Friday, June 18, 2021

Reading in translation - an example Psalms 10:1

How much value is there in reading these texts in translation? This question is from Christopher Page in our blogging dialogue, currently in its 9th week. Here's the first post from April 17th.

My answer must be that there is much value in many ways. I responded quickly in a comment. I have been thinking about the question continuously since he raised it.

It is clear that no one has Biblical Hebrew as a mother tongue. No one ever coins a word or absorbs new words into Biblical Hebrew. Effectively, we can read only in translation. Even a native Hebrew speaker today does not think like an ancient Hebrew. Words change both their sense and their usage over time - and here we are not talking centuries but millennia.

Many people have given this advice, that where possible, we should consult alternate translations. Today that is more easily done than it was in the past. Of course, we may find it threatening to question our traditional words and phrases, and it is more difficult to remember what is unfamiliar, and the music would change - and there is such a long tradition of music from the psalms.

I remember loving the psalms as I gradually learned to sing them. We memorized Psalms 84 and 85 for a choir trip to Kingston, Ontario in the 1950's when I couldn't have been more than 12. 

O how amiable are thy dwellings *
thou Lord of hosts!
My soul hath a desire and longing to enter into the courts of the Lord *
my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.
Yea, the sparrow hath found her an house, and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young *
even thy altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.
Blessed are they that dwell in thy house *
they will be alway praising thee. ...

Ah, how that brings back memories, mostly good. Music covers a multitude of sins.

And who can forget the magnificent poetry of Psalms 85.
Mercy and truth are met together *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
Truth shall flourish out of the earth *
and righteousness hath looked down from heaven.
Yea, the Lord shall shew loving-kindness *
and our land shall give her increase.
Righteousness shall go before him *
and he shall direct his going in the way.

(O dear, what have I done to these words! Don't look now - but it's not that bad. The Hebrew here is quite transparent. Notice how compact it is.)

ksd-vamt npgwu.
xdq vwlom nwqu.
amt marx txmk,
vxdq mwmiim nwqf.
gm-ihvh iitn h'tob,
varxnu titn ibulh.
xdq lpniv ihlç,
viwm ldrç pymiv.

But what did I know of these 5 books even after a lifetime of singing them? Selah... the stories of David (book 1+), the exile, the poems of the children of Korah, and Asaph, Ethan the Ezrahite, Jeduthun, (books 2 and 3), the massive laments, the response of what has been called the book of Moses (book 4) to the two books from the exile, the 8 acrostics and the two oracles (books 1 and 5), the patterns of worship in the Temple, the movement from exile to praise, (book 5+). 

The complexity is overwhelming. As I think of school and how much we memorized, I ask myself why we didn't memorize in French and Latin as well. Imagine what we might have learned with a tri-lingual reading.

Today, we can scan many different translations on the web at one go. As we begin Psalms 10, I thought to look at the first verse. Psalms 10 is the continuation of the acrostic of Psalms 9. 

King James Version Why standest thou afar off, O LORD?
why hidest thou thyself in times of trouble?
Coverdale Why standest thou so far off, O Lord *
and hidest thy face in the needful time of trouble?
Jerusalem Bible Yahweh, why do you stand aside,
why hide from us now the times are hard?
Revised English Bible Why stand far off, Lord?
Why hide away in times of trouble?
Hebrew, the Square text, pointed,
from the Leningrad Codex
לָמָ֣ה יְ֭הוָה תַּעֲמֹ֣ד בְּרָח֑וֹק
תַּ֝עְלִ֗ים לְעִתּ֥וֹת בַּצָּרֽ͏ָה׃
SimHebrew, a partially vocalized text
one for one with the unpointed text.
lmh ihvh tymod brkoq,
tylim lyitot bxrh?
Greek ἵνα τί κύριε ἀφέστηκας μακρόθεν
ὑπερορᾷς ἐν εὐκαιρίαις ἐν θλίψει
New English Translation of the Septuagint Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?
Why do you overlook, at the right moment, in affliction?
Latin Ut quid, Domine, recessisti longe;
despicis in opportunitatibus, in tribulatione?
French Pourquoi, ô Éternel, te tiens-tu loin,
et te caches-tu au temps de la détresse?
EnglishOther renderings.         

My translation for this 'L' verse is:

LORD why do you stand in the distance,
obscure in times of trouble?

I used Lord for the initial 'L' where I would normally let the letters of the divine name i-h-v-h stand alone or write Yahweh, a pattern I copied from the Jerusalem Bible, partly because the name can be sung. Note that I don't repeat the 'Why', because that rhetorical flourish  is not there in the Hebrew.

Why did I use the gloss obscure and not the common find? Because it is not the common root str for hide. It is the root ylm, (roughly 'olam). Click the link to see that this root is sometimes in the domain of Hide, but is really a much more interesting, almost cosmic root than hide would suggest. I think that obscure catches that hidden sense of the invisible eternal. And I didn't need that gloss for any other Hebrew stem. (I try to keep the locks of my beloved both well combed and braided.)

Besides the myriad of possible renderings in English, there is also the music in the text of the Hebrew itself. I think we could learn Hebrew much easier if we began with singing and memorizing the melodies embedded in the hand-signals in the text. We are doing this a bit at a time at the parish of St John the Divine in the Hebrew Bible Music project. Our third recording is in the final stages of production. The first is a simple live recording on my Iphone of Isaiah 12 sung as the psalm for the day. The second (which includes a 4 minute introductory lecture) is a part of Psalms 145, the last acrostic in the Psalms. The third is Psalms 100, the Jubilate Deo, soon to be available.

The music is sometimes an aria, sometimes a chorus, sometimes a hymn, somtimes a recitation, sometimes slow and tender, and sometimes for robust congregational singing.

The score for psalms 10 is here. You will find all the scores for the whole Bible (929 chapters) in the shared directories on the music page, and many examples of arrangements and performances on this blog.

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