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

What Egypt’s Withdrawal from the “Arab NATO” Signifies for U.S. Strategy

A few weeks ago, Egypt quietly announced its withdrawal from the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), a coalition—which also includes Jordan, the Gulf states, and the U.S.—founded at President Trump’s urging to serve as an “Arab NATO” that could work to contain Iran. Jonathan Ariel notes three major factors that most likely contributed to Egyptian President Sisi’s abandonment of MESA: his distrust of Donald Trump (and concern that Trump might lose the 2020 election) and of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman; Cairo’s perception that Iran does not pose a major threat to its security; and the current situation in Gaza:

Gaza . . . is ruled by Hamas, defined by its covenant as “one of the wings of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine.” Sisi has ruthlessly persecuted the Brotherhood in Egypt. [But] Egypt, despite its dependence on Saudi largesse, has continued to maintain its ties with Qatar, which is under Saudi blockade over its unwillingness to toe the Saudi line regarding Iran. . . . Qatar is also supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, . . . and of course Hamas.

[Qatar’s ruler] Sheikh Tamim is one of the key “go-to guys” when the situation in Gaza gets out of hand. Qatar has provided the cash that keeps Hamas solvent, and therefore at least somewhat restrained. . . . In return, Hamas listens to Qatar, which does not want it to help the Islamic State-affiliated factions involved in an armed insurrection against Egyptian forces in northern Sinai. Egypt’s military is having a hard enough time coping with the insurgency as it is. The last thing it needs is for Hamas to be given a green light to cooperate with Islamic State forces in Sinai. . . .

Over the past decade, ever since Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power, Israel has also been gradually placing more and more chips in its still covert but growing alliance with Saudi Arabia. Egypt’s decision to pull out of MESA should give it cause to reconsider. Without Egypt, MESA has zero viability unless it is to include either U.S. forces or Israeli ones. [But] one’s chances of winning the lottery seem infinitely higher than those of MESA’s including the IDF. . . . Given that Egypt, the Arab world’s biggest and militarily most powerful state and its traditional leader, has clearly indicated its lack of confidence in the Saudi leadership, Israel should urgently reexamine its strategy in this regard.

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More about: Egypt, Gaza Strip, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign policy