The Challenge of Preserving Biblical Wordplay in English

March 14 2019

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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More about: Biblical Hebrew, Hebrew Bible, Isaiah, Religion & Holidays, Translation

 

The Syrian Civil War May Be Coming to an End, but Three New Wars Are Rising There

March 26 2019

With both Islamic State and the major insurgent forces largely defeated, Syria now stands divided into three parts. Some 60 percent of the country, in the west and south, is in the hands of Bashar al-Assad and his allies. Another 30 percent, in the northeast, is in the hands of the mostly Kurdish, and American-backed, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The final 10 percent, in the northwest, is held by Sunni jihadists, some affiliated with al-Qaeda, under Turkish protection. But, writes Jonathan Spyer, the situation is far from stable. Kurds, likely linked to the SDF, have been waging an insurgency in the Turkish areas, and that’s only one of the problems:

The U.S.- and SDF-controlled area east of the Euphrates is also witnessing the stirrings of internal insurgency directed from outside. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, “236 [SDF] fighters, civilians, oil workers, and officials” have been killed since August 2018 in incidents unrelated to the frontline conflict against Islamic State. . . . The SDF blames Turkey for these actions, and for earlier killings such as that of a prominent local Kurdish official. . . . There are other plausible suspects within Syria, however, including the Assad regime (or its Iranian allies) or Islamic State, all of which are enemies of the U.S.-supported Kurds.

The area controlled by the regime is by far the most secure of Syria’s three separate regions. [But, for instance, in] the restive Daraa province in the southwest, [there has been] a renewed small-scale insurgency against the Assad regime. . . .

As Islamic State’s caliphate disappears from Syria’s map, the country is settling into a twilight reality of de-facto division, in which a variety of low-burning insurgencies continue to claim lives. Open warfare in Syria is largely over. Peace, however, will remain a distant hope.

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More about: ISIS, Kurds, Politics & Current Affairs, Syrian civil war, Turkey