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

 

Maintaining Security Cooperation with the PA Shouldn’t Require Ignoring Its Support for Terror

In accordance with legislation passed last year, the Israeli government has begun to deduct from the tax revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority (PA) an amount proportional to what the PA pays to terrorists and their families. Last year, a similar law went into effect in the U.S., suspending all payments to the PA so long as it continues its “pay-for-slay” policy. The PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, has retaliated by refusing to accept any tax revenue collected by Israel—raising concerns that the PA will become insolvent and collapse—while insisting that payments to terrorists and their families are sacrosanct. To Yossi Kuperwasser, Abbas’s behavior amounts to mere extortion—which has already worked on the Europeans to the tune of 35 million euros. He urges Israel and the U.S. not to submit:

Abbas [believes] that influential Israeli and European circles, including the security establishment, view strengthening the Palestinian Authority, and certainly preventing its collapse, as being in Israel and Europe’s best interests. They will therefore give in to the pressure he exerts through the creation of an artificial economic crisis. . . .

[T]he PA leadership’s insistence on continuing wage payments to terrorists and their families, even at the price of an artificial economic crisis, shows once again that . . . the Oslo Accords did not reflect a substantive change in Palestinian national aspirations or in the methods employed to achieve them. . . . If paying wages to terrorists (including the many terrorists whose attacks took place after the Oslo Accords were in force) is the raison d’être for the PA’s establishment, as Abbas seems to be saying, . . . one cannot help asking whether Israel has to insist on maintaining the PA’s existence at any price.

True, Israel cooperates on security issues with the PA, but that serves the interests of both sides. . . . The short-term benefits Israel gains from this security cooperation, [however], are of less value than the benefits enjoyed by the Palestinians, and worth even less when measured against the long-term strategic damage resulting from Israel’s resigning itself to the constant incitement, the promotion of terror, and the political struggle against Israel carried out by the PA. Israel should not do anything to hasten the PA’s breakdown, because it has no desire to rule over the Palestinians and run their day to day lives, but it also should not feel more obligated to the PA’s continued existence than do the Palestinians themselves, thereby leaving itself open to continuous extortion.

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More about: Israeli Security, Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority, Palestinian terror