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Friday, August 03, 2007

a strong post

This morning at the breakfast table my wife and I read from Isaiah 52 in the NRSV. It begins:
Awake, awake,
put on your strength, O Zion!
Put on your beautiful garments,
O Jerusalem, the holy city
The wording "put on your strength" stood out to me as an unnatural combination of English words. In natural English we do not tell someone to "put on" various qualities, such as joy, wisdom, or strength. Instead, a natural way to translate the underlying Hebrew to English would be to express it as a command with a form of the verb "be" plus an adjective, such as "be strong".

But as it is often pointed out about such "dynamic" translations, "be strong" is plain language. It lacks the poetic impact that was likely there in the original Hebrew. The following versions accurately translate the figurative meaning of the Hebrew for "put on your strength" but they are rhetorically flat:
Jerusalem, be strong and great again!
Holy city of God, clothe yourself with splendor! (TEV)

Jerusalem, wake up!
Stand up and be strong.
Holy city of Zion (CEV)

Wake up, wake up, Jerusalem!
Become strong!
Be beautiful again (NCV)
So, is there a middle ground of some kind, where an English translation will be as close as possible to the wording of the biblical language text, retain its rhetorical impact (in this case, poetic), and still sound relatively natural or proper in English?

I think so. That middle ground is found in several English versions which use the metaphor of putting on clothing, a metaphor which already exists in Isaiah 52, in fact, in the very next clause of verse 1:
Awake, awake,
Clothe yourself in your strength, O Zion;
Clothe yourself in your beautiful garments (NASB)

Awake, awake, O Zion,
clothe yourself with strength.
Put on your garments of splendor (NIV, TNIV)

Wake up! Wake up!
Clothe yourself with strength, O Zion!
Put on your beautiful clothes (NET)

Wake up! Wake up! Clothe yourself with strength, Zion!
Put on your beautiful clothes (GW)

Wake up, wake up, O Zion!
Clothe yourself with strength.
Put on your beautiful clothes (NLT)
Poetic effect, metaphor, idioms, sarcasm, irony, exaggeration, understatement, repetition, and other rhetorical tools are all important parts of language. If a translation language has the tools to communicate poetic and metaphorical effects, it is proper to use them. But translation wordings need to be ones which are capable of being understood by the speakers of that translation language. They can be newly coined in the language, as long as they can be understood.

I suspect that many, perhaps most, English speakers, can understand "put on your strength." But I suggest that they can understand with greater literary pleasure the more poetic "clothe yourself with strength."


At Fri Aug 03, 09:12:00 AM, Blogger ElShaddai Edwards said...

Nice post, Wayne. Is the verb for "put on your" or "clothe yourself" the same, as used by the NRSV and NASB? The NIV, TNIV, NET, GW and NLT all change verbs and I wonder if there's poetic repetition in the original?

At Fri Aug 03, 10:43:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Yes, ElShaddai, the same Hebrew verb is used in both lines, meaning "clothe oneself (with)". In the first the object is simply "your strength", and in the second literally "the garments of your splendour".

Repetition may make for good poetry in Hebrew, but in English variation makes for better poetry.

At Fri Aug 03, 12:13:00 PM, Blogger lingamish said...

I like that TEV/NLT rendering (can't decide which I prefer). CEV is clear but bland. Still those old translations stir something in my heart...

Great post.


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