The Hound Pants and the Stag Bells - How images influence our understanding of psalms

Ursula Kundert
Event poster for a concert on 24 October 2011 by the North Hessian Chamber Choir featuring Psalm 42,2 set to music, based on Luther’s and English translations.

When translating, it is not always easy to find the perfect balance between producing a faithful reproduction of an original and expressing it in a contemporary form. With regard to a poetic book of the Bible, e. g. the Psalms, faithful reproduction also means expressing the formal composition, the lyrical character. Psalm 42,2 draws a comparison between the soul and an animal, in Hebrew: „כְּאַיָּ֗ל“ (kə-’ay-yāl). The expression literally means ’like a hind‘ or ‘lika a female deer’. In Hebrew literature, the more detailed the description, the more poetic it becomes. In contemporary German literature, it is exactly the other way around. Poetry remains vague, leaving room for one’s thoughts, while a book on hunting contains detailed descriptions of animals.

The most recent entirely new translation of the Zurich Bible was published in 2007. According to its preface, it attempts to render the basic canonical texts as accurately as possible, while setting them in the language of the 21st century. This means that the translation is intended as an aid for understanding and less so as a literary art work with its own canonical pretence. As an auxiliary tool, it always depends on the cultural and linguistic situation to which it speaks. Already the original Zurich Bible translation of 1531, the first complete German translation in the period of the Reformation, unterstood itself as a preliminary work in this sense, because scholars would need to come up with new adequate interpretations of the biblical text again and again.

Martin Luther translated Psalm 42,2 with the words ‘wie der Hirsch‘ (King James Version: ’As the hart’), for which he most likely referred to the Latin Vulgate (‘quemadmodum … cervus‘), or perhaps it reflected typical German language use, as he propagated in his “Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen” (‘Open Letter on Translating’). This tentatively generic translation hasn’t proved very successful in the 21st century, as demonstrated by numerous concert posters advertising Mendelssohn’s setting. It appears that graphic artists who read this psalm imagine a belling stag, therefore a male deer, a motif whose prevalence in the fine arts of the 19th century surely plays a role.

The Zurich Bible of 2007 attempted to unite literal translation with poetic impact by deciding to forego the word “Hirschkuh” (literally: ‘deer cow’), which sounds like an insult, in favour of the more gentle-sounding “Hindin” (‘hind’): ‘Wie die Hindin lechzt an versiegten Bächen, so lechzt meine Seele, Gott, nach dir’. Almost as soon as the translation was published, the editors received a well-meant letter from a reader who had discovered a typing error in Psalm 42, believing it was supposed to read “Hündin” (’hound’). It appears that  this translation did not exactly attain the goal of employing the language of the 21st century either.

Both examples demonstrate that definitions of a situation, called “frames” by Erving Goffman, determine how we understand utterances. The translation of psalms reveals a lot about what the translator regards as normal, self-evident, appropriate, or obvious. And in the special case of psalms, this not only applies to their content, but also their form, in other words whether psalms are to be composed of certain words or rhymes.

The project “Media History of Psalms” investigates the frames which influenced the way late medieval translators and scribes understood the psalms, and how their own formulations created new frames for their readers.

I wish to thank Peter Schwagmeier from the Universität Zürich for the fascinating exchange about this psalm verse.