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Ancient Hebrew Poetry

  08/28/07 08:54, by , Categories: Religion, Linkage

A couple of years ago I read Seamus Heaney's modern English translation of Beowulf. In his introduction Heaney writes about his attempts to imitate the poetic forms and style of the original language. As I read the translation, I really felt that Heaney's linguistic and poetic considerations helped me to form more of a connection with the text. It felt organic and alive, and I enjoyed reading Beowulf in a way that I hadn't before.

It occurred to me then that much of the Hebrew bible is also poetry from an ancient culture. The English translations used in most Christian churches, however, seem to pay little attention to the poetry of it, and frankly, most of it is pretty boring to read. After seeing what Seamus Heaney did with Beowulf, I began to wonder what it would be like to read a translation of Psalms that is sensitive to the poetry and certain linguistic characteristics of the original text. I know, for example, that Psalm 119 is an acrostic poem, in which the initial lines of each stanza begin with the same letter, with one stanza devoted to each letter of the alphabet (the lines of the first stanza begin with aleph, the lines of the second stanza begin with bet, etc)--yet I have never seen a translation of the Psalm that attempts to duplicate this form. And this is really the only example I've heard about. I would love to know what kinds of poetic devices are used in the other Psalms, to say nothing of Job, Song of Solomon, Proverbs, Isaiah, and the rest.

So I decided to look for a translation that looks at the bible in perhaps more of an aesthetic way than merely a straightforward conveyance of information...and I found nothing. Well, almost nothing.

One thing my search did turn up is Ancient Hebrew Poetry, the blog of John Hobbins, a very knowledgeable pastor and Hebrew scholar. He writes very interesting commentary on scripture and contemporary issues in the church (check out his Screwtape Letters-inspired thoughts on faith and science).

My favorite thing about his blog, though, is a series of posts he's started in which he gives a traditional translation of a particular passage, than provides his own translation, explaining why it better reflects the Hebrew language. Here are his posts for Psalm 19:2, 19:4, 19:5, and 19:5c-7. The translations are lovely and the explanations are very insightful.

My appetite for well-translated Hebrew poetry whetted by these posts, I asked him in the comments where I can find more, to which Hobbins graciously made a few suggestions, including some nice pieces he hosts on his own site.

This entry was posted by and is filed under Religion, Linkage.


Comment from: Henry [Visitor]  

I don’t know how well they translate Hebrew poetry, but I do know that The Books of the Bible seeks to bring back the acetic of reading the Bible, instead of doing a verse by verse doctrine hunt.

There are no chapters, there are no verses, and the emphasis is on reading whole books as books.

Books of the Bible

08/30/07 @ 15:53
Comment from: bob [Visitor]


01/29/08 @ 07:51

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