Issues of Translation: The Bible's Poetry

"Issues of Translation" was originally a series of articles I wrote for The Crown, the newsletter for All Saints, Sacramento published between May 2010 and March 2011. It was spured originally by an article about the King James bible which lead several members of the congregation to ask why there are so many different translations, and what makes one better then another. Rather then try to answer that question directly, I undertook to write a few articles showing why it is not obvious how to translate scripture.

Rather then allow these articles to languish on my hard drive, I have decided to repost them here. I plan to put one out each Friday. In the articles I occasionally refer to traditions common to The Episcopal Church or our parish. You should know then that for most scripture readings we use the New Revised Standard Version of the bible. Some of our liturgical sources (i.e. Rite I) still use language from the Authorized Version (now known as the King James Version or KJV). Choral Evensong services also have reading from the KJV. "Our hymnal" referers to The Hymnal 1982 of The Episcopal Church, and "our prayer book" refers to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

Usually, when we discuss the merits of different biblical translations, we do so with an eye towards accuracy and authority. Holy writ in these cases is something to be studies and pondered. But, in the history of Christianity – and even before – the biblical text has also been sung, prayed, and generally felt through the heart as well as the studied intellectually.

The bible contains a great deal of poetry. In the most common translations these are rendered by the translator in a very precise but not very poetic language. In this article we examine those translations that attempt to transmit the linguistic feel of biblical verse across time, culture and language; not, as you will understand an easy thing to do.

Before we dive in to translations, let us look at where and how poetry exists in the bible. The most famous collection is of course the Psalms. This is the ancient hymnal of the Hebrew people. It contains songs that express every aspect of the human condition. Sung words are easily remembered and singing caries with it the emotional content as well as the words. It is no wonder then that the Book of Psalms is the Old Testament book most quoted by New Testament authors. There are also entire books of poetry. The Song of Solomon (a love song) and Lamentations are both single long poems. Many other Old Testament books contain poetry interspersed with prose. In the New Testament there is far less poetry. There some examples, however, among them The Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), The Song of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79) and the Song of Simeon (Luke 2:29-32). (see the NRSV version of these passages.) Revelation also contains a number of poetic sections.

Poetry in the Hebrew style (which includes that found in Luke) is rather different then English poetry. To understand why, we must first state that in English there is a stronger distinction between poetry and prose. The nature of Hebrew is to be much more rhythmic. Hebrew naturally approximates iambic rhythm (like “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers”) so all speech had a natural rhythm to it. Rhyming on the other hand is almost unknown. Instead, the main feature of Hebrew poetry is called parallelism. A verse is divided into two parts with the second part restating or in some way augmenting the first. Most decent translations and ancient manuscripts will echo the structure by putting each part of the verse on its own line with the secondary lines indented slightly. There is also a common tradition of alliteration (using the some beginning sound or letter) both within the verse and also more commonly at the beginning of each verse. When this is done with successive letters of the alphabet, it is know as an acrostic. There are a number of acrostic psalms, but the prime example is psalm 119 where there are seven verses for each Hebrew letter. When we read this Psalm during the Tenebre service in Holy Week, the Hebrew letter beginning each verse is included as part of the spoke text.

What happens when we want to sing or read this poetry in English with its tradition of special rhythms and terminal rhyming? There are translations of the bible that place more emphasis on creating poetic English. When this is done with the Psalms the result is a psalter. The prayer book contains its own psalter which we use during worship. Due to an explosion during the 18th and 19th century of churches who only sang biblical texts, numerous translations of the psalms now exist which can be sung to tradition hymn tunes. Texts from these metrical psalters are found in our hymnal. In all there are more then 30 psalms set to music. For example Hymn 517 which is a metrical translation (paraphrase) of psalm 84:

How lovely is thy dwelling place
 O Lord of hosts to thee.
My thirsty soul desires and longs
 within thy courts to be.
My very heart and flesh cry our,
 O living God, for thee.

  From The Psalms of David in Meter, 1650

We use other poetry in our service as well. Translated poetry that is not a psalm is called a Canticle. The prayer book has 14 of these. The contemporary translations can be found beginning on page 85; with seven in traditional English beginning on page 47. You may note that a few are not actually biblical texts but instead poetry from the earliest centuries of the Christian tradition that have been part of the worship of the church almost since its beginning. With the use of the Revised Common Lectionary, canticles are being used in place of psalms on some Sundays.

The question remains are these “good” translations. Some will question whether they are translations at all and insist that they are instead a type of paraphrase. It is clear if you read the text above next to a more academic translation of Psalm 84:1-2 that some liberties have been taken to make the meter are rhyme fit. Yet, the experience of singing this stanza is far closer to the experience the psalmist intended. In these translations we find a reminder that the bible is as much a collection of the faith-filled experiences as it is commandments and theological expositions. I contend that to the extent these “loose” translations warm our hearts, thrill our souls or even express our anguish in ways simple prose cannot, they are in fact far truer to the original meaning.