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.

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.

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."
[*] A. Niccacci. "The Biblical Hebrew Verbal System in Poetry" in Biblical Hebrew in Its Northwest Semitic Setting: Typological and Historical Perspectives (Eisenbrauns, 2006).


John Hobbins said...

Hi Phil,

It's good to see you thinking this through more.

It's important, of course, to distinguish carefully between translation issues, which are affected by the inner workings of the TAM (tense, aspect, mood) system of the target language, and the inner workings of the TAM system of the source language.

I'm not sure the distinction is being observed with sufficient care here.

Languages tend to stage things in certain ways, sometimes to the exclusion of other ways. Here's an example.

In Italian, if I'm speaking with someone, and the message doesn't get through, I may respond in one of two ways:

(1) Non hai capito. "You didn't understand."
(2) Non capisci. "You don't understand."

(1) is typical; (2) works, but is atypical, almost rude. However, in English, the situation is reversed. (2) is typical; (1) is unusual.

These are staging differences.

The same applies to ancient Hebrew. Against your anonymous commenter, I would say that dibber is qatal in Isa 1:2 because the message following is presented as something *already* spoken. This is typical of prophecy, which often makes use of messenger formulae. The prophet *received* a message; he reports what he *heard.* The anteriority of the event of God speaking is highlighted by the use of qatal.

Nonetheless, the fact that God is speaking *now* to an audience (through the prophet) can also be foregrounded. In that case, a yiqtol is used, as in Isa 1:11.

It is true that qatal has specific uses in which it does not mark past tense exclusively. Your commenter has picked out the omnitemporal or gnomic use of yada' and cognates in Isa 1:3. Fair enough. That's right.

If you know Greek, you are already familiar with how this works in that language. They are called gnomic aorists. The aorist of course is one of the past tenses of Greek. That doesn't change the fact that it also has uses which include reference to the past but exceed it.

Qatal in ancient Hebrew, so far as I can see, always references something that is past relative to something else within the logic of discourse. It's about anteriority.

For translation purposes, a present tense in English is nevertheless required or at least preferable, in terms of style. Sometime even a "future perfect" will be stylistically appropriate. But that doesn't change the fact the qatal marks something as anterior to something else in the discourse stream or the pragmatics of the event depicted.

Thus, in Psalm 15, access to God's holy mount is granted to the one who is innocent, just, and truthful in deed and word. The use of participles in 15:2 highlights those realities, not a particular time-frame in which the one to access the holy mount needs to be such.

15:3-4 move from qatal to yiqtol in my estimation in order to embrace past and present. At the very least, the qatals of 15:3 include a reference to anterior facts; they might be omnitemporal. In conjunction with the yiqtol, the qatals serve to foreground or at least include anteriority, whereas the yiqtol serves to foreground the "ongoingness" of the traits the pilgrim is to have in order to have access.

15:4b has a qatal-yiqtol sequence: it serves to stage the events spoken of such that the first (qatal) "he vowed" is anterior to the second (yiqtol) "he will not revoke (it)."

An anterior-future contrast is marked by the qatal-yiqtol sequence in 15:5.

Sorry to be so long. It is very important to work through countless examples in the way I have done with one short psalm, in pursuit of a working hypothesis about how the TAM system works in ancient Hebrew.

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi John,

once again, thank you for your helpful input!

It's good to see you thinking this through more

I would like to think it through more than I do. I originally considered doing an MA in Hebrew language rather than OT Theology, but decided against it. A "canonical" interpretation of Ps 24 is quite wide reaching, so I've got to learn how to divide my interests! I hope to read Niccacci's book on syntax at some point.

Thank you also for your thoughts on Ps 15. As you know, I'm interested in Ps 24, which means that 15 is important for me.

By the way, I'm delighted to see that you will be giving a couple of papers at SBL Rome. It'll be my first experience of the event (as a visitor, not presenter), so you should see my head in the audience.

Against your anonymous commenter, I would say that dibber is qatal in Isa 1:2 because the message following is presented as something *already* spoken

I fully agree with what you've written and this is what I wrote to him in response. I'll post his answer, as I find it interesting. He is interested in translating the parts of Isaiah in the light of the message of the whole. If I understand him right, he wants to do a kind of "canonical translation." I'll summarize his response and my own response to a "canonical translation" of Isaiah later. First, here's what he has to say:

If you read just the opening verses of Isaiah your preference for a past tense makes sense. But I am working with a reading of the entire scroll of Isaiah that sees the pattern of divine good - rebellion - punishment, and each stage in it, as occurring at many times and not just at this one time. Two points are relevant. One, a translation of a given passage in any biblical book depends on one's understanding of that whole book and the place of that passage in it; it is not solely a matter of the forms and syntax of the passage itself. Two, the Hebrew text - verbs, nouns, etc. - can often support a range of meaning but a translator into English has to choose only one part of that range. Both "YHWH has spoken" and "speaks" and "I reared" and "I rear" are possible depending on one's focus on just these verses or on the larger scroll. But to choose one leaves the other aside. If I were writing an essay on the opening verses of Isaiah I would vary my translation of the verbs at different points to emphasize this range of meaning.
To shift books a classic translation issue is the ruach 'elohim in Gen 1:2. Ruach means spirit, wind and breath and all 3 translations are found in different English translations; in fact there are 4 translations if you include Spirit with capital S. All are there in the Hebrew term but a translator, working with an understanding of Gen 1 and of other texts in the Old Testament that deal directly or indirectly with creation, has to choose one and let the others go. There is also 'elohim: the proper noun God or the adjective mighty?