I finally read Niccacci's article. I think his basic motive for the study is solid: we need to take the different verbal forms in Hebrew seriously and not just translate as we want, usually putting them in the same English tense. This was a clear reminder to me to pay such attention and not gloss over issues in translation.[*] A. Niccacci. "The Biblical Hebrew Verbal System in Poetry" in Biblical Hebrew in Its Northwest Semitic Setting: Typological and Historical Perspectives (Eisenbrauns, 2006).
I think he gets himself in some trouble when he says that initial yiqtol is always volitive and then has to invoke ellipses and double-duty modifiers to explain the instances where it clearly isn't volitive. This usage need further investigation. His comments on the use of qatal are solid as far as they go. I think he limits himself by maintaining that qatal is past in the sense that it should always be translated with an English past tense. As he notes (p. 266) qatal is for the narrative-punctual. This can be rendered with an English past tense (preterite or perfect) but also with an English present tense understanding that the focus is on the aspect and not the time of the action.
Isaiah is my field of focus for Hebrew poetry and I offer one example for the latter point. (I haven't and I don't know of anyone who's investigated the possibility of significant differences in Hebrew poetry between Psalms and prophets.)
Isaiah opens with the call for heavens and earth to hear ky YHWH dibber. The closing verb can be translated "has said" or "says;" I think that the Hebrew supports both and the issue is with a translation since we have to choose one in English; against Niccacci I don't think that it always has to be an English past. My squabble with him is more about possible translations than with his comments on the Hebrew itself. I often translate Isa 1:2 with "says," not in the sense that YHWH is now saying this but that this is what YHWH says as a matter or course, as a type of characteristic: YHWH says or speaks past, present and future. What he says in the 2nd half of v 2 uses 3 qatal forms and can be translated with past or present forms: "reared, brought up and rebelled" or "rear, bring up and rebel." The latter again not in the sense that YHWH is now doing this but this is what he does - past, present and future - with the inevitable result that the sons rebel. V 3 also uses 3 qatal forms and most, if not every, translation employs English present: "knows, doesn't know, doesn't understand."
Saturday, 6 June 2009
A brief response to Niccacci on verbs in Hebrew poetry, with an illustration from Isaiah.
I briefly introduced Niccacci's theory on the translation of Hebrew verbs in Hebrew poetry in my post Translating a qatal/yiqtol sequence in Psalm 24:2 (drawing on Niccacci). I was recently contacted by someone offline who kindly shared the following brief response to Niccacci's article[*], along with his own illustration from Isaiah. With his permission, I share it here in the hopes that others will add their views.