mixing apples with apples #2

Thank you to each one who responded with comments to the first post in this series. The comments affirmed my hypothesis that English speakers do not allow the conjunction “and” to join synonyms. Some of the comments even started thinking ahead to what the implications are for translation of the Bible to English. And that is good.

I’ll try to keep my followup comments brief since I have gotten sick and my brain is not doing too well either. And I need to pack to catch a flight tomorrow. I’m flying to Alaska to help my father celebrate his 91st birthday on Sunday.

But I’d like to leave you with enough food for thought to continue discussing this topic in the comments. If there is a need for a third post, that can be done when I return home. In the meantime I leave you in good hands with the other BBB bloggers.

Unlike the constraint against English “and” conjoining synonyms, there are many instances in the original biblical texts of synonyms joined by a conjunction, typically either Hebrew waw or Greek kai in a syntactic transliteration of a Hebrew poetic couplet.

I have blogged in the past that Psalm 119:105 illustrates poetic parallelism using Hebrew waw, traditionally translated to English as:

Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to/for my path. (NASB, NRSV, ESV)

The NIV and TNIV make the second line more natural with the preposition “for” instead of “to.”

These are literal translations of the Hebrew and many of us have memorized one of these traditional translations. But notice that each one of them breaks the rule that English speakers have that synonyms are not to be conjoined by “and.” Since they do, many English speakers are not aware that the lamp of the first line and the light of the second line refer to the same source of illumination. There are not two different forms of illumination, one called a lamp and the other a light. There is only one. Remember also that the English rule that disallows conjoining of synonyms is not a rule made up by grammarians or linguists. Rather, it is a rule which English speakers themselves have decided upon, just as English speakers have chosen to follow many other rules, so that we have structure in English which allows for communication, structure, grammar, like every other language has. The English rule here is simply different from the Semitic rule for conjoining synonyms.

Often when I point out a rule of English syntax which should be followed by Bible translators some of our readers object, saying that we should not be so strict about language rules, or that there needs to be poetic license, or that the influence of the Bible in English has changed the rules of English, or that if we are to be faithful in translation we need to follow the original biblical language texts in a word-for-word, or essentially literal fashion. Apparently that fashion would include use of English “and,” even though every English speaker I have ever surveyed in one way or another indicates that using “and” to conjoin synonyms is improper for English. I hope that the fact that English speakers themselves, not linguists, studied the data in the ten sentences of the first post in this series, and their observation of the restrain against usage of English “and” between synonyms will help those who object to proper usage of English syntax in Bible versions to recognize that there really is a place for such proper usage. It is required, as far as I can tell, to allow English wordings to accurately communicate in translation.

One or two people suggested in the comments to the previous post that English synonyms can be used in a series if there is no “and” to conjoin them. They are exactly right. Notice that if we use the English appositive construction Psalm 119:105 can be worded grammatically correctly as well as being translationally accurate:

Your word is a lamp for my feet,

a light for my path.

Their understanding that lamp and light refer to the same light source is not guaranteed by appositive syntax, but the co-referential (referring to the same thing) meaning is allowed by an appositive. Appositive syntax is more accurate for translating Semitic poetic parallelisms than literally translating Hebrew waw or Greek kai in such parallelisms with English “and.”

Psalm 51:2 may be another example of poetic parallelism, traditionally translated with English “and”:

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!

If “wash me … from my iniquity” is poetically synonymous with “cleanse me from my sin” then these synonymous phrases should not be conjoined with English “and.” This looks like poetic parallelism to me, but I leave it to Biblical Hebrew to determine that for certain. If it is poetic parallelism it surely functions as so many other beautiful examples of poetic parallelism do, to intensify the rhetorical effect in the statement. The psalmist truly wants his sin to be forgiven.

It turns out that the constraint against conjoining synonyms with English “and” applies to other English conjunctions, as well. Psalm 6:1 looks like poetic parallelism to me:

do not rebuke me in your anger,
or discipline me in your wrath

If it is poetic parallelism, “rebuke me” and “discipline me” are synonymous for purposes of Hebrew poetry. Likewise, “in your anger” and “in your wrath” would then also be poetically synonymous. The psalmist is not asking the Lord neither to rebuke him nor to discipline him. He is emphasizing his request that the Lord not rebuke-discipline him.

The UBS Handbook, produced by professional Bible translators working with the United Bible Socities considers Ps. 6:1 to illustrate poetic parallelism:

In two parallel lines the psalmist prays to the Lord not to rebuke him and not to chasten him—two common verbs, which in this context mean practically the same thing. The psalmist repeats his request; line b is not an additional request, as the RSV implies. Also synonymous are the two phrases in thy anger and in thy wrath, as in 2.5

Isaiah 5:27 looks like poetic parallelism:

none slumbers or sleeps

I don’t know any difference in English between slumbering or sleeping. If there is a difference in Hebrew, and this phrase is not an example of poetic parallelism, then I suggest that different English words need to be used which make clearer the difference between the Hebrew words used for the two kinds of sleeping.

I have taken longer than I should have already, so I must quit now, pack my bags, and get some sleep.

I leave you suggesting that in the Comments to this post you cite other instances in English Bible versions where words intended to be poetic synonyms are connected with a conjunction, either “and” or “or.”

Why not also continue doing what commenters to the first post were itching to do, suggest revisions to the English wordings given by me in this post or additional ones cited in comments. If you do, I suspect you will be blessed and also spiritually rewarded! 🙂

9 thoughts on “mixing apples with apples #2

  1. John Hobbins says:

    A whole series of other translations agree with you, Wayne, in eliminating the conjunction in a case like Ps 119:105: NJPSV, REB, NAB, and NJB.

    I am not impresssed, however, by your suggestion to use “for” rather than “to” in terms of prepositions. It is probably best to be more creative than that:

    Your word is a lamp before my feet,
    a light upon my path.

    I remain, of course, attached to the KJV. It is Biblish, but intelligible Biblish:

    Thy word is a lamp unto my feet,
    And a light unto my path.

  2. Peter Kirk says:

    “a light upon my path”? Read that out and it sounds like an invitation to an insect, or to God, to land i.e. “alight” on the path in front of the speaker. The same ambiguity is present with “on”, which at least sounds less archaising, but not with “to”, “unto” or “for”. These ambiguities need to be considered carefully by translators.

  3. Peter Kirk says:

    John, I agree that “a light for my path” is not entirely natural. I think I would naturally say “a light shining on my path”, as I don’t think we can write natural expressions like this without verbs in English – that is, the use of prepositional phrases as adjectival modifiers of nouns is rather restricted in English, but not in all languages.

  4. Wayne Leman says:

    John wrote:

    I am not impresssed, however, by your suggestion to use “for” rather than “to” in terms of prepositions.

    I’m not either, John. I was sick when I wrote that post and rushing to pack my luggage for a flight to Alaska. I did not state that my suggestion was the best. I only sensed that “for” was better than “to.” There are far better ways of expressing the meaning in natural English.

    Sorry for not responding sooner. I have not had Internet access until today, where I am now in Anchorage, Alaska.

  5. Wayne Leman says:

    Yes, Aaron, there are a few frozen doublets like this in English. But, on the whole, English speakers interpret conjoined terms as referring to different entities. So if we conjoin English synonyms, as in Hebrew poetry, we create inaccurate understandings for Bible readers.

  6. Aaron Armitage says:

    “One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination… One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. ” — MLK

  7. Aaron Armitage says:

    “I hope that no American will waste his franchise and throw away his vote by voting either for me or against me solely on account of my religious affiliation.” — JFK

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