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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

pronoun switching in the Psalms

Have you ever noticed how some psalms begin talking about God and then switch to talking to him? Or maybe the opposite happens: they start out talking to God and switch to talking about him? Apparently such switching was acceptable for those who composed the psalms in Biblical Hebrew. But I find it distracting as a native speaker of English. I can figure it out who is spoken to, but I find it easier to follow if the pronouns don't switch around within a single psalm.

Notice the pronoun switching in the well known Psalm 23 (KJV):
Talking about God:
Psa 23:1 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
Psa 23:2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
Psa 23:3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

Switch to talking to God:
Psa 23:4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Psa 23:5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Switch back too talking about God:
Psa 23:6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
Some English translators adjust the pronouns so that they are in natural English style with no pronoun switching (if there is no referential switching) all the way through a psalm. The CEV has the psalmist talking to God throughout all of Psalm 23:
Psa 23:1 (A psalm by David.) You, LORD, are my shepherd. I will never be in need.
Psa 23:2 You let me rest in fields of green grass. You lead me to streams of peaceful water,
Psa 23:3 and you refresh my life. You are true to your name, and you lead me along the right paths.
Psa 23:4 I may walk through valleys as dark as death, but I won't be afraid. You are with me, and your shepherd's rod makes me feel safe.
Psa 23:5 You treat me to a feast, while my enemies watch. You honor me as your guest, and you fill my cup until it overflows.
Psa 23:6 Your kindness and love will always be with me each day of my life, and I will live forever in your house, LORD.
What do you think? Do you prefer the pronouns to switch exactly as they do in the original Hebrew? Or do you prefer pronoun consistency? Or perhaps your own preference doesn't enter into the question for you, but, rather, translating the original with the switching left intact, for you, indicates greater accuracy or respect for God's Word?

Do you think there is any rhyme or reason for the pronoun switching? Does it mark anything of rhetorical (or even theological) significance?


At Tue Oct 02, 02:31:00 AM, Blogger Glennsp said...

If it is there then leave it there otherwise what else will get changed just because you (or someone else) thinks it would 'scan' better if changed.

At Tue Oct 02, 02:37:00 AM, Blogger Iyov said...

My goodness, if we are going to so freely start playing games with the pronouns used in the inspired prayers that form the foundation of both Jewish and Christian liturgy, why not fix the mixed metaphor that is at the heart of the psalm (the switch between being a lamb under a shepherd to a guest in the Lord's house)? Or take out the wordy and redundant sections and simply say "God's just the best for taking care of us -- oh yeah."

I do not claim to know all the meaning behind this or any other psalm, but there is certainly an enormous difference between addressing a person in the third person (which is entirely acceptable, both in Hebrew and English, when speaking to the King) and the closeness of speaking to the King in the first person. The act of praying draws us closer to God, and in the end, we are gently excused from such intimate audience. The language reflects and effects that change: I do not know a more basic theological observation. Indeed, David the King, David the Anointed was a great religious genius to have achieved in language what is normally achieved in prayerful meditation; and I see know reason to dare try to improve on his words -- anymore than I would suggest recomposing a Beethoven symphony or changing the ceiling of the Sistine chapel.

This is not a mere narrative description, but a direct address to the One above who sustains the universe and sustains us. Even if we wish to mix it up in narrative sections, we should take care with the word we use to address God. Sure, one could use the third person exclusively, as the CEV does, but then one is not praying the 23rd Psalm, but something different and alien.

I am certainly glad you posted this warning about the CEV -- I will take pains to avoid using it.

At Tue Oct 02, 03:33:00 AM, Blogger ElShaddai Edwards said...

I've previously blogged on this general topic regarding the opening verses of Psalm 91. While a part of me yearns for the consistency of the same pronoun sequence (as the NRSV translates in this case), I have to recognize that the original pronouns are probably there for a reason. If it could be proven that exegetically the pronouns are arbitrary, then I might be more willing to accept a more even-handed English translation.

At Tue Oct 02, 03:49:00 AM, Blogger ElShaddai Edwards said...

Here are the relevant examples from my previous looks at Psalm 91:1-2.

First the NASB:

[1] He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
[2] I will say to the LORD, "My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust."

Next, the TNIV:

[1] Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
[2] They say of the LORD, "He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust."

And the NRSV:

[1] You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
[2] will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.’

And the NET:

[1] As for you, the one who lives in the shelter of the sovereign One, and resides in the protective shadow of the mighty king –
[2] I say this about the Lord, my shelter and my stronghold, my God in whom I trust [...]

Pronoun soup! At least verses 3-13 in all translations use the "he/you" pronouns, then switch to God speaking in the first-person in verses 14-16.

At Tue Oct 02, 04:36:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

ElShaddai, there is a good reason for the pronoun soup in Psalm 91:2. The Masoretic text is literally 'omar "I say" or "I will say", but the BHS suggests an emendation to yo'mar "he says" or "he will say", based on the LXX reading erei "he will say"; or the unpointed Hebrew could be read as the participle 'omer "saying", agreeing with the subject of verse 1. Add into the mix the policy in NRSV and TNIV of avoiding gender generic "he", and that explains the variation here.

At Tue Oct 02, 07:10:00 AM, Blogger ElShaddai Edwards said...

Peter noted that:

the unpointed Hebrew could be read as the participle 'omer "saying", agreeing with the subject of verse 1.

This is the approach that my ear prefers since it allows the "dwells in" and "abide in" phrases to be read as a parallel structure rather than causal. If I recall correctly, the NRSV and REB were the translations that took this approach.

Wayne, sorry for the threadjack...

At Tue Oct 02, 09:20:00 AM, Blogger Bob MacDonald said...

The first question one can ask of a text is who is speaking to whom. The pronoun switch is the easiest way of inviting the engagement of covenant dialogue without an unreal piety.

I wrote a year ago: These poems are dangerous. I find it impossible to avoid the reality they portray - judgment and mercy; enemy and chosen; how can one cry out or whisper in safety when the answer comes from consuming fire?

The pronouns switch is reflecting this reality of fear and praise. I agree with Iyov - but it is not religious genius. It is the reality of love in person. I want to avoid the potential exclusion of 'genius' since genius is not required for love. Is the pronoun switch theological? One could make an argument that it is the alpha and omega of one's theology. What is religion without such engagement?

At Tue Oct 02, 09:51:00 AM, Blogger John said...

The enallage of persons is a well-known usus loquendi in Hebrew, Syriac, and Arabic. Transferred into English, the result is sometimes harsh to the point of being cacophonous. In such cases, all but the most literal translations make adjustments. The ancient versions are no exception.

Some modern translations, like NJPSV and (N)RSV, footnote, albeit not consistently, adjustments of this kind.

At Tue Oct 02, 10:48:00 AM, Blogger Tim said...

But often, as others have recognised the shift of pronouns marks or suggests a shift in point of view (or who is speaking to whom about whom). In such cases the pronouns ought not to be changed to make euphonious English. The real difficulty is to know where!

My rule of thumb would be like that for following LXX or another textual witness, i.e. when you cannot make sense of the Hebrew as it stands, then make the change.

At Tue Oct 02, 06:05:00 PM, Blogger Nathan Wells said...

I was actually just talking with my Hebrew professor about this text. In the target language of the country I served in there isn't a difference between the 2nd person and 3rd person personal pronoun when one refers to God - therefore it is somewhat difficult to show this switch. But what can be done is show the switch by changing which 1st person personal pronoun is used (one that shows direct address).

I think it is significant that there is a change - possibly showing the difference in the relationship between a shepherd and his sheep and a host and his guest.

At Wed Oct 03, 05:54:00 AM, Blogger Andrew said...

In regard to Elshaddai's note about Psalm 91, this is what they do in the REB:

[1] He who lives in the shelter of the Most High,
who lodges under the shadow of the Almighty,
[2] says of the LORD, 'He is my refuge and fortress,
my God in whom I put my trust.'

At Thu Oct 04, 06:16:00 AM, Blogger ElShaddai Edwards said...

If you're still following these comments, be sure to read Iyov's followup to some of the questions raised here.

At Thu Oct 04, 03:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The pronoun switch is not without reason. Verses 1-3 are instruction to the hearer, verses 4 and 5 a prayer, and verse 6 returns to the instruction. It is much like a preacher bursting out into a prayer in the middle of a sermon. It has somewhat of a dramatic effect that is lost when you standardize the pronouns. Notice how verse 4 begins with "Yea" which indicates it is a more emphatic statement of what has gone before. For this reason, he speaks to God rather that to others. Besides all that,the CEV translation just sounds effeminate to me. If you're going to translate it that way, you might as well put "Lord I want to make out with you" in there. There is something to be said for the more formal language of the KJV. The Psalmist is speaking to God, not his girlfriend.

At Thu Oct 04, 04:01:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Thank you to everyone who has responded so far. I want to clarify something that has not come across to some as I had intended. Sorry about that; it's part of communicating as humans (with implications for Bible translation!). Let's see if I can do better here: In my post I was *not* suggesting that the CEV or any other translation that adjusts pronouns is a better translation. In my post I simply stated that I, personally, find pronoun switching distracting, but I also stated that I can figure it out. Psalm 23 is fairly simple to figure out in terms of pronoun switching. I suspect that Ps. 91, which some have blogged on, perhaps partly in response to this post, is more complicated.

I don't know if that explanation helps or muddies the waters further. Again, I am *not* stating that I prefer pronouns to be consistent. I am only stating that when they are not consistent, it is more difficult for me to process a text/information.

I don't know what is the *best* way (if there even is one) to translate pronoun switching in English. I suspect that that issue is more complex than I was able to explain in this post and would need quite a bit of field testing as well as balancing such research results with the desire we all have to be faithful to the original texts.

At Sat Oct 06, 05:39:00 PM, Blogger 2blikehim said...

I really do cringe at finding the awkwardness of translation edited out of our English texts. Though I do read such "editions" to my children, and enjoy their resulting limitations in a devotional way, I run from them when I really want to Know what God says to me in His Word.

The pronoun switching thing is one of those Points of Possibility that bring greater depth of understanding. The discomfort in our English heads should inform us of our ethnocentricity (I think most of us "get it"). So, I don't think such difficulties should be stripped from our translations -- except in simplified for our youngest readers' editions.

Perhaps we should open up our translation teams to science fiction writers who can come up with a way of infusing our written English words with the sensual, emotional and rational impressions that the original languages contained. You know, read a passage and immediately smell the odors, taste the flavors, comprehend the humor, etc. Maybe they can even give us a true-to-history visual rendition -- hologram style.

At Sun Oct 07, 09:24:00 PM, Blogger Bill said...

It seems like journaling. I remember, as a young man, beginning to write a journal entry that was 'about God' and then somewhere in the middle it would become prayer 'to God'. Near the end it might even switch back and forth again.

I would agree this shouldn't be changed for anything calling itself a "translation". But a "devotional" approach is certainly alright. But I hear you, Wayne, saying that's not what you were getting at.

Question to you, then: is it just in the Psalms where you find this "pronoun" switching to be so rampant?


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