The Challenge of Preserving Biblical Wordplay in English

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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Read more at Aeon

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

 

The Arab Press Blames Iran Rather Than Israel for Gaza’s Woes

Following the fighting between Israel and Islamic Jihad over the weekend, many journalists and commentators in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia didn’t rush to condemn the Jewish state. Instead, as the translators at the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) note, they criticized the terrorist group for “operating in service of Iranian interests and thus inflicting suffering on the Gaza Strip’s residents.” One Saudi intellectual, Turki al-Hamad, wrote the following on Twitter:

It is apparent that, if at one time any confrontation between Israel and the Palestinian organizations would attract world and Arab attention and provoke a wave of anger [against Israel], today it does not shock most Arabs and most of the world’s [countries]. Furthermore, even a sense of human solidarity [with the Palestinians] has become rare and embarrassing, raising the question, “Why [is this happening] and who is to blame?”

I believe that the main reason is the lack of confidence in all the Palestinian leaders. . . . From the Arabs’ and the world’s perspective, it is already clear that these leaders are manipulating the [Palestinian] cause out of self-interest and diplomatic, economic, or even personal motives, and that the Palestinian issue is completely unconnected to this. The Palestinian cause has become a bargaining chip in the hands of these and other organizations and states headed by the [Iranian] ayatollah regime.

A, article in a major Arabic-language newspaper took a similar approach:

In a lengthy front-page report on August 7, the London-based UAE daily Al-Arab criticized Islamic Jihad, writing that “Gaza again became an arena for the settling of accounts between Iran and Israel, while the Palestinian citizens are the ones paying the price.” It added that Iran does not want to confront Israel directly for its bombings in Syria and its attacks on Iranian scientists and nuclear facilities.

“The war in Gaza is not the first, nor will it be the last. But it proves . . . that Iran is exploiting Gaza as it exploits Lebanon, in order to strengthen its hand in negotiations with the West. We all know that Iran hasn’t fired a single bullet at Israel, and it also will not do this to defend Gaza or Lebanon.”

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Read more at MEMRI

More about: Gaza Strip, Iran, Islamic Jihad, Israel-Arab relations, Persian Gulf