Translation and Literary Style Appreciating Biblical Literature -- By: David W. Baker

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 22:0 (NA 1990)
Article: Translation and Literary Style Appreciating Biblical Literature
Author: David W. Baker


Translation and Literary Style
Appreciating Biblical Literature

David W. Baker

Dr. Baker is associate professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at ATS.

Poetry, more than prose, uses various aspects of the literary craft to enhance its meaning and impact. In it, through a selection of literary devices, the medium becomes a significant part of the message. Since poetry is intended to attract the senses and to stir the emotions, it goes beyond the cognitive and propositional to the realm of feeling; it must move from intellect to imagination.

A discussion of English poetry would elicit numerous elements distinguishing it from prose. These would include rhyme and rhythm, alliteration, assonance and various kinds of imagery. Similar devices characterize other languages, including Hebrew, and specifically that of the Bible. Unfortunately, it is at this very level of literary appreciation where translation causes problems. This is so because the majority of devices are formal, dealing with a word’s shape or sound, rather than semantic, dealing with its meaning. Rare is the word in the target language that has the same form as a word with the same meaning in the source language.

In describing a battle between Canaan and Israel we can hear that “loud beat the horses’ hoofs with the galloping, galloping of his steeds” (Judges 5:22; RSV). It is fortuitous that English describes this action by the onomatopoetic “galloping” while Hebrew uses daharot, both having the same rhythm.

There are a vast number of such examples, but unfortunately a limitation to an English translation deprives us of a real appreciation of most, unless the translation, or at least its final stylistic shaping, is done by one who is himself a poet. In this case we generally do not have a mirror of the Hebrew original, but rather a new creation based on concepts provided by the Hebrew.

Among the numerous subtleties which are lost to us are the alliteration of the three sibilants which could only inadequately be rendered by “seek the safety of Jerusalem” (Ps. 122:6), as well as the mournful asonance of the sound ‘oo’ in the lament in Isa. 53:4–6. Numerous word plays, which are often the raison d’etre of the particular words chosen by the author, are only made apparent through marginal notes or a commentary and not through the translation itself. For example, in Isaiah 5:7, the good desired by God from his people has become depraved and replaced by its opposite; justice (mishpat) has given way to bloodshed (mishpah)<...

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