Translating waw in Hebrew poetry
One of the best known poetic couplets is Psalm 119:105:
Your word is a lamp to my feet,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.
a light on my path (REB)
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,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.
and a light unto my path. (KJV)
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,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.
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)