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Translation is a two-way street. Oftentimes those of us who do translations think about it as a one-way street. All I have to do is get that in English or all I have to do is get that into French or some other modern language and then everything will be clear. That, in fact, is not the case, because we have to know what the hearer is hearing in a particular word.

The example would be at that first Psalm. There is a very clear difference between “happy” and the word “blessed.” In various translations it will use “happy is the one,” others will use “blessed is the one.” Well, I would think most English ears hear “blessed” as a more, should I say, religious term, whereas “happy” is something that you might be happy on your birthday, as opposed to feeling blessed when something good has happened to you in a religious service and you say, “I’m blessed.” So, those words have different connotative values. The translator is always engaged in that process of what does the hearer hear?

So at the beginning of the Psalter, one of the reasons I would guess that the word blessed has been used until recent times, is one said: “well it’s holy Scripture, so we ought to use religious terms.” In fact, the term is not the very different Hebrew word of baruch as opposed to ashre. As you can see by the sound, they’re very different words, it’s not a confusing factor, the beginning of the Psalm is ashre—“happy is the one.” So translation is always in that, in that two-way street of, what do I think the text meant, what is the hearer hearing and how do you go back and forth on that street and arrive at a translation.

  • Kent Harold Richards

    Kent Harold Richards is the former executive director of the Society of Biblical Literature. He has authored and edited numerous books, including Interpreting Hebrew Poetry (Augsburg Fortress, 1992; coedited with David L. Petersen) and Method Matters (SBL, 2009). He is president of the consulting firm, Strategy Points.