A Psalm from David

David Gissen
with the assistance of Rabbi David Freelund

Reviewed by Kimberly Johnson

16 Jun 2018

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.


By Kim­ber­ly Johnson

As a kid, I lis­tened to a lot of loud music. If I’m hon­est, I still do. As a con­se­quence, my hear­ing is skit­tish: there are reg­is­ters that elude me in the com­mon ranges of human speech, and my capac­i­ty to lis­ten with dis­crim­i­na­tion is dimin­ished in envi­ron­ments where sound col­lides and bends: cock­tail par­ties, cav­ernous spaces. 

In what David Gis­sen describes as the large, rever­ber­a­tive Euro­pean cathe­drals,” I have mud­dled my way through ser­mons along­side mur­mur­ing awe-seek­ers in the semi­dark. All the voic­es blur togeth­er, and the susurrus of rev­er­ent foot­falls blends with the mut­ed car-horns from out­side to res­onate like a har­mon­ic against the tin­nitic whine I hear wak­ing or sleep­ing. What I hear is a dis­tort­ed cathe­dral, a mis­shapen syn­a­gogue, a par­tial mosque: an aur­al shape naved in mud­dle and apsed in mute.

In the jos­tle of pil­grims and tourists, there’s only one word I hear clear­ly, broad­cast in gen­tle but stern tones of reminder over the pious pub­lic address sys­tem: Silence. Through the illeg­i­ble press of voic­es: Silence.

It seems meta­phys­i­cal­ly appro­pri­ate to me that the only sound to arrive intact at my hear­ing is Silence. The gen­er­al din of prayer and prayer-tourism pro­duces a kind of noise-can­cel­la­tion device around me, leav­ing the way clear to the holy and unan­swer­able silence at the heart of the architecture.

Gissen’s accom­mo­dat­ed trans­la­tion of Psalm 23 seeks to drop the res­o­nances of prayer down below the hub­bub, below the boun­cy fre­quen­cies of stone walls and the mut­ter of traf­fic through the win­dow glass. My guardian, I am your lamb, it begins, incor­po­rat­ing the weak­ness­es of the body — the weak­ness­es of my very ears — into its song. 

Gissen’s low tones ask me to lis­ten for a spell from with­in that weak­ness. But as I lis­ten, appre­ci­at­ing the increased intel­li­gi­bil­i­ty of his song, I must con­fess that I crave not more intel­li­gi­bil­i­ty but less. Gissen’s tech­ni­cal solu­tion to my mud­dled hear­ing may allow the psalm’s words to car­ry through the cathe­dral with less dis­tor­tion, with less inter­fer­ence from the throng and its whis­pered ven­er­a­tions. But I haven’t entered the sanc­tu­ary for words — not even words as august and affir­ma­tive as those of Psalm 23. I have entered pre­cise­ly to have the stone and vault absorb the rab­ble, to have the whis­pers in their counter-ampli­tudes reduce to hush. I have entered for silence. For Simone Weil, noth­ing else so char­ac­ter­izes the voice of the divine: The word of God is silence.”3

In con­trast to that divine silence, Gissen’s envi­ron­men­tal trans­la­tion height­ens my sense of its sound, of the sub­stan­tial­i­ty of the trans­la­tion per se, of the words that refuse to be abstract­ed or noise-can­celled away. Gissen’s low-tone psalm insists at my ears in unsub­limable reg­is­ters of phys­i­cal­i­ty, and lodges in my throat in con­fir­ma­tion of my heavy, ram­shackle, mor­tal body. It suc­ceeds in keep­ing the sound of the world and its syl­la­bles present to my under­stand­ing, sneak­ing in around the nodes of my own unhear­ing. Gissen’s psalm over­writes the silence. By endur­ing as an aur­al arti­fact, Gissen’s psalm offers a prayer that dis­pels the silence with all its meta­phys­i­cal res­o­nance. Instead of the damped silence of my tin­ni­tis, I actu­al­ly hear the words—words about the com­fort­ing appre­hen­si­bil­i­ty of the divine. But pre­cise­ly because I hear the words, I can no longer dwell in holy silence. Words about God over­write the word of God that is silence. I long for the psalm to end, for my return to the illeg­i­bil­i­ty of the holy.

That is to say: per­haps para­dox­i­cal­ly, Gissen’s psalm cul­ti­vates its own obsolescence.



In Jew­ish prac­tice, the psalm is read in mourn­ing rit­u­als and as a prayer for the ill.


The text was read into a con­vo­lu­tion reverb proces­sor uti­liz­ing impulse respons­es made in sev­er­al, large, rever­ber­a­tive, Euro­pean cathedrals.


Simone Weil, The Love of God and Afflic­tion,” The Simone Weil Read­er, ed. George A. Panichas (Wake­field, RI: Moy­er Bell Pub­lish­ers, 1999), 467.


David Gis­sen is a his­to­ri­an, the­o­rist, cura­tor, and crit­ic whose work exam­ines his­to­ries and the­o­ries of archi­tec­ture, land­scapes, envi­ron­ments, and cities. His recent work focus­es on devel­op­ing a nov­el con­cept of nature in archi­tec­tur­al thought and exper­i­men­tal forms of archi­tec­tur­al his­tor­i­cal prac­tice. Gis­sen is the author of Man­hat­tan Atmos­pheres: Archi­tec­ture, the Inte­ri­or Envi­ron­ment, and Urban Cri­sis (Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 2014) and Sub­na­ture: Archi­tec­ture’s Oth­er Envi­ron­ments (Prince­ton Archi­tec­tur­al Press, 2009), and he edit­ed of the Ter­ri­to­ry” issue of AD Jour­nal (2010) and Big and Green (Prince­ton Archi­tec­tur­al Press, 2003). His essays have been pub­lished in jour­nals such as AA Files, Cab­i­net, Grey Room, Log, Quaderns, and Thresh­olds, as well as a wide range of mag­a­zines, news­pa­pers, blogs, and books. His cura­to­r­i­al and exper­i­men­tal his­tor­i­cal work has been staged at the Muse­um of the City of New York, the Nation­al Build­ing Muse­um, the Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Archi­tec­ture Gallery, the Toron­to Free Gallery, and the Cana­di­an Cen­tre for Archi­tec­ture, among oth­er venues. Gis­sen is cur­rent­ly an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Cal­i­for­nia Col­lege of the Arts. Email: dgissen@​cca.​edu

Kim­ber­ly John­son is the author of three col­lec­tions of poet­ry, most recent­ly Uncom­mon Prayer (Persea Books, 2014), and of book-length trans­la­tions of Vir­gil (Pen­guin Clas­sics, 2009) and Hes­iod (North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2017). Her mono­graph Made Flesh: Sacra­ment and Poet­ics in Post-Ref­or­ma­tion Eng­land was pub­lished in 2014 by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia Press, and her work on the reli­gious lit­er­a­ture of the Eng­lish Renais­sance has appeared in numer­ous jour­nals, includ­ing Mil­ton Quar­ter­ly and Mod­ern Philol­o­gy, with a forth­com­ing essay in PMLA. With Jay Hopler, she edit­ed Before the Door of God: An Anthol­o­gy of Devo­tion­al Poet­ry (Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2013). Recip­i­ent of grants and awards from the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts and the Guggen­heim Foun­da­tion, John­son teach­es Renais­sance lit­er­a­ture and cre­ative writ­ing at Brigham Young Uni­ver­si­ty. Email: kimberly_​johnson@​byu.​edu