When we translate a text, we typically do so into a particular language — defined by geographical space and time — but other possibilities can be cultivated within translations. The following essay examines the translation of one of the most translated texts — Psalm 23 (“A psalm of David”) from the Hebrew Testament — based on ideas of disability, space, and intelligibility.1 While this essay focuses on an experimental translation of a Hebrew text, the ideas in it are axiomatic and can be applied to any textual work.
Psalm 23, a text that dates to the period of the First, Solomonic Temple (960BCE-586BCE) is an exemplary instance of an ancient text continuously translated from early sources in Hebrew, Greek, and Coptic into many other languages — for example, 7th-century Latin, 12th-century Arabic, 17th-century British English, 19th-century French, and 20th-century Chinese and “Global” English. The most famous translation of the psalm is from the King James Bible of 1611, a work of translation that transformed the modern English language:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
All translations invoke different forms of subjectivity. The King James translation opened the text of the Old and New Testaments to a larger, non-Latin-reading audience. Many of the most recent translations of Psalm 23 bring in concerns such as gender or power — for example replacing male pronouns for God with non-gender-specific pronouns. The “Contemporary English Version” (1995) of Psalm 23 replaces the pronoun for God — “he” — with “you,” as in the following verse:
You let me rest in fields of green grass.
You lead me to streams of peaceful water, and you refresh my life.
While this type of translation has become commonplace in religious texts, it represents a larger ethics of interpretation: the translations of Psalm 23 into 17th-century English expanded the intelligibility of worship, and the more recent gender-neutral translations suggest greater sensitivity to the inter-relationships of gender and power.
Within this specific ethical framework of translation and reproduction, we might imagine almost endless opportunities for bringing subjectivities into interpretations of work. It is possible that translations could also emerge from more intersectional thinking about subjectivity and more conceptual frameworks for considering how subjectivities are represented within language.
As someone with a disability, I have often considered how all forms of cultural interpretation might be more open to the ways I and other disabled people experience the world. It’s exciting to translate a text so that it can be read by someone in a foreign language, but how can we translate texts (or any other cultural artifacts) so that they can be understood by someone with a physical, experiential reality that is foreign to us? Who understands what and where is pre-determined by knowledge of a particular language, but it is also determined by one’s ability to understand something within a particular physical context. How language is perceived in certain environments limits or expands the possibilities of intelligibility. Braille is a wonderful alphabet, but it is not a system of translation that remakes language. Another approach towards accessibility and language might be added.
The text shown below is a new translation of Psalm 23. This is an English to English “dynamic” translation that makes the psalm easier to hear in the type of large and noisy spaces that typify Jewish and Christian worship, and it is also translated into language much more easily heard by people with hearing impairments. In this translation, the text’s original words — heavy with fricative and sibilant phonemes (eg. the word “shepherd” or “restoreth”) as well as diphthongs — are replaced with words that contain phonemes more easily heard at a distance and in a reverberating space. Tonally, the general sound frequency of the psalm is at a much lower register when spoken aloud; again, this aids in its intelligibility for people with hearing impairments and in a noisy context.
My guardian, I am your lamb. You tend to me.
You let me lie in a green meadow and lead me to a quiet pool.
You maintain me and guide me along the road.
In the valley of the dead, you make me bold by guiding me with your cane.
You let me eat when in danger. You put oil on my head and I drink plenty.
I know love and tender care every day; and I will dwell by you eternally.
When read aloud, the text will sound strange to most readers due to the low frequency register of its language, and it will make the reader’s larynx vibrate in ways that might feel unusual.
This “dynamic” translation is the result of many variations on particular phrases, which were tested both semantically and technically. The meaning of the language holds close to the original, although some deviations are apparent. Technically, many different possibilities for each verse were tested with audio equipment and simulators.2 The resulting audio was listened to by the author and also fed into a voice-to-text transcription tool to interpret its general intelligibility. The resulting “environmental translation” is significantly more intelligible in audibility-challenged environments than is the original King James version.
Ultimately, this gender-neutral, low tone, “environmental” version of Psalm 23 suggests possibilities for translation more generally. Translation is typically a realm of expertise either in particular languages or in literary genres (in the case above, liturgical literature). But translation can be opened to other forms of expertise. Those of us who shape, analyze, and historicize the spaces and environments within which texts appear might become more involved in translating and reproducing cultural artifacts. The ethical opportunities for expanding the perception of culture and meaning should be open to all.