Review of "Psalm Culture and the Politics of Translation"

“Psalm Culture and the Politics of Translation”, held at Queen Mary, University of London, showcased contributions that ranged across periods and disciplines. The 58 papers addressed topics in literature, art, music, and history, from the Anglo-Saxon period to the seventeenth century. While participants focused on works produced in England, many papers brought continental and transatlantic parallels to bear. Within this interdisciplinary matrix, speakers played off each other as papers worked to develop a vocabulary and conceptual framework for discussing translations of the Psalms into different languages, forms, and media. The great success of the conference lay in the organizers’ novel idea to bring together people whose research interests vary widely but who touch, at least tangentially, on a single book: the Psalms.
            Each of the three days began with a plenary panel of two or three speakers, and each ended with a double-feature keynote. The format allowed attendees to hear top scholars in all the fields represented.
The plenary lectures and keynotes laid out different methodologies for studying psalms, and introduced themes and terminology that were further analyzed in panel papers. Michael Kuczynski looked at Old and Middle English psalter translations for evidence of ecclesiological reflection outside the monasteries. He argued that Wycliffite writers in particular used the prophetic language of the psalms to critique the institutional church, translating the mystical senses of scripture to comment on their own times. Kucyzinski introduced the concept of the “psalmodic voice” as a speaker position identified variously with King David, Christ, and the Church. David Lawton described the “public interiorities” open to writers like Eleanor Hull, who “revoiced” the psalmist to express private emotions. On the Early Modern side, Hannibal Hamlin discussed the performative nature of singing the psalms, which allowedworshippers to give voice to the dead. Other papers further explored how the Psalms’ polyvocality forms reading subjects in the model of penitent, prophet, and mystic through their engagement with scriptural hermeneutics. In analyzing psalm citation in English poetry, participants demonstrated the applicability of these frameworks to cases other than forthright psalm translation.
Several papers investigated particular authors’ use of psalms within a specific historical context. Eric Stanley offered a moving meditation on the royal preoccupations that King Alfred shared with King David. Lynn Staley focused on Richard Maidstone’s translation of the Penitential Psalms, arguing that the author’s life and political circumstances shaped his view of the psalmodic portrayal of lordship.
Speakers also investigated the art of translating a sacred text into vernacular languages. Annie Sutherland offered a close analysis of the fourteenth-century English Prose Psalter as a case of multi-layered translation. She argued that the Middle English text derived from an Anglo-Norman source, which had previously been overlooked, but which provides insight into the relationship of medieval England’s two vernaculars. As a glossed psalter it translates between literal and figurative senses of scripture, straying from what modern scholars would consider faithful adherence to the scriptural text in order to communicate divine intent. Elizabeth Solopova analyzed an example at the other end of the spectrum, showing that the Wycliffite Bible translation strives for strict literalism in its version of the Psalms.
Of course medieval and Early Modern Christians alike encountered the psalms as sung in worship more often than written in psalter-books. Daniel Anlezark considered how psalm verses were redeployed within the context of the Benedictine Office. Roger Bowers treated musical settings of the psalms directly. He discussed Latin polyphonic arrangements for domestic singing, which remained popular into the sixteenth century. Clare Costley King’oo argued that William Hunnis’s setting of an expanded paraphrase of the Penitential Psalms betrays a “cultural hybridity” that complicates any strict division between medieval and Early Modern devotional culture.
To appreciate Protestant adaptations and popular sixteenth-century settings of the psalms, conference participants were invited to sing along during Nicholas Temperley and Beth Quitslund’s presentation, which they delivered in the magnificently restored chapel of the Charterhouse, a medieval house of Carthusian monks.
            Elaine Treharne called attention to the manuscript context of Anglo-Saxon psalters, in which psalm texts are framed by glosses and images. She asked how scholars might capture this “pleni-text” in critical editions. Other papers addressed how the story of David is translated into visual imagery through manuscript illuminations and sculptures.
            The final plenary session brought the conference to a stunning conclusion, pulling together many of the issues raised previously. Vincent Gillespie considered the relation of the Psalms to poetic theory, tracing discussion of divinely inspired song from Ancient Greece, through Augustine and Cassiodorus, to Richard Rolle. He argued that reading the psalms formally as lyric hymns provided Rolle a model for poetic eloquence and imagination. James Simpson explored the citation of psalm verses in poems written by courtiers who had fallen out of favor with Henry VIII. He contended the psalms serve as a “vast echo chamber” whose distinct verses can be redeployed in poetic collage to test political boundaries while remaining within the bounds of traditional language and motifs.
            All who attended expressed gratitude to the conference organizers, Dr. Ruth Ahnert, Dr. Tamara Atkin, and Dr. Francis Leneghan, for orchestrating such an innovative and stimulating event.