Friday, March 14, 2008

No "Soul" in the Psalms?

"He restoreth my soul" --King James Version

"My life He brings back" -- translation by Robert Alter

In Alter's new translation of the Book of Psalms, he avoids using the word "soul." Referring to the King James wording in Psalm 63:1--"my soul thirsteth for thee"--he explains:

The King James Version, and most modern translations in its footsteps, has the "soul" thirsting for God, but this is almost certainly a mistake. The Hebrew word nefesh means "life breath" and, by extension, "life" or "essential being." But by metonymy, it is also a term for the throat (the passage through which the breath travels) or, sometimes, for the neck. (pp. xxvii-xxviii).

A few pages after that, Alter says more about how he understands the word nefesh and why he translates it as he does:

Nefesh, as I observed above, has a core meaning of "life-breath," but the Vulgate generally rendered it as anima, and that in turn predisposed the King James translators to represent it as "soul." It covers so many different meanings that it is impossible to translate in all contexts with the same English equivalent, something I attempt to do with all the Hebrew terms that will allow it. The possessive "my nefesh" is often chiefly an intensive form of the first-person-singular pronoun and, given the lack of any analogous term in English, is usually rendered here simply as "I." When nefesh is the object of a verb such as "to save," the reasonable English translation is "life." Because it is the very breath that quickens a person with life, it sometimes carries the sense of "essential being," and in these cases it is usually rendered here as "being." I am aware that "my being" is more awkward than "my soul," but "soul" strongly suggests a body-soul split--with implications of an afterlife--that is alien to the Hebrew Bible and to Psalms in particular. (There are indications of a Hades-like underworld, Sheol, a shadowy realm of nonbeing into which the dead descend, but this remains far from the distinct afterworld of later Judaism and Christianity.) As such, "soul" is a word that has to be avoided if we are not to get a misleading idea of what the psalmists are saying. (pp. xxxii-xxxiii).

A few reactions, observations:

1. You don't have to read Hebrew to get a taste for what Alter is talking about. English-only readers can take a Young's Analytical Concordance and look up the word "soul." Then, looking at the Old Testament occurrences, read some of the passages where the original Hebrew word is nefesh. See if, in all of those instances, the words "breath" or "life" or, occasionally, "throat" or "neck" would make sense. I know, a possible substitute word does not establish the meaning of a word in the original. It's just that, without Hebrew, this is the best way to get a feel for the question of what nefesh means.

2. It's interesting how students of Hebrew can learn that their vocabulary word nefesh means something like "life" or "breath" etc., but then, when translating one of the biblical psalms, revert to the word "soul." I point this out as an example of how not even study of the original languages of the Bible will move us away from our cherished understandings of certain passages. In spite of the many references to what the Bible says "in the original," traditional English translations of the biblical text carry much more weight. Does anyone do more Bible teaching than a Bible translator?

3. In addition to what Alter observes about the flexibility of the term nefesh, and the necessity of using more than one English word to translate it throughout the Old Testament, in some verses I wonder if there is any English word that adequately communicates what nefesh does. Of course, if you're publishing a translation, then even at those "iffy" places, a decision has to be made.

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