Searching for a Psalter

by abbamoses

Holy Prophet David

The Psalter is an important part of my life. I try to read it often; I’ve made an effort to memorize some Psalms; and at more disciplined times in my life I’ve made a practice of reading a kathisma aloud every day.

I have a small shelf of Orthodox translations of the Psalter into English and, sad to say, none has ever completely satisfied me. I’d love to see a modern-English translation whose language is beautiful, dignified and faithful to the Septuagint text, but I’ve never found one. I had high hopes for the Orthodox Study Bible’s version of the Psalms, but it falls short (in my opinion) as a text to read aloud alone or in church. Though as far as I can tell it’s accurate, many passages seem graceless and unmusical.

(A personal aside: The important Old-Testament term “stranger” is often translated in the OSB as “resident alien”. Every time I come across this I have to suppress a smile: my parents were Canadian citizens who lived in the United States throughout my life, and periodically they’d have to do paperwork to keep them in good standing as “Resident Aliens”; so the term has a strong bureaucratic ring for me.)

I suspect that the failure of modern Bible translations is a symptom of our modern, democratic view of discourse. The idea of a special reverent or exalted mode of speech, nobler than everyday conversation, has become foreign to us. As a result, when we desire a nobler language we fall back on Elizabethan models. Perhaps a beautiful, reverent modern translation requires a reverent modern society that loves beauty. And when is that likely to happen?

Like so many English-speaking Orthodox Christians, I’ve ended up using Holy Transfiguration Monastery’s The Psalter according to the Seventy as my standard Psalter. Its language can sometimes be stilted and have a strained “Ye Olde” quality, but is often quite beautiful. It has the advantage of being available in a nice pocket edition, and is the text used in the Jordanville Prayer Book, perhaps the most widely-used Orthodox prayer book.

Just recently a very fine new Psalter has entered the field: A Psalter for Prayer, published in an exquisitely beautiful edition by the Printshop of St. Job of Pochaev at Holy Trinity Monastery. I’ve been reading it with delight. It uses as its starting point the venerable Miles Coverdale translation of the Psalms that was found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer before that was modernized. The Coverdale text has been edited to conform to the Septuagint. (Coverdale produced the first complete printed English Bible, before the King James; the Book of Common Prayer also predates the King James.) Needless to say, the language is not modern English, but it’s not an artificial attempt to imitate a language unnatural to the translators.

So I’m happy to say that Orthodox Christians now have two very fine Psalter translations to choose between, though if they want a worthy modern-English version, they’ll have to keep waiting. Which version to use — The Psalter according to the Seventy or A Psalter for Prayer — will be a matter of taste. I hope to be using the Psalter for Prayer regularly.

A Psalter for Prayer includes a wealth of extras which many will find useful in church or in private devotions. There are translations of the traditional Slavonic prayers that accompany Psalter reading; rules for reading the Psalter over the deceased (something I’ve never seen elsewhere in English); texts and commentaries on the Psalms by several Church Fathers; and the Rite for Singing the Twelve Psalms, another Russian tradition.

For some people (like me), the physical beauty of the Psalter for Prayer will be one of its attractions. It’s set in large, clear, well-arranged type, with a large decorative capital beginning each Psalm. If, as I fear, e-books slowly drive printed books out of existence, I hope that some future e-typographer will find a way to bestow this kind of beauty on the electronic age.