inviting a kind of slow lectio divina. It raises some issues that are worth considering.
The text provided by James is based on the version published by Miles (or Myles) Coverdale in 1533, which owes it fame to being incorporated in the Book of Common Prayer. Its fidelity to Coverdale goes so far as to incorporate the brief Latin title he gave to every psalm, so that above psalm 22 (or 23) we read ‘Dominus regit me.’ (This seems slightly idiosyncratic; the Gallican Psalter reads ‘Dominus reget me’ and the Vulgate ‘Dominus pascit me.’) Nevertheless, what Coverdale produced was very much a translation at second hand, for rather than working from the Hebrew text or the Septuagint translation of it into Greek, he based himself on the Vulgate translation into Latin and Luther’s translation into German, so that he was translating translations. But whatever his shortcomings in representing the original, Coverdale hit upon a style that was extremely well suited to liturgical use. Susan Gillingham expresses his achievement well: he developed a form ‘which is best typified as prose rhythm, influenced in part from the Latinate plainchant traditions of psalmody going back to Ambrose and Gregory. Each psalm verse is set in two half lines to reflect – intuitively, albeit not with linguistic accuracy – the characteristic parallelism of the Hebrew poetry. The poetry is more in the balance of sense than rhythm or metre…’ Such qualities allowed it to establish itself as the standard translation into English, far outstripping that in the Authorized Version; it is the version Charles Jennens used for the many passages from the psalms in the libretto he wrote for Handel’s Messiah.
But James does not merely produce a refined version of Coverdale, for he has carefully compared this text with the Septuagint, Jerome’s translation of it into Latin (the Gallican psalter) and the translation into Church Slavonic. Occasionally, wording from the King James or Douay-Rheims translations has been preferred; such a range places his work in a context of Christian devotion, rather than fidelity to the Jewish original. The result is a wonderfully rich product that will not only be read but frequently used. Hence the beginning of psalm 109 (110), Dixit Dominus, often quoted in the New Testament and common in Christian liturgy, is a lightly revised version of Coverdale: ‘The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit Thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies the footstool of Thy feet.’ The second part of the third verse, which in Coverdale takes the incomprehensible form ‘the dew of thy birth is of the womb of the morning’, appears in James as ‘from the womb before the morning star I have begotten Thee.’
Hence the book we are offered, as its title suggests, is designed for prayer. Its translation strategy is far removed from that of David Bentley Hart, in his version of the Gospels. James’ work put me in mind of something from a very different part of Christendom, the Scottish Psalter, with its memorable The Lord’s My Shepherd and the stirring Old Hundredth. Doubtless Scots like to sing and, in the musically impoverished climate of a Calvinist Reformation, took with gusto to psalms designed to look like hymns. Here again, if in another direction. the original is freely reworked for the purpose of worship.