Psalm 119, part 3, and Other Acrostic Translations

This is part 3 of Douglas Van Dorn‘s translation of Psalm 119. Read it, recite it, meditate on it.

And we are going to answer the question: What other acrostic translations are there into English?

We know there have been literally hundreds of Bible translations into English, ranging from the entire canon to just the Old or New Testament, or just individual books or portions of them. So how many of those did acrostic translations?

Surprisingly few. And not even the translators who are especially sensitive to poetry. Take Robert Alter, professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at UC Berkeley, who literally wrote the book on The Art of Biblical Poetry, and translated the entire Hebrew Bible with the stated goal of bringing the features of the Hebrew text to the English reader. Did he preserve the acrostics? No, no he did not.

So who did? The first acrostic translations in English were Psalms of Sir Philip Sidney and the Countess of Pembroke. Poor Sir Philip died after translating the first 44 psalms, and his sister, Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, completed it, using English acrostics for Psalms 111 and 119 (but only for the first line of each eight-line set). They were completed in 1599, but remained unpublished until 1823.

The first collection of Psalms in English preserving all of the acrostics is The Psalms Chronologically Arranged, written by anonymously as “Four Friends,” but known to be C. T. Arnold, F. E. Kitchener, S. Philpotts, and A. W. Potts. The first edition appeared in 1867, and the 1870 edition added other biblical poetry, including Lamentations 1-4 in acrostic.

The only complete Bible that consistently incorporated acrostics was the one by Ronald Knox, an English Catholic who translated the entire Bible from the Latin Vulgate in the 1940s. He used acrostic form for all of the biblical acrostic poems except for Psalm 9-10.

Brenda Boerger, a Bible translator in the Solomon Islands, translated the Psalms into both Natügu and English and used acrostics in both, as well as other poetic forms. Some of her acrostic psalms can be found in two academic articles: Extending translation principles for poetry and biblical acrostics (1997) and Freeing Biblical Poetry to Sing (2016), both available online. Her full Psalter translation can be purchased directly from her at brenda_boerger at sil.org.

Some other resources on acrostics in translation, including some more acrostic translations:
William Binnie’s The Psalms: Their History, Teachings, And Use (1886) translates Psalms 111 and 112 in full as English acrostics, and Psalms 37 and 119 in part.
The New Jerusalem Bible (1985) has an English acrostic for Psalm 25. The Revised New Jerusalem Bible (2019), though, replaces it with a non-acrostic from the Revised Grail Psalter.
Timothy Wilt’s Alphabet Acrostics: perhaps the form can be represented (1993), with a Psalm 111 English acrostic.
Paul Raabe’s Translating for Sound (2000), with a Psalm 111 English acrostic.
The EasyEnglish Bible (2001) has English acrostics in Psalms 9-10 and Psalm 145.
Roelie van der Spuy’s Hebrew Alphabet Acrostics – Significance and Translation (2008). It includes his Psalm 111 Afrikaans acrostic and a Psalm 111 Dutch acrostic from Iver Larsen, who has contributed to this blog.
Bob MacDonald has translated much of the Hebrew Bible (2008-2020), including Psalm 112, Psalm 119, Psalm 145, Proverbs 31, and Lamentations 14 as acrostics, following the sounds of the Hebrew alphabet.
Dru Brooke-Taylor’s Metrical Psalter (2010, 2015, 2020) includes a Psalm 111 English acrostic in Book 5A.
M.J. van Eijzeren’s M.A. Thesis ‘Halbnachts steh’ ich auf’. An Exploration into the Translation of Biblical Acrostics (2012). The most detailed history of acrostic translations I’ve encountered.
George van Popta’s An Alphabetic Acrostic on Psalm 119 (2017).

And that brings us to part 3 of Doug Van Dorn’s Psalm 119 translation. Doug has translated all of the acrostic psalms (2016-2018). More on that in the next post.

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