Psalm 119: 22 times 8

January 29, 2010 by 1 Comment

I have just this afternoon finished checking through the draft of Psalm 119 in Kasem, all 176 verses. I wanted to get it done before the weekend and just made it. An amazing Psalm all round, with a mention of God’s Word in almost every verse.

It poses similar challenges to the translator as the lists in Daniel (see my earlier blog). The Hebrew uses 8 different terms in referring to the Word of God, e.g. law, testimony, ordinance/judgment, commandment, statutes, precepts, word, promise/word. However, the Psalmist’s choice from among these terms is largely governed by the demands of the poetic structure, rather than focusing on a particular facet of meaning in each instance. The 176 verses are divided into 22 stanzas (strophes) of 8 lines each, and within each stanza each of the 8 lines starts with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet, working through all 22 letters successively. Wow! Can you imagine the Psalmist composing within those restrictions? If we tried it in English, how would we manage when we got to the letter X? Even Q or J would be difficult enough. The Psalmist seemed most limited by the letter D (Daleth) in Hebrew, using just three words to start the 8 lines: derek “way” (5 times), dabaq “to join” (twice) and dalap “to drop, drip, droop, weep, melt… meaning uncertain” (just once).

But there seems to be another scheme interweaving with this, whereby the eight different Hebrew terms for God’s Word are spread across the 8 lines of each stanza. In fact, only 3 of the stanzas have all 8 terms, a different one in each line. Maybe the Psalmist found the constraints just too much to manage this in every stanza.

In Kasem, we have (so far) managed to identify 6 words which may be used to cover the 8 Hebrew terms. Three of these are compounds based on the word ni “mouth” which is the term used for a command or order.¬† The translator aims at consistency¬†as to which Kasem term is used for each, but also tries to ensure that the 6 available terms are spread evenly through the stanzas in order to reflect the apparent aim of the Psalmist. Has there been any translation which tries to reproduce the acrostic nature of the Hebrew text, starting each line with the designated letter? Now that would be fun to try!

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