Friday, June 24, 2011

Ancient Hebrew Poetry

I was reminded recently by a fellow blogger of the fun that we had blogging about Psalm 68 some time ago. I love poetry and so much of the Hebrew scriptures, whether poetry or prose, are full of poetic elements like alliteration, assonance, rhyme and onomatopoeia. These are the elements which relate to the sound of the poetry, and are enough to begin with. The other elements, formed by an arrangement according to meaning, such as parallelism and punning, will have to wait.

But I would say that the first poetic elements, which are usually regarded as relating to the sound of the words, are in fact best perceived, or rather felt in the mouth. The first person to experience alliteration in a poem, is not the passive listener, but the one who writes. And just as the sound of a kiss, is not the same as the kiss itself, so the sound of alliteration, is not the same as the feel of alliteration in one's own mouth and mind.

To write, to speak, to sound out alliteration, one engages the lips and tongue, the words become the placement of the points of articulation, and not the sounds in the ear. And that is the power of alliteration. Don't let the textbooks tell you anything else.

So I dipped into my Pagnini Psalms again, that missing link in the history of translation, and found a few lines where the Dominican (Pagnini that is) showed that he had a sense of the feel of the words. Not surprising, since I suspect that he too loved the alphabet, that out of which the world was created, (if you have read the Book of Formation, Sefer Yetsira, the ur-text of the Kabbalah.)

Here is Psalm 122:6-7 in various translations. I am not going to offer you the Hebrew tonight, but only compare the Latin and English.

6 Rogate quæ ad pacem sunt Jerusalem,
et abundantia diligentibus te.
7 Fiat pax in virtute tua,
et abundantia in turribus tuis. Vulgate

Postulate pacem Jerusalem:
prospere agant diligentes te
Sit pax in antemurali tuo:
prosperitas in palatiis tuis Pagnini

6Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
they shall prosper that love thee.
7Peace be within thy walls,
and prosperity within thy palaces. KJV

6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!
"May they be secure who love you!
7Peace be within your walls
and security within your towers!" ESV

6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May those who love you be secure.
7 May there be peace within your walls
and security within your citadels.” NIV

I argue that you can't really understand the history of the translation of the Bible without Pagnini, or without understanding the constraints that poetic elements put on both the original writer, and on the translator. In fact, I would argue that given the presence of poetic elements, there can never be a definitive translation of the Hebrew. Each translation is a new piece of literature.

Ancient Hebrew Poetry Pt 2, Pt 3

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