Self-taught translator simplifies the psalms

When Ronald Barany studied psalms at Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley, he was continually frustrated by the translations.

"I thought they were all missing the boat. You'd read a bunch of nice-sounding words, but you had no idea what you were reading."

So Barany, a retired Oakland chemist and computer programmer, wrote his own translation of Psalm 19. His fellow classmates in the adult education class at Beth Israel and their teacher, Sam Haber, encouraged Barany to translate more.

He's now self-published his translations in a book, simply titled, "The Psalms."

Though he has little formal training in Hebrew, Barany writes concise, simple translations. This is especially evident when comparing Barany's translation of Psalm 137 with the Jerusalem Bible's.

Barany's translation:

"For there our captors asked us for songs,

"And our tormentors for joy,

"`Sing us a song of Zion.'

"How shall we sing the song of the Lord

"In an alien land?

"If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,

"Let my right hand wither."

The Jerusalem Bible translation is more literal:

"For there they who carried us away captive asked us for a song;

"And they who spoiled us asked us for mirth, saying

"`Sing us one of the songs of Ziyyon.'

"How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?

"If I forget thee, O Yerushalayim, let my right hand forget her cunning."

"My primary goal," says Barany, "was to preserve the meaning."

Barany grew up in a "somewhat observant home" in New York. He attended Hebrew school but says he didn't learn much.

"I remember quitting [Hebrew school] because they started translating into Yiddish, which I didn't know. Translating from one language that I didn't know to another language that I didn't know seemed pointless."

He began teaching himself Hebrew grammar nearly 40 years ago, from the Naor grammar book.

"Grammar is crucial for understanding Hebrew," he says.

In addition to Hebrew, Barany studied French and German, a requirement for his degree in physical chemistry from Yale University. He graduated from Yale, where he received a Ph.D. in 1955.

Barany's parents were Hungarian immigrants, so he also speaks some Hungarian, along with a smattering of Scandinavian languages, Dutch, Portuguese, Italian and Spanish.

The psalms are universal, he says; they speak to people's hearts.

"There's a lot in there about life, about feeling, about emotion. They're very emotional works. I guess people can respond to that."

"The Psalms," translated by Ronald Barany (285 pages, Psilam Publishing, $23). Information: (510) 653-3371, or write Psilam Publishing, 5856 College Ave., No. 201, Oakland, CA 94618 .