I spent much of last week reviewing drafts of promotion applications with academic colleagues in a series of short, intense and very productive one-to-one meetings. The meetings will continue for a little while yet, which is good, since I’m finding them immensely rewarding: it’s a great pleasure for me to find out so much about individual colleagues’ work and to be reminded of the significance of what we do in terms of education, research and academic leadership.
But the meetings are tiring, I have to admit. So I was pleased to be able to slip away to Choral Evensong in the College Chapel on Tuesday evening. The choir were in fine voice, not least in singing Psalm 18, where my attention was caught by verses 45–46: ‘As soon as they hear of me, they shall obey me: but the strange children shall dissemble with me. The strange children shall fail: and be afraid out of their prisons.’ Psalm 18 is one of those psalms of thanksgiving in which David acknowledges how the Lord helps him – primarily, it seems, by smiting all his enemies. But who are these strange children, I found myself wondering, and why will they dissemble?
In King’s Chapel, Evensong follows the order of the Book of Common Prayer, which includes the translation of the Psalms by Myles Coverdale (c.1488–1569), who was the first person to translate the entire Bible into English. Coverdale knew Latin and German, so he was able to turn to St Jerome and Luther for help, but he seems to have had little or no Hebrew, which leads him to offer some creative renderings of the Psalms in particular. In Psalm 18, Coverdale translates in an apparently over-literal way the Hebrew idiom whereby the phrase ‘son of …’ indicates the nature of a person; in verse 45 the phrase is ‘sons of strangeness’, but instead of giving ‘the strangers’ or ‘the foreigners’, as later and apparently more idiomatic translations do, he opts for ‘the strange children’. And while the Hebrew suggests that these children will ‘quake’ or ‘tremble’, Coverdale opts for the much more suggestive ‘dissemble’, reinforcing the portrait of the devious wickedness of David’s enemies. For me, ‘foreigners tremble before me’ is nowhere near as interesting as ‘the strange children shall dissemble with me’.
One approach to translation, of course, is to focus less on ‘fidelity’ and more on beauty. Objectively, Coverdale gets it wrong; subjectively, he’s spot on. And it’s worth remembering that it’s to him that we owe ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death’ (Psalm 23:4), a rendering which, again, is not supported by the Hebrew – but it is supported by posterity.
Suitably refreshed and inspired by Choral Evensong, then, I duly put aside all thoughts of the dissembling of strange children and returned to reading promotion applications.
I am grateful to my colleagues The Revd Tim Ditchfield (College Chaplain) and Professor Paul Joyce (Samuel Davidson Professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and Head of the Department of Theology & Religious Studies) for helping me to appreciate Coverdale’s translation.