Psalm 119: 22 times 8

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!

Lists in Daniel

The prophet Daniel, or whoever chronicled the book that bears his name, liked lists. For a start there’s the fairly modest list of clever people that King Nebuchadnezzar summoned to explain his dream to him:

magicians, astrologers, sorcerers, and wise men Daniel 2:2

Or a bit later on:

wise men, astrologers, magicians, and diviners Daniel 2:27

By the next chapter, we’re introduced to the list of important people that Nebuchadnezzar summoned to the dedication of his mighty statue:

satraps, prefects, governors, counselors, treasurers, judges, magistrates, and all the other authorities of the province Daniel 3:2 (and again in 3:3)

 This is quickly followed by the herald’s  command to:

peoples, nations, and language groups Daniel 3:4

that they are to bow down and pay homage to the golden statue, whenever they hear the sound of:

the horn, flute, zither, trigon, harp, pipes, and all kinds of music Daniel 3:5 (and 3:7 and 3: 10 …)

I think by now you get the idea of lists.  What does the translator make of them? The above are all quoted from the NET Bible (New English Translation). Other English versions use different words to translate the range of Aramaic terms (yes, this part of Daniel is in Aramaic, rather than Hebrew). You may find triangles, dulcimers, zithers and even bagpipes among the musical instruments if you look carefully in different versions. The truth is we can’t always be sure what was precisely the nature of each one, but in this case they all seem to be either wind or string instruments, with no percussion instruments included, unless “triangle” is a correct understanding of “trigon” (and NRSV does throw a drum in, in place of bagpipe).

Kasem has a suitable range of terms for horns and pipes but only one term for a stringed instrument which is plucked. It is tempting to fill the list out with various terms for drums, since Kasem has no shortage of these, but this would be at variance with the historical setting of the passage. A good approach for the translator seems to be to see what range of terms is available in the language and use these to spread across a similar spectrum without necessarily trying to match term for term individually. This may produce a shorter list (or even a longer one) but the variety is represented. Sometimes one just has to resort to “stringed instruments of different kinds” if there is just one term for a stringed instrument available in the language, as in Kasem.

Of course there are lists in other books of the Bible, but in Daniel they seem almost to take on a life of their own.