Translating Psalms (51)

This is the first of the “Soundtrack to David’s Life” psalms–psalms written about a specific incident in the life of David as described in I or II Samuel.  I strongly recommend knowing those history books well to appreciate what’s going on in these psalms.  This particular psalm is tied to one of Saul’s worst atrocities–the massacre of the priests at Nob because they unwittingly helped David escape him.

“Quid gloriaris” (Psalm 51)

[1] In finem. Intellectus David,

Unto the end.  The understanding of David,

[2] cum venit Doeg Idumaeus, et nuntiavit Sauli : Venit David in domum Achimelech.

when there came Doeg the Idumaean, and he announced to Saul, “David has come unto the house of Achimelech.”

[3] Quid gloriaris in malitia, qui potens es in iniquitate?

Why do you glory in malice, who are potent in injustice?

[4] Tota die injustitiam cogitavit lingua tua; sicut novacula acuta fecisti dolum.

All the day injustice does your tongue plan; as a sharp razor you have worked treachery.

[5] Dilexisti malitiam super benignitatem; iniquitatem magis quam loqui aequitatem.

You have loved malice above doing good; to speak injustice more than equity. 

[6] Dilexisti omnia verba praecipitationis, lingua dolosa.

You have loved all words of overthrow–a treacherous tongue.

[7] Propterea Deus destruet te in finem; evellet te, et emigrabit te de tabernaculo tuo, et radicem tuam de terra viventium.

Therefore God will destroy you unto the end, shall tear you out and send you away migrant from your tent and your root from the land of the living. 

[8] Videbunt justi, et timebunt; et super eum ridebunt, et dicent :

They will see, the just, and they will fear; and above him they will laugh and will say

[9] Ecce homo qui non posuit Deum adjutorem suum; sed speravit in multitudine divitiarum suarum, et praevaluit in vanitate sua.

“Behold the man who did not place God as his helper, but hoped in the multitude of his riches and prevailed in his vanity.

[10]Ego autem, sicut oliva fructifera in domo Dei; speravi in misericordia Dei, in aeternum et in saeculum saeculi.

Whereas I, just as the olive bearing fruit in the house of God, I have hoped in the mercy of God unto the eternal and unto the age of age.

[11] Confitebor tibi in saeculum, quia fecisti; et exspectabo nomen tuum, quoniam bonum est in conspectu sanctorum tuorum.

I will confess You unto the age, because You have worked and I will awatch Your name, for it is good in the sight of Your holy ones.”


v. 4 sicut novacula acuta fecisti dolum is a tricky phrase to render, not because of the plain sense of the words but because they don’t combine so clearly in that plain sense.  Dolum is trickery, deceit, fraud.  “Harm” I could understand but how do razors work fraud?  The best sense I can get from it in isolation is the work of a cutpurse.  The phrase only really makes sense in the context of the rest of the psalm as well as the story from I Samuel 22.  Dolum will show up again below (as dolosa) describing Doeg’s tongue, at which point the razor-fraud connection makes sense: Doeg betrays the priests of Nob to Saul and then carries out his wicked order of execution, at which point he really has finished effecting the dolum.

v. 5 loqui aequitatem I’ve taken this as an indirect statement continuing on from dilexisti in the first half of the verse.  The contrast is between speaking injustice and speaking equity, just as the contrast in the first half between loving malice and loving “benignity.”

v. 6 lingua dolosa This phrase is a good example, I think, of the unfortunate tendency to turn psalms into prose compositions.  In a prose sentence I need to find a reasonable syntax for lingua dolosa–vocative apposite to the subject?  Ablative of means?  In a song I can just render it as a kind of absolute, perhaps a new voice, perhaps a new thought, and move on.

v. 9 praevaluit I considered doing something weirdly idiosyncratic with this, like “fore-haled,” but I’m still rusty and trying to get back into the swing of things.  Give me a few psalms…

v. 11 exspectabo One of my idiosyncrasies is that I refuse to translate this word as “await.”  It means to be on the lookout for, like a sentry.  Unfortunately this is one of those places where the most reasonable translation is “await.”  I have opted for the slightly ridiculous–but here I stand; I can do no other–“awatch.”  Just be glad I didn’t use “a-sentry.”

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