Sunday, 18 September 2011

How to present what I have seen - a draft

This post encapsulates the principles I desired to follow over the past 5 years. Where shall I go? What else should I read on this?

Why do I insist on seeing the psalms? I take them as a public declaration of both liturgical practice and personal delight. I need to see them, because the language is no longer available aurally in my time, and the performance practice is at best inferred. But in seeing them, I begin to hear also.

As I learned Hebrew, the language they were first written in, I saw patterns that were not obvious in English translations, the language I had first learned them in. Some patterns are relatively clear in some translations. For example, the parallelisms or the rhyming ideas in the poems are clearest in the performance practice of plainsong and chanting. Such patterns have been studied under the term, parallellismus membrorum,  coined by Robert Lowth in the 18th century. For example psalm 18.21 contains two parallel similar thoughts
יְהוָה will reward me for my righteousness
for the purity of my hands he will turn to me
In this case also, we have an action verb followed by a reason, then a parallel reason followed by an action verb. In this case reward me and turn to me are rhyming ideas, as are for my righteousness and for the purity of my hands. In the thought process, this parallel is in the form a-b-b-a.

These parallels are important, but there are other words also that frame and support parallelism. In a recent book, A Rabbi Reads the Psalms, Jonathan Magonet instructs the reader to read the psalms with coloured pencils and circle the words that repeat. In a close word for word translation, this is barely possible, but no translations into English that I know of are close enough.

To get the full extent of the word play and the recurring patterns or word usage, I had to read in Hebrew and translate in a new way to allow the frame evident in the Hebrew to play its same role in an English version. In the case of Psalm 18, verse 21 is itself part of a frame. It contains several words that are exactly repeated in verse 25, thus framing verses 22-24 which state the speaker's actions that lead to the reward of the presence. This type of recurrence I have shown in tables. The pattern in the table below immediately reveals the recurring words.

Selected recurring words in relative order - psalm 18.19-25

Word and gloss * first usage12345678VsStem
כצדקי for my righteousness
* כבר for the purity of
ידי my hands
ישׁיב he will turn
* לי to me
שׁמרתי I have kept
ולא and not
* לנגדי are before me
לא not
ואשׁתמר and I will keep myself
וישׁב and turned
* לי to me
כצדקי for my righteousness
* כבר for the purity of
ידי my hands
* לנגד before

A third pattern also emerged. How should one manage the lines in a poem? It has been suggested by John Hobbins at that the Hebrew poets grouped by 2's and 3's. The pattern works quite well for words in a line, and lines in a verse, and verses in a stanza. The pattern works at the word level because of the enclitic nature of Hebrew. Conjunctions and prepositions, helping verbs, and so on are all clumped together in a Hebrew 'word' as prefixes and suffixes on a stem or root. As a result, a Hebrew poetic line perhaps expressing the first part of a parallel, is typically two or three words, and occasionally 4, rarely 5. Ideas are expressed with very few lexical words because the words are complex, comprised of a stem which is generally two or three characters, and the grammatical affixes. So psalm 18:21 in Hebrew is
יִגְמְלֵנִי יְהוָה כְּצִדְקִי
כְּבֹר יָדַי יָשִׁיב לִי

7 'words' in Hebrew, 3 and 4 in each of the two lines - 18 'words' in English, 7 and 11 in the two lines. In the above, the grammatical letters are in green. Each line thus has three distinct root words. In my work I form the Hebrew according to this prosodic rule, and I put the English beside it line for line, writing the English to correspond to the pairs and triplets of the Hebrew thought process as expressed in each poetic line. (The full text of the psalm is here.)

These three patterns: parallels, recurrence, and prosody all play a part in the way in which I want to see each poem.

A very large proportion of the Hebrew Bible is written in poetic form. All the psalms, Proverbs, Job, the Song and other songs within the narrative portions, all the prophets, and furthermore, much of the so called prose also makes heavy use of recurrence within its rhetorical framework (E.g. Jonah, the whole story organized around 7 words). Moreover, much of the New Testament takes its flavour from the thought process that is evident in Hebrew poetry. For example, the canticles in Luke, the sermons of Jesus, and the writing of John. The form frames the expression of meaning and therefore governs how we are to apprehend and respond to it.  The design principle is that form follows function, and its corollary is that function is obscured by disorder or a failure to perceive the form. If function or meaning is framed in the original tongue, then surely we should preserve the frames in translation.

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