Between 1918 and 1953, Claudel composed a vast collection of “Psalms” translated from the Latin of the Vulgate. Only a small number were published during his lifetime in three thin collections. If he ever had the desire to make a complete psalter, he did not reach the end of the undertaking: while some psalms have known two or three different versions over the years, others seem completely ignored by the poet.
It is that writing obeys a different necessity. Translations of psalms, for the most part, followed liturgical temporality and responded to the Church’s time: the presence of a verse in the liturgy of a mass, or, for example, the recitation of a psalm to the matines of a religious feast, inspired a translation. Each psalm is thus assigned, in addition to its original, literal meaning, a Christian meaning that doubles and increases it. But the Christian tradition is not limited to this double meaning (historical or literal meaning; allegorical meaning, centred on Christ): it adds a moral meaning (centred on the life of the soul) and an eschatological one (which is interested in the afterlife, the Beyond). Claudel fully embraced this interpretative tradition that nourished his translations: to the letter of the text, he superimposed a liturgical context, Christian realities, but also his own concerns as a man and as a believer. The text of the psalms seems profoundly disrupted, modernized and sometimes unrecognizable.
The biblical text, however, is never forgotten: Claudel did not, like some of his contemporaries (Marie Noël or Patrice de La Tour du Pin, for example), simply seek to take up a literary form or genre. His meditation was always grafted onto the biblical text, and he often drew inspiration, despite his incessant mockery of contemporary exegetes, by the scholarly comments he found in his Bible. Even in the freest translations, we find the word or expression that, from the Latin verse, allowed Claudel’s verse to flourish, while some psalms or verses – the most sacred in Claudel’s eyes – are translated with a literality that is similar to the word for word – but that does not guarantee respect for the literal meaning.
In this exploration of the relationship between the letter of the text and its spirit, Claudel found the questions that he had asked himself in the translation of Aeschylus’ Orestia, or those of Coventry Patmore or G. K. Chesterton. Despite his frequent denials at the head of psalm translations (“It is not literature,””it is not beautiful”), they are still full of poetic considerations. It is no wonder, since the author whom tradition attributes to the Psalms is none other than David, the poet king. Over time, the desire to go back to the original voice of the psalms appeared – that of Jerome, of whom Claudel drew a mirroring portrait in Visages radieux (“Saint Jerome”), then that of David himself, another figure of identification. “Speaking David to God”, in order to “translate [oneself] to God” while translating God to oneself, such is the poetics of these translations. In the subtle mixture of voices that associates the voices of Christ, Jerome, Claudel, but also of every Christian, the paradoxical and surprising unity of an “I” that “is composed in the psalm” is born.
Paul Claudel, Prière pour les paralysés suivie des Quinze Psaumes graduels, Horizons de France, 1944. Paul Claudel traduit librement les Sept Psaumes de la pénitence, Le Seuil, 1945, rééd. 2007.
Paul Claudel répond les Psaumes, Ides et Calendes, 1948.
Paul Claudel, Psaumes. 1918-1953, Desclée de Brouwer, 1966, dernière réédition : Gallimard, 2008.
Critical edition : Marie-Ève Benoteau-Alexandre, Les Psaumes selon Claudel, Champion, 2012.
Marie-Ève Benoteau-Alexandre, Les Psaumes selon Claudel, Champion, 2012.
Pascale Alexandre-Bergues, « Les écritures claudéliennes dans les Psaumes », [in] Écritures claudéliennes, L’Âge d’Homme, 1997, p. 32-43.
Dominique Millet-Gérard, « Le Psautier claudélien ou le bel infidèle », Question de, n ° 94 (L’Approbation sacrée. Paul Claudel et la Bible), 1993, p. 149-163.