The Challenge of Preserving Biblical Wordplay in English

March 14, 2019 | Robert Alter

In his recently completed translation of the Hebrew Bible (the subject of a recent monthly essay in Mosaic), Robert Alter seeks above all to bring out its literary qualities. Here he adduces two examples of his efforts to recreate the poetic devices used in the book of Isaiah:

The prophet Isaiah, like any great poet, commands a variety of formal tools—powerful rhythms, striking imagery, pointed literary allusions (in his case, to earlier biblical texts). Isaiah is particularly fond of sound play that verges on punning. In order to convey with force the perversion of values in the kingdom of Judah, he often juxtaposes two words that sound rather alike but are opposite in meaning. In this way, Isaiah shows forth in language the flip of virtuous to vicious, good to evil.

A relatively simple instance is the first line of poetry in 1:23. A literal translation would be: “Your leaders [or governors or noblemen] are wayward.” But the Hebrew expresses this twist from positive to negative through sound play: “Your leaders” is sarayikh, and “wayward” is sor’rim, a kind of echo effect with the strong alliteration of s-sounds and r-sounds. I represent this in English, with a weaker alliteration, as “Your nobles are knaves,” getting at least some of the feel of the Hebrew.

A still greater display of virtuosity is evident in the last poetic line of 5:7. The literal sense is: “And He hoped for justice and, look, a blight/ for righteousness and, look, a scream”’ This might sound straightforward but blunts the sharp point of the crucial Hebrew nouns. The word for “justice” is mishpat; for “blight,” mispaḥ. In the second half of the line, “righteousness” is ts’dakah, and “scream” is ts’akah, a difference of a single consonant. I felt that some English equivalent of the sound play was imperative lest Isaiah’s moral castigation lose its bite. I rendered the whole line as follows: “And he hoped for justice, and, look, jaundice,/ for righteousness, and, look, wretchedness.” I was quite happy with the first half of the line because jaundice, after all, is a kind of blight. My solution for the second half of the line was a bit imperfect. . . .

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