Robert Pinsky on the poetic biblical translating of Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke
Anthologists, eager to compensate for patriarchal societies, sometimes appear to scrape up women for inclusion in their books. No apology is required for Mary Herbert’s accomplished, inventive work as a translator. Her version of “Psalm 52” uses rhyme— that barbarous, jangly departure from classical dignity—as part of an angry, urgent music. Interestingly, “Psalm 52” denounces those who are great and prominent, but false: a phenomenon that the Countess of Pembroke was well placed to observe.
Her version is less compact than the other great translation of her time, and more performative. The King James prose version has the force of simplicity and compression, a clinching denunciation. Mary Herbert makes the psalm into more of a song: an inspired rant, extravagant yet disciplined. (In her final line, “annoy” has become a weaker word in contemporary English than its root, which indicated hatred.) Comparing and appreciating the two translations, prose and poetry and appreciating both, can be a lesson in writing.