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 They were completed in 1599, but remained unpublished until 1823.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

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.

Psalm 119, part 2, and Why Acrostics?

This is part 2 of Douglas Van Dorn‘s translation of Psalm 119. Read it, recite it, meditate on it.

And we are going to answer the question: why acrostics?

So, why did the biblical writers arrange some of their poetry based on the Hebrew alphabet? Well, they didn’t tell us, and they’re all dead now, so we’ll never know for sure until we get to heaven and ask them. But that, of course, doesn’t stop us from speculating on that, and other things, like the meaning of “Selah” in the Psalms.

The two prevailing answers are 1) to aid memorization, and 2) to emphasize completeness, i.e. Psalm 119 is telling us about delighting in God’s law from A-Z, or Proverbs 31 is telling us about the noble woman from A-Z. These, of course, are not mutually exclusive.

Personally, I favor 3) because it’s really cool, and 4) because it make it more challenging to write, and who doesn’t like a challenge? I mean, can’t you imagine the Psalm 119 author saying to the other psalmists, yeah, that’s good, but take a look at this 176 line acrostic masterpiece!

Why do you think they wrote in acrostics? Comment below.

And without further adieu, here is part 2 of Doug Van Dorn‘s Psalm 119 translation.

Psalm 119: An Acrostic Translation

In Bible translation, most translators prioritize translating the meaning over the form. That is to say, they produce a translation that conveys the meaning of the biblical text, but aspects like the grammar, or word order, or sentence divisions are generally not preserved as they are in the original texts.

In the Old Testament, many Psalms, as well as part of Proverbs 31 and most of Lamentations, are acrostic poetry. That is, each line or group of lines starts with a particular letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and it proceeds in the order of the alphabet. But this element of poetry is generally not conveyed in English translation.

Pastor Douglas Van Dorn of Reformed Baptist Church of Northern Colorado has made a poetic translation of Psalm 119 that preserves the acrostic with the English alphabet, and has kindly granted permission for it to be shared here.

Below is part 1. Read it, meditate on it, and comment on it below.

Better Bibles blog is back!

After a several years hiatus, the Better Bibles blog is back and ready to discuss issues regarding Bible translation.

So what’s been going on in the world of Bible translation in the last several years? Quite a lot, actually.

The Holman Christian Standard Bible was revised in 2017 to become the Christian Standard Bible, and has just undergone another revision for 2020.

Conservative Lutherans in the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod and Evangelical Lutheran Synod completed the Evangelical Heritage Version in 2019.

John MacArthur and his staff at the Master’s University and Seminary are working on a revision of the New American Standard Bible entitled the Legacy Standard Bible. The New Testament is due out 2021.

Speaking of the New American Standard Bible, they just released a new revision called the NASB 2020. The decision to call it “2020” is not looking good, given all that has happened this year, but they’re sticking to their guns.

Also, several one-author Bibles have been completed. Professor Robert Alter finished his translation of the Hebrew Bible in 2019. In 2018, so did John Goldingay, calling it the First Testament. David Bentley Hart published a translation of the New Testament in 2017.

Speaking of Robert Alter, in 2019 he also published a book called The Art of Bible Translation. Also in 2019, William Barrick of the Masters Seminary published Understanding Bible Translation: Bringing God’s Word into New Contexts.

The Bible continues to have enduring relevance today, and translators continue to find new ways to present the text to contemporary readers.