Wednesday, August 10, 2011

On translating acrostics

A question came to me on email.
Examining your translations of the acrostic chapters of Lamentations, and comparing them with other Bible translations also preserving the acrostic structure, I noticed that your translation - like the Hebrew, but unlike some of the other acrostic translations - shows a reversal of the normal order of I (ayin) and P (peh) in the chapters 2, 3 and 4 into P-I, compared to chapter 1. I was just curious to know more about your choice to have this reversal be apparent in English.
Question 1 - what is the normal order of the letters in Hebrew?
Here it is from the banner of this blog: א ב ג ד ה ו ז ח ט י כ ל מ נ ס ע פ צ ק ר ש ת

It is clear from comparing the Psalter's acrostics with Lamentations that the order of the letters in the 8 acrostics of the Psalter is the same as that given above and the same as  the order in chapter 1 of Lamentations. Then, as the question states: chapters 2, 3, and 4 reverse the order of the letters ע and פ.

I raise this question of sequence to put to rest the idea that there might have been a different letter sequence at some period in history. It's a possibility, but I would not support it with the evidence I have: 9 examples in the above sequence and 3 with 2 letters reversed.

Question 2 - why translate the acrostics with the letter order evident?
The acrostics are games. To translate a game, one must play the game. In every sequential move of this game, the poet writes to God.  The game is with God. Games have rules and also may have a winner. Or they are shared play. These are word games, and can be played by children and adults. Three weeks ago at Sunday school, an 8 year old and I read through Psalm 34. We began with his having to find each of the letters of the alef-bet in their poetic place.  He had learned his letters the previous week.  He eventually figured out the regular pattern in the poem (with its missing or premature positioning of vav).  The game is for teaching and learning.

Question 3 - why make the patterns clear in English?
The poems are foreign and strange to our ears. Making them read smoothly would betray their reality.

The questions then arise - why did the poet reverse the sequence of these letters?  Similarly, why are the first four acrostics in the Psalter (all in book 1) imperfect - missing one or more letters, and the last four (all in book 5) perfect, complete in their sequential representation of each letter where expected?  Similarly, why is chapter 3 of Lamentations a triple acrostic in the first person singular?

To be known is to be known in these questions. Beware the too easy answer. As Northrope Frye writes in The Great Code, (quoting roughly from memory)  the answer to a question consolidates learning at the level of the question and thus prevents the formation of fuller and better questions.  (I would omit the word 'better' - but by all means, let us have good questions, and let us not have our learning of answers become the rote that we measure by. Spirit and Life are more than rote.)

My Lamentations translations are here Chapters 1 2 3 4 5. I have not (yet) submitted them to the discipline I have been developing in the last year.

I am on holiday and will have limited access to the web over the next two weeks.