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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Translating waw in Hebrew poetry

One of the most pervasive features of biblical Hebrew poetry is its rhetorical parallelism. Every student of the Hebrew Bible quickly learns that much of Hebrew poetry is in the form of two lines with one or more forms on each line having a relationship of synonymy. The words which are synonymous are not necessarily true synonyms--if there ever are such things in any language--but they are close enough in meaning to enable the two lines to sound poetic.

One of the best known poetic couplets is Psalm 119:105:
Your word is a lamp to my feet,
a light on my path (REB)
What are the parts of this couplet which are parallel, creating the Hebraic poetic effect? If you thought that lamp and light are, you're right. There are also two others which can be more easily missed, because we do not think of them as synonymous. They are my feet and my path. They both refer to the same metaphorical area upon which the light of God's Word shines, namely, where my feet walk. Light in the darkness helps me see where I am going so that I don't stumble over rocks, tree roots, or any other obstacle on my path.

Now, I memorized Psalm 119:105 in the KJV, the version of the Bible that I did almost all of my extensive Bible memorization. Perhaps you are more familiar with the KJV wording, as well:
Thy word [is] a lamp unto my feet,
and a light unto my path. (KJV)
Now, stop and think about this wording. Focus on the word "and" and ask yourself if, as an English speaker, you can join "lamp" and "light" with "and" so that the two words remain in a synonymous relationship, at least for purposes of poetic parallelism? This might be difficult to think about. We are not used to thinking this way, especially when it involves something as sacred as the Bible, or something with which we are so familiar, such as Psalm 119:105.

See if this helps. Let's test something which is not from the Bible. How does this sound to you?
Mark is my brother and my sibling.
I hope that you sense that there is something wrong with that sentence. There is. English rules do not allow allow us to conjoin two words, in this case "brother" and "sibling," which are synonymous (or nearly so). English which has two things conjoined is interpreted by native speakers of English that those two things are different.

Now, look at the REB rendering of Psalm 119:105 again. Notice that the REB translators do not include English "and" between the two lines of the poetic couplet. They translated the Hebrew conjunction waw accurately to the English comma, a punctuation mark. Sometimes English "and" is an accurate translation of Hebrew waw and sometimes it is not. It is not in Hebrew poetic parallelism. The English comma can, as it does in the REB translation of Ps. 119:105, separate the two parts of an appositive construction. Appositives are accurate ways of translating the parallelism of Hebrew poetry. So the formal equivalent of Hebrew waw that connects the lines of poetic parallelism is an English punctuation mark (comma, semicolon, or period) which creates an appositive relationship between two linguistic units. Nifty, eh?

English "or" behaves the same as English "and." Notice how odd the following English sentence is:
My father doesn't curse or swear.
We can sense that there is something wrong with that sentence because the conjunction "or" is joining two verbs, "curse" and "swear," which are synonymous.

Now you have a tool for checking accuracy of translation of Hebrew poetic couplets in any English Bible version. If there is poetic parallelism, there should not be an English conjunction which is only used to conjoin dissimilar entities, whether they are nouns, verbs, or adjectives.

Why are there so many occurrences of English "and" and "or" in translations of Hebrew poetic parallelism? Because many Bible translators focus on translating individual words rather than the function of those words. Hebrew waw has a different function in different contexts. Its function in each context needs to be translately accurately to the equivalent function in any target language such as English.

Let's try another example, Ps. 51:2. Which of the following versions accurately reflect the parallelism of iniquity and sin, and washing and cleansing by not connecting the two lines in which those words occur with English "and"?
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin! (RSV, NRSV, ESV)

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity
And cleanse me from my sin. (NASB)

Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin. (NIV, TNIV, REB)

Wash away all my evil
and make me clean from my sin! (TEV)

Wash me thoroughly of my iniquity,
and purify me of my sin; (Tanakh)

Wash away all my guilt;
from my sin cleanse me. (NAB)

wash me clean from my guilt,
purify me from my sin. (NJB)

Wash me thoroughly from my guilt,
and cleanse me from my sin. (GW)

Wash away my fuilt,
and cleanse me from my sin. (HCSB)

Wash away my wrongdoing!
Cleanse me of my sin! (NET)

Wash me clean from my guilt.
Purify me from my sin. (NLT)
OK? Now why don't you test yourself to see if you can spot accurate translations of Hebrew waw connecting the parallel lines of other examples of Hebrew poetic parallelism? You can do so on your own. And I'll give you an exercise to start with, the new poll with a green background in the right margin of this blog. Try to answer the poll based on the English rule that the word "and" is used to connect dissimilar items. It's OK if you discover that one of your favorite Bible versions could benefit from some revision of its translation of Hebrew poetry. A need for revision does not mean that you are using a bad Bible. Every Bible version has some weak spots. But almost every English Bible version is accurate and worthy of your use. Still, every Bible translation can benefit from improvements. That's what making better Bibles is all about. That's why Bible publishers pay their Bible translation committees to do periodic revision.


At Thu Mar 16, 11:25:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...


Thank you for this excellent post. I have a couple questions about waw and its usage. I have no knowledge of Hebrew and I'd like to know how waw is used in non-poetic texts. Is this the same "and" that people talk about being so prevalent in Genesis 1, for example, that some equate with basically an uppercase in English (i.e. the start of a sentence)?

If waw is a true conjunction does it stereotypically express coordination between elements? Can it be used to chain a group of names, or a list of actions, for example. Or is there always some sort of subordination going on?

Finally, I looked at an interlinearization of Psalm 119:105 at it seems to have a very interesting syntax and also seems to lack an overt verb. Is that true?

Many thanks in advance for your consideration.


At Thu Mar 16, 12:42:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Yes, this is the same "and" that is almost everywhere in Hebrew. It is not a separate word but a prefix. And it is always coordinating, never subordinating. It is often but not always used in lists of names etc, sometimes between each member of an extensive list, where "and" would be bad style in English.

Hebrew usually lacks an overt verb for "to be", at least in the present. It is also quite common for the subject and complement to be reversed in such verbless clauses, as in the first half of this verse; of course one reason for doing it here is to keep the acrostic structure by which every verse of this group of eight starts with נ nun.

At Thu Mar 16, 01:47:00 PM, Blogger WERBEH said...

David (i.e. L) -- you have made some keen observations with regard to the use of waw in biblical Hebrew. Let me provide you with some more information and if you have further questions please feel free to contact me.

The Hebrew language lacks the wide variety of clause and phrase connectors that is found in most languages today (as well as Greek). Thus, the word waw marks conjunctive relationships (Ps 119:105), disjunctive relationships (Ps 119:67, 87) and even subordination relationships (Ps 119:27,73). It is also the primary connector between words and phrases (usually conjunctive in these cases). Poetry, however, does not contain as many waw's as narrative.

As for the lack of verbs in certain clauses, Hebrew Poetry regularly marks predication without an expressed verb (implying a "to be" verb as in Greek) or by what is called "gapping" (i.e. implying the verb from the clause previous, e.g. "I live in America, David [lives] in Mozambique, Caesar in Rome."). The verbal aspect of the "to be" verb can be perfective or imperfective (past or non-past) as determined by context. If you would like more information on the Hebrew verbal system, see Dr. Cathey's recent and future posts or check out Daily Hebrew.

Best of luck!

At Thu Mar 16, 04:43:00 PM, Blogger lingamish said...

Thank you Peter and werbeh,

In trying to identify the relationship between these two clauses I have been thinking about some typical relationships that can exist between conjoined clauses.

"They came in and sat down."

"They came in making a racket."

In both of these there exists a sort of semantic hierarchy in terms of which of these is the new or crucial information. I can't think of all the possible relations between clauses that might exist but these are a good start.

The other thing that comes to mind is the idea of iconicity. Languages have a tendency to put certain types of information first or last, for example, depending on whether it is new information or emphatic. In the example from Psalm 119 we have an added complexity resulting from the acrostic (as Peter mentions).

The example from Psalm 51 would seem to be a case of manner/result: Purify me of my sin BY washing me of my iniquity." I don't think you can say the same thing about the Psalm 119 example. It almost fits as a GENERIC/SPECIFIC contrast (but not quite).

A final thought is with regard to "curse and swear." I'd say that is a case in which synonyms can be conjoined by "and" in English because of it's use as an idiomatic expression. "Screaming and shouting" is another example.

At Fri Mar 17, 11:59:00 AM, Blogger DavidR said...

Thoughtful reflection on lines of Hebrew poetry is always to be encouraged -- even if only accessible in translation! (That by way of "thanks" for this post!)

A couple follow-up comments:

I remain a bit puzzled by your use of the term "rhetorical parallelism". It is not the way I am used to seeing the "seconding" pattern of Hebrew poetry referred to. "Parallelism", yes, of course! But "rhetorical parallelism"? I'm trying to remember any of the standard treatments of Hebrew poetry using this phrase, and failing. Maybe it is a bit persnickety (itself a technichal term :) but I'd stick with "poetic parallelism" which may have "rhetorical features, purposes", etc. Please let me know if I'm mis-remembering, and point me to the use of this phrase in standard discussions!

Also, I have long been persuaded by James Kugel (and those who adopt a similar approach) that Lowth set us on a misleading path by identifying three categories of relationship within the parallel couplet. In fact, I think your discussion nicely shades away from thinking of 99.9% (o.k., 99.37%) of lines of poetry in the Bible as being "synonomous". (J. Kugel, The Idea of Biblical Poetry, [Yale University Press, 1981; available in reprint by Johns Hopkins UP, 1998]).

One on-line article that points in this direction (without, I think, sharing completely Kugel's views -- in fact, slightly miscontrues them), is David Clines' study of "Parallelism of Greater Precision" found here. Well worth a read, even if the fonts are wonky.

At Fri Mar 17, 12:16:00 PM, Blogger DavidR said...

Having just looked at the new poll, I find myself a bit puzzled about a couple things.

"Check each of the following which allow people to understand that a part of the first line is the same as a part from the second line."

Given my appreciation of Kugel in the comment above, it is no surprise that I find this way of putting the question less than helpful. It is not sameness that gives vitality and depth to parallelism in Hebrew poetry, but rather difference. Those gradations of meaning, shifts in nuance, those things that are precisley not synonymy, are the point -- not the sameness!

Consider these three examples, the only ones in the poll (I think! did I miss any?) that use "and" at the boundary of the couplet:

for he founded it upon the seas
and established it upon the waters.
(Ps. 24:2 NIV, TNIV)

But his delight is in the law of the LORD,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
(Ps. 1:2 NASB)

Relieve the troubles of my heart,
and bring me out of my distress.
(Ps. 25:17 NRSV)

The second and third examples work quite naturally, for the relationship between the part-lines is not one of semantic parallelism, but more like "premise + result". That is, the second part follows from the first part, and thus "and" is entirely appropriate. In the first example, there is a more pronounced semantic echo, and here, simple juxtaposition would have been the more elegant, perhaps even more faithful, translation.

(FWIW, IMO, YMMV, k.t.l.)

At Fri Mar 17, 01:43:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...


"Rhetorical parallelism" is one of the labels used for Hebraic (actually, Semitic) poetic parallelism. See these use of rhetorical parallelism on the Internet. But I probably should has stayed with a term which was more familiar to more people. Unfortunately, I didn't know which was the more familiar term, so I appreciate your comment. Maybe I will revise my post to just use "poetic parallelism."

At Fri Mar 17, 01:47:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

David said:

It is not sameness that gives vitality and depth to parallelism in Hebrew poetry, but rather difference.

David, I think that you are breaking with quite a lot of traditional analysis of Hebraic poetic parallelism here. All analysts I have read (and it's been quite a few) point out that Hebraic synonymous parallelism, which is the kind of parallelism featured in my post, has elements which are the same in each couplet. That's why it's labeled synonymous parallelism. It is this synonymy that adds the depth and emphasis to this kind of Hebrew poetry.

At Fri Mar 17, 02:42:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

In the light of Wayne's last comments, with which I largely agree, I would like to comment on something which Lingamish wrote:

The example from Psalm 51 would seem to be a case of manner/result: Purify me of my sin BY washing me of my iniquity." I don't think you can say the same thing about the Psalm 119 example. It almost fits as a GENERIC/SPECIFIC contrast (but not quite).

I am not at all sure that it is possible to fit Hebrew poetry into this framework of relationships between clauses as used in SSAs etc (don't worry if you don't understand that). But, as Wayne has pointed out, the default relationship between parallel lines in Hebrew poetry is synonymy - although not necessarily complete synonymy. As David mentioned the second line often complements and adds nuances to the first line, but it rarely expresses a completely different thought. As such parallels might be generic/specific, although perhaps more likely two specifics of an implicit generic. But I would not expect them to be anything like manner/result, with one line logically subordinate to another. Nor does the Hebrew ו vav imply any kind of subordination, although this is sometimes required by the context in a translation. Rather, in the Psalm 51 example, the lines are to be understood as more or less synonymous: "purify" = "wash" and "sin" = "iniquity". In an English translation I would separate the two lines with a semicolon.

At Mon Mar 20, 07:57:00 PM, Blogger lingamish said...

Dear Wayne and Peter,

Thanks for adding more details to this discussion. I'm learning a lot. I still confess befuddlement regarding the poll and the subject of sameness. Perhaps it's a matter of me having trouble getting my head around this form of poetry.

What I hear you saying is that the two lines in Hebrew parallelism are saying essentially the same thing and that there is no sense in which the second line adds new information or is meant to be perceived as a result or means of the first.

It seems that the CEV translation often agrees with your view by collapsing parallel lines into a single line. Thus their version of Ps. 119:105 is:

"Your word is a lamp that gives light wherever I walk."

And Ps. 51:2:

"Wash me clean from all of my sin and guilt."

This is a good example of form and meaning working against each other in translation. If I keep retain the form as much as possible I'm in essence changing the meaning. If I express the meaning I lose the form. As much as I want to express meaning clearly I find myself exceedingly resistant to translations like CEV because they seem to no longer be anchored to the original text other than by the translator's perception of the meaning of the original.

At Mon Mar 20, 08:15:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

What I hear you saying is that the two lines in Hebrew parallelism are saying essentially the same thing and that there is no sense in which the second line adds new information or is meant to be perceived as a result or means of the first.

That is what Hebraic synonymous parallelism is. We must, of course, be careful not to apply our own standards of what synonymy means here. That is why I often put the word "synonymous" in quotation marks when referring to Hebraic poetry.

My own preference is to try to retain as much of the couplet form of the Hebraic parallelism while not detracting from an accurate translation of the poetic parallelism. It's not an easy balancing act. I would first try to use the English appositive construction, which reflects a kind of synonymy, to translate Hebraic poetic parallelism. I prefer this over the meaning-only approach of the CEV for translation of Hebrew poetry. But I think it is very useful to read Hebrew poetry in the CEV to be better able to understand the widespread synonymy that exists in Biblical Hebrew poetry. I would, however, want to balance that meaning-oriented translation with one that is more form-oriented, but which does not create inaccuracies in English understanding through using English linguistic forms which are not translation equivalents of the Hebrew linguistic forms.

You might want to read some of the literature on Hebrew poetry. Hebrew poetry is beautiful. It is, however, quite different from English poetry.


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