TO THE READER
This is a technical article with analyses of Classical Hebrew grammar and syntax. The reader with some knowledge of Hebrew will profit from all the details that are analyzed. The reader who does not know Hebrew but who is interested in the nuances of God’s word will also benefit from the article. This reader will learn that idiomatic translations are inferior to concordant ones as far as accuracy is concerned, and examples of nuances that often are not conveyed are given. And the reader who wants to compare different translations, can ignore the grammar and syntax and simply compare the translated verses with verses in other translations. So, the article can be beneficial both for the specialist and for the Bible lover who wants to come as close as possible to the original text of the Bible with the help of his or her mother tongue.
THE TRANSLATION OF PSALM 68 — CONVEYING THE NUANCES AND SUBTLETIES OF THE HEBREW TEXT
A reader of a translated text expects this text to be correctly translated. But the word “correct” can be viewed in different ways. Please look at the two descriptions below of the Grand Canyon in USA:
The canyon’s birth is shrouded in hazy mystery, cloaked in intrigue, and filled with enigmatic puzzles. And although the Grand Canyon is one of the world’s most recognizable landscapes, it is remarkable how little is known about the details of its origin.
The canyon’s birth is a mystery, it rouses our curiosity, and there are lots of unanswered questions. And although the Grand Canyon is renown all over the world, we know very little about its origin.
There can be no doubt that Ranney’s words are more vivid than the description below it. It is an eyecatcher in contrast with the other description that is rather dull. My point here is that a text in the Bible can be translated in a dull way, or it can be rendered in a way that appeals to the emotions and the imagination of the readers, which often was the aim of the Bible writers. Ranney’s technique is to use unusual words, including adjectives that greatly enhance the force of the substantives. A Bible translator cannot use unusual words. But if the translators strive hard to convey the nuances and subtleties of the original text, the result may be a text that is vivid and appealing in contrast to a dull text. And most important: The text will be an accurate rendering of the original!
Below is a translation and discussion of Psalm 68. In each sequence, the texts of NIV, NRSV, and my translation are put side by side. Below each sequence, I make comments on particular translation points. After the translation of the whole Psalm, I present examples showing that NIV and NRSV make no distinction between the two Hebrew conjugations, completely ignore the unusual word order that gives verbs and substantives an emphatic force, and do not show the force of the Hifil stems in two-thirds of their occurrences.
. Ranney, Carving Grand Canyon: Evidence, Theories, and Mystery, 11.
|NRSV||1 Let God rise up (impf), let his enemies be scattered (impf); let those who hate him flee (impf conj) before him. 2 As smoke is driven away (inf), so drive them away (impf); as wax melts (inf) before the fire, let the wicked perish (impf) before God. 3 But let the righteous be joyful; let them exult (impf) before God; let them be jubilant with joy (impf conj).|
|NIV||1 May God arise (impf), may his enemies be scattered (impf); may his foes flee (impf conj) before him. 2 As smoke is blown away (inf) by the wind, may you blow them away (impf); as wax melts (inf) before the fire, may the wicked perish (impf) before God. 3 But may the righteous be glad (impf) and rejoice (impf) before God; may they be happy (impf conj) and joyful.|
|RJF||1 May God arise (impf). May his enemies be scattered (impf). May his adversaries flee (impf conj) before him. 2 As smoke is driven away (inf), you may drive them away (impf). As wax melts (inf) before the fire, may the wicked perish (impf) before God. 3 But the righteous, may they be rejoicing (impf); may they be exulting (impf) before God, and may they be jubilant (impf conj) with joy.|
In verses 1 and 2, four imperfects are sentence initial without any prefixed waw. I take these as modals (jussives). I also take the two imperfect conjunctives as modal. This means that progressive action is not visible, as it would have been if the imperfects had been in the indicative mood.
|NRSV||4 Sing to God, sing praises to his name; lift up a song to him who rides (part) upon the clouds—his name is the Lord—be exultant before him. 5 Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. 6 God gives (part) the desolate a home to live in; he leads out (part) the prisoners to prosperity, but the rebellious live (perf) in a parched land.|
|NIV||4 Sing to God, sing praise to his name, extol him who rides (part) on the clouds—his name is the LORD—and rejoice before him.
5 A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. 6 God sets (part) the lonely in families, he leads forth (part) the prisoners with singing; but the rebellious live (perf) in a sun-scorched land.
|RJF||4 Sing to God, sing praise to his name. Sing aloud to the One riding (part) through the desert plains, to Yah, which is his name, And rejoice before him. 5 A father to orphans, and a judge of widows is God in his holy dwelling. 6 God is causing (part) the dearest children to dwell in a house, he is causing (part) the prisoners to go out to prosperity. But the rebellious ones, they will dwell (perf) in the scorched land.|
In verse 6 there is a contrast in the use of the verbs: the two participles are in the Hifil stem in contrast with a perfect in the Qal stem. The Hifil stem is causative, and this may indicate that an agent (God) leads another agent to do something. This is the most natural understanding of the participles. God is providing someone to help the dearest children, and to help the prisoners go out of the prison to prosperity. The Hifil force is not accounted for in NIV and NRSV. The perfect verb in the last clause is a contrast to the Hifil force. The subject is the rebellious ones. No one is causing them do something. But they themselves are responsible for their destiny. The expression “the rebellious ones” is emphatic, since it is sentence initial. But this is not marked by NIV and NRSV. The plural word yāhid is translated as “the desolate” (NRSV) and “the lonely” (NIV). The basic meaning of the word is “the only child” with the associate meaning “special and unique to the parents.” To convey this meaning, I use the expression “the dearest children.”
|NRSV||7 O God, when you went out (inf) before the people, when you marched (inf) through the wilderness, (Selah) 8 the earth quaked (perf), the heavens poured down (perf) rain at the presence of God, the God of Sinai, at the presence of God, the God of Israel. 9 Rain in abundance, O God, you showered (impf) abroad; you restored (perf) your heritage when it languished (part); 10 your flock found a dwelling (perf) in it; in your goodness, O God, you provided (impf) for the needy.|
|NIV||7 When you went out (inf) before your people, O God, when you marched (inf) through the wasteland, Selah. 8 the earth shook (perf), the heavens poured down (perf) rain, before God, the One of Sinai, before God, the God of Israel. 9 You gave (impf) abundant showers, O God; you refreshed (perf) your weary (part) inheritance. 10 Your people settled (perf) in it, and from your bounty, O God, you provided (impf) for the poor.|
|RJF||7 When you went out (inf) before your people, God, when you marched (inf) through the desert, Selah. 8 the earth itself shook (perf), yes, the heaven itself poured down (perf) rain before God; the One of Sinai, before God, the God of Israel. 9 Rain in abundance, God, you were causing (impf) to fall down. Your inheritance, when it was becoming weary (part), you made it secure (perf). 10 Your living beings dwelled (perf) in it; in your goodness, God, you certainly were causing (impf) the poor to get their provisions|
Verse 8 has two perfects, which indicates that the details in the actions are not made visible. The subjects for the perfects are “earth” and “heaven,” and because both precedes the verb, they are stressed. This is expressed by “itself.” This is not indicated by the two translations. When the ten commandments were given at Sinai, the mountain quaked. In the verse, it was the earth that quaked and not the mountain Sinai. The last part of verse 8 is difficult. Literally it says: “this Sinai before god, the god of Israel.” The problem is the demonstrative pronoun zæ (“this”) before Sinai. Normally a demonstrative pronoun has an antecedent, and therefore it can hardly refer to the following word “Sinai” with the meaning “this Sinai.” However, it may refer to the word “god,” which precedes the pronoun. Therefore, I have translated zæ with “the One.” Corroborating this rendering is the parallelism “before God, the One of Sinai” and “before God, the God of Israel.
The verb in the first clause of verse 9 is imperfect Hifil, and I render it with “were causing.” The two translations neither indicate that the verb is imperfective nor that it is causative. Thus, the force of the verb is lost.
The finite verb in the second clause is perfect, and no details are visible. The relationship between “inheritance” and “weary” is taken in different ways. Many translations take “weary” as a word modifying “inheritance.” But that is hardly possible, because “weary” has a prefixed waw (“and”). A grammatical translation would be: “Your inheritance, when it was weary.” The substantive nahlā “inheritance” is used in Psalm 33:12, and its reference is God’s people. But in Psalm 79:1 the land of Israel is the reference. The word nahlā is feminine, and the perfect translated “made secure” has a feminine suffix referring to nahlā. The first clause in verse 10 has the perfect verb yāshab (“dwell”), and this verb also has a feminine suffix referring to “inheritance.” Because the living beings are said to dwell “in it,” the inheritance must be the land.
Many translations render the perfect in verse 10 with past tense, and I do the same. The subject of “dwell” is ambiguous. The word hayyā is based on hay (“life; living”). It can refer to living beings, to animals, to people, and to troops. Because the correct reference is uncertain, I use the general expression “living beings.” In the last clause, the verb is Hifil imperfect, and this shows that it is both imperfective and causative. It is also sentence initial and therefore is stressed. My translation is: “you certainly were causing,” but the other two translations do not express any of the three mentioned characteristics.
|NRSV||11 The Lord gives (impf) the command; great is the company of those who bore the tidings (nom): 12 The kings of the armies, they flee (impf), they flee (impf)!” The women at home divide (impf) the spoil, 13 though they stay (impf) among the sheepfolds—the wings of a dove covered with silver, its pinions with green gold (nom). 14 When the Almighty scattered (inf abs) kings there, snow fell (impf) on Zalmon.|
|NIV||11 The Lord announced (impf) the word, and great was the company of those who proclaimed it (nom): 12 “Kings and armies flee (impf) in haste; in the camps men divide (impf) the plunder. 13 Even while you sleep (impf) among the campfires, the wings of [my] dove are sheathed with silver, its feathers with shining gold (nom).” 14 When the Almighty scattered (inf abs) the kings in the land, it was like snow (impf) fallen on Zalmon.|
|RJF||11 The Lord himself was giving (impf) the command. The women telling the good news were a great army (nom) 12 The very kings of the armies began to flee (impf); they were certainly fleeing (impf). And she who was dwelling in the house proceeded to divide (impf) the spoil. 13 If you are sleeping (impf) between the two sheepfolds, there the wings of the dove are covered with silver (nom), and its pinions with yellowish-green gold. 14 When the almighty scattered (inf abs) kings in it, it [your inheritance] caused snow to begin falling (impf) on Zalmon.|
It is often difficult to ascertain the temporal references in the Psalms. The verb forms are of little help because all of them can refer to the past, the present, and the future. In the sequence above, verse 12 is of help. It is clear that the spreading of the kings cannot refer to future, or the present, but they must refer to a particular past situation. Mt. Zalmon cannot be identified with certainty, but it may have been a mountain in Bashan, as verse 15 suggests, where kings were conquered after a snowfall. The mentioning of the dividing of spoil indicates that the Psalmist was referring to a particular historical situation.
The women in Israel would speak about the good news of the victories made by their men. A victory could only occur after a command was given. The verb “was giving” in verse 11 is imperfective, but the two translations do not mark this. Neither do they mark that the subject occurs before the verb and is emphatic. In the first part of verse 12, there are two imperfects of the same verb standing side by side, and the second being sentence initial. This suggests emphasis, and I have expressed this by the words “they were certainly fleeing.” The NRSV does not mark this emphasis. But NIV does this by the free rendering, “flee in haste.” The imperfective force of the verbs is not expressed by either of the two translations.
The verb in verse 13 is imperfective, but this is not expressed by the two translations. The second clause is nominal, and I have added “there are.” The colors of some doves may give the impression of silver and green-yellowish gold. The warriors of David may have been compared with a beautiful bird looking like silver and gold. Or the Psalmist could have had a particular situation in mind, where a bird of silver and gold was taken as a trophy. The infinitive absolute in verse 14 functions as a finite verb. The verb shālag (to snow) in the last clause is imperfective, but this is not marked by the two translations. The verb is 3rd person feminine imperfect Hifil. The reason for the verb being feminine, must be the feminine suffix of the preceding preposition be (in). We find the same preposition with the same feminine suffix in verse 10, and the antecedent of both suffixes must be feminine substantive nahlā (your inheritance) in verse 9. Therefore, the subject of shālag must be “it” with nahlā as antecedent. So it was God’s inheritance that caused snow to begin falling on Zalmon.
|NRSV||15 O mighty mountain, mountain of Bashan (nom); O many-peaked mountain, mountain of Bashan (nom)! 16 Why do you look (impf) with envy, O many-peaked mountain, at the mount that God desired (perf) for his abode, where the Lord will reside (impf) forever? 17 With mighty chariotry, twice ten thousand, thousands upon thousands, the Lord came from Sinai into the holy place. 18 You ascended (perf) the high mount, leading (perf) captives in your train and receiving (perf) gifts from people, even from those who rebel against the Lord God’s abiding (inf) there.|
|NIV||15 The mountains of Bashan are majestic mountains (nom); rugged are the mountains of Bashan (nom). 16 Why gaze (impf) in envy, O rugged mountains, at the mountain where God chooses (perf) to reign, where the LORD himself will dwell (impf) forever? 17 The chariots of God are tens of thousands and thousands of thousands; the Lord [has come] from Sinai into his sanctuary. 18 When you ascended (perf) on high, you led (perf) captives in your train; you received (perf) gifts from men, even from the rebellious—that you, O LORD God, might dwell (inf) there.|
|RJF||16 The mountain of God is the mountain of Bashan (nom). The mountain with peaks is the mountain of Bashan (nom). Why do you mountains with peaks keep watching (impf) with envy toward the mountain where God has desired (perf) to dwell, where Yehowa himself will be dwelling (impf) for an indefinite time? 17 The chariots of God are tens of thousands, and thousands over and over again; the Lord is among them, Sinai, in the holy place. 18 You did ascend (perf) on high; you took people captive (perf). You took (perf) gifts among men, and even the stubborn ones in order to dwell (inf) there, Yāh God.|
We note in verse 16 that because “the mountain of God” stands first in the clause, it must be the subject and the “mountain of Bashan” is the predicate. Verse 16 has two imperfective verbs, and this is not marked in the two translations. The subject of the last clause is emphatic. This is shown by the pronoun “himself.”
The last part of verse 17 is very difficult to understand, because it seems that some words are missing. Literally the verse says: “The Lord is among them, Sinai, in holiness. The syntactic position of “Sinai” is not clear, and the basic meaning of the last word kōdesh is “holiness; holy things.” But it can also refer to the holy place, as it does in verse 24. The Peshitta says: “The Lord is among them, Sinai, in his holiness” and the LXX says: “The Lord is among them in Sinai, in the holy place.” Both these renderings may suggest that the reference is to the situation when God gave the law on the mountain of Sinai. He was there with his myriads of angels, at that time Sinai was a holy place, and God’s holiness was there. Another alternative that may better fit words about the processions of God into the holy place that are mentioned in verse 24, is the following: God is in his holy place in Jerusalem among myriads of angels. And “Sinai” refers to the two law tablets that were given at Sinai, and which were placed in the ark of the covenant in the Temple.
The last two perfects in verse 18 are correctly translated in the two translations. However, the first perfect is sentence initial, and therefore must be emphatic. RJF marks this by using “did.” But NIV and NRSV have no emphasis. The reference of the infinitive “to dwell” at the end of verse 18 is problematic. Literally, the translation is “to dwell, Yah God.” Because it is Yah who is the dweller, the infinitive needs a complement, but there is no such complement. In order to make an understandable clause I have added “there,” “to dwell there.”
|NRSV||19 Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears (impf) us up; God is our salvation. (Selah) 20 Our God is a God of salvation, and to God, the Lord, belongs escape from death (nominal).|
|NIV||19 Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior, who daily bears (impf)our burdens. Selah 20 Our God is a God who saves; from the Sovereign LORD comes escape from death (nominal).|
|RJF||19 Blessed be the Lord, who day after day are carrying (impf) our burdens. 20 The God is for us a God of salvation, and to Yehowa belong the ways out from death (nominal).|
The NIV and NRSV do not mark the imperfective force of the verb.
|NRSV||21 But God will shatter (impf) the heads of his enemies, the hairy crown of those who walk (part) in their guilty ways. 22 The Lord said (perf), “I will bring (impf) them back from Bashan, I will bring (impf) them back from the depths of the sea, 23 so that you may bathe (impf) your feet in blood, so that the tongues of your dogs may have their share from the foe (nom).”|
|NIV||21 Surely God will crush (impf) the heads of his enemies, the hairy crowns of those who go on (part) in their sins. 22 The Lord says (perf), “I will bring (impf) them from Bashan; I will bring (impf) them from the depths of the sea, 23 that you may plunge (impf) your feet in the blood of your foes, while the tongues of your dogs have their share (nom).”|
|RJF||21 Surely, God himself will be crushing (impf) the heads of his enemies, the hairy crown of the one who is walking about (part) in his guilt. 22 The Lord says (perf): “From Bashan I will begin to bring (impf) them back. I will indeed continue to bring (impf) them back from the depth of the sea, 23 so you can be smashing (impf) your foot in blood, so the tongues of your dogs can have a portion from your enemies (nom).|
There are four imperfective verbs in the verses. The last one may be modal, but the progressive force of the other three should be expressed in translation. But NIV and NRSV have not done this. The two middle imperfects are of the Hifil stem, and this is marked by both NIV and NRSV.
|NRSV||24 Your solemn processions are seen (perf), O God, the processions of my God, my King, into the sanctuary—25 the singers in front (perf), the musicians last (nom), between them girls playing tambourines (part):
26 “Bless God in the great congregation, the Lord, O you who are of Israel’s fountain!” 27 There is Benjamin, the least of them, in the lead (part), the princes of Judah in a body, the princes of Zebulun, the princes of Naphtali.
|NIV||24 Your procession has come into view (perf), O God, the procession of my God and King into the sanctuary. 25 In front are (perf) the singers, after them the musicians (nom).; with them are the maidens playing tambourines (part). 26 Praise God in the great congregation; praise the LORD in the assembly of Israel. 27 There is the little tribe of Benjamin, leading (part) them, there the great throng of Judah’s princes, and there the princes of Zebulun and of Naphtali.|
|RJF||24 They have certainly seen (perf) your processions, God, the processions of my God, my king, into the holy place. 25 The singers were indeed in the front (perf), and the players of stringed instruments followed (nom). Between them were the young women playing the tambourines (part). 26 In the assemblies, bless God—Yehowa, in the fountain of Israel! There is little Benjamin ruling (part) over them, the princes of Judah with their great throng, the princes of Zebulun, the princes of Naphtali.|
Because the two perfects in verses 24 and 25 are sentence initial without a prefixed waw, I take them as emphatic, and express the emphasis by the use of “certainly” and “indeed.” The first part of verse 26 is not easy to understand because of the preposition min (from, out of) prefixed to the word māqōr (spring). However, the preposition min can also refer to the place where something is found, being equivalent to “in.” One example is 2 Samuel 5:13 where it is said that David took concubines and wives “in (min) Jerusalem.” So I take the first part of verse 26 as a parallelism between “God” and “Yehowa” and between “in the assemblies” and “in the fountain of Israel.”
. Koehler and Baumgaartner, 597.
|NRSV||28 Summon (perf) your might, O God; show your strength, O God, as you have done (perf) for us before. 29 Because of your temple at Jerusalem kings bear (impf) gifts to you. 30 Rebuke the wild animals that live among the reeds, the herd of bulls with the calves of the peoples. Trample under foot (part) those who lust after tribute; scatter (perf) the peoples who delight (impf) in war. 31 Let bronze be brought (impf) from Egypt; let Ethiopia hasten to stretch out (impf) its hands to God.|
|NIV||28 Summon (perf) your power, O God; show us your strength, O God, as you have done (perf) before. 29 Because of your temple at Jerusalem kings will bring (impf) you gifts. 30 Rebuke the beast among the reeds, the herd of bulls among the calves of the nations. Humbled (part), may it bring bars of silver. Scatter (perf) the nations who delight (impf) in war. 31 Envoys will come (impf) from Egypt; Cush will submit (impf) herself to God.|
|RJF||28 Your God will certainly support (perf) your power. Show strength, God, you who will act (perf) in our behalf. 29 In your temple, kings will be bringing (impf) gifts to you. 30 Rebuke the wild beasts of the reeds, the assembly of mighty ones among the calves of the peoples, those who are polluting themselves (part) with pieces of silver. He will indeed scatter (perf) the peoples who continue to take delight (impf) in war. 31 Bronze articles will indeed be coming (impf) from Egypt. Ethiopia herself will quickly be giving (impf) her hands to God.|
Verse 28 is understood in many different ways, as the different Bible translations show. Both NRSV and NIV indicate that “your power” (“your might” in NRSV) refers to God. But that must be wrong. The personal pronoun “your” is attached to both “God” and “power.” So the power must belong to the one who is addressed. The basic meaning of the verb sΩabā in the Piel stem is “to command; instruct; give direction; send.” God does not command a person’s power, but he may send his power to support a person’s power. The idea of sending someone to do something, which is connected with the Piel stem, can be expressed by using the word “support.” Because the perfect is sentence initial without prefixed waw, it is emphatic. To mark this, I have used the adverbial “certainly.”
The relative particle zuœ evidently has “God” as antecedent, and therefore must be translated as “you who.” I take the first perfect as referring to the future. The second perfect may either refer to the past or to the future. Because the actions in the following verses are future, I take this perfect as future as well. The point is that God supports the power to his servants, so they become strong. The prayer is that God also will use his power and act in behalf of his servants.
As already shown, the preposition min in verse 29 can in some contexts be equivalent with be (“in; within”). So I translate min that is prefixed to “your temple” as “in,” and not as “because of” or “from.” The substantive “gift” is singular, but because the subjects are plural, I take the word as a collective and translate it as plural. Because there is a collective substantive in verse 29, it is also possible that “the wild beast” in verse 30 is collective and should be translated as plural. Supporting this is the apposition, “the mighty ones among the calves of the peoples.” This suggests that the “wild beast” refers to the “mighty ones,” and that “wild beasts” and “calves” are metaphors for humans.
The text in 30b is very difficult, and the versions have different renderings (Koehler/Baumgartner, 1280). Literally the text says: “humbling themselves / polluting themselves with pieces of silver.” The meaning could be that the “wild beasts,” “the calves of the peoples” could be polluting themselves with pieces of silver. If this is correct, the words can have a literal rendering. The last clause in verse 31 may continue the idea in the previous part of the verse. The “wild beasts,” which are the “mighty ones” who pollute themselves with pieces of silver, are also identical with those who are taking delight in war. Because the first imperfect in verse 31 is sentence initial, it is emphatic. This is marked by the use of the adverbial “indeed.” In the second clause the subject comes before the verb, and therefore is emphatic. This is marked by using “herself.” The NIV and NRSV do not have any emphasis.
|NRSV||31 Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth; sing praises to the Lord, Selah 33 O rider (part) in the heavens, the ancient heavens; listen, he sends out (impf) his voice, his mighty voice. 34 Ascribe power to God, whose majesty is over Israel; and whose power is in the skies (nom). 35 Awesome is God in his sanctuary, the God of Israel; he gives (part) power and strength to his people. Blessed be God!|
|NIV||32 Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth, sing praise to the Lord, Selah 33 to him who rides (part) the ancient skies above, who thunders (impf) with mighty voice. 34 Proclaim the power of God, whose majesty is over Israel, whose power is in the skies (nom). 35 You are awesome, O God, in your sanctuary; the God of Israel gives (part) power and strength to his people. Praise be to God!|
|RJF||32 Kingdoms of the earth, sing to God. Sing praises to the Lord, Selah 33 to the one who is riding (part) in the heaven, in the ancient heavens. Behold! He is giving (impf) his voice, a mighty voice. 34 Ascribe strength to God. His majesty is over Israel and his strength in the clouds (nom). 35 Awesome (part) are you, God, in your sanctuary. The God of Israel, it is he who is giving (part) strength, as well as might to the people. Blessed be God!|
There is only one finite verb in these verses, and NIV and NRSV do not mark its imperfectivity.
In a language, different factors can be used to express the same idea. In Hebrew, for example, the Piel stem is often used to express a resultative idea. But the imperfective aspect together with a punctiliar verb can also express resultativity. Moreover, the infinitive absolute can be used as a predicate just as a finite verb, and it can have an imperative force and be used in the same way as an imperative.
However, when we look at the different Hebrew stems, Qal, Nifal, Piel, Pual, Hithpael, Hifil, and Hofal, every Hebrew student knows that each stem has a meaning that is different from the other stems. This indicates that if Bible translators ignore the different meanings of the stems and translate all the verbs in a similar way, important nuances in the original text will be lost. The lexical meaning of each verb will help the reader to get a rough understanding of the text, but the real force of each clause would not be conveyed.
But what about the prefix conjugation (imperfect) and the suffix conjugation (perfect)? It is obvious that the two conjugations have different meanings. And it is just as obvious that if verbs from the two conjugations are translated in the same way, important nuances in the original text are lost. Classical Hebrew does not have tenses. But some verb forms are used more than others in particular time settings. For example, the prefix form without a prefixed waw is used more with present and future meaning than the suffix form without prefixed waw. And conversely, the suffix form is used more with past reference than the prefix form. However, because Hebrew is tense-less, the differences between the conjugations is not one of temporal reference. But there is an aspectual difference.
We should also take the syntax into consideration. In poetic texts, there can be stylistic reasons for an unusual syntax. But in most cases the author uses the syntax to convey different nuances to the readers. For example, prefixes and suffixes of the verbs indicate the subject of the clauses. Sometimes a substantive or pronoun identifying the subject is added, and this is done with a purpose. Also, because the verb usually precedes the subject in Hebrew, when a substantive or pronoun stands before the verb, it is emphatic. In most cases when a verb is sentence initial, it has a prefixed waw. When this waw is lacking, the author wants to convey a particular nuance. If these syntactic characteristics are ignored in a translation, important nuances are not conveyed to the readers, and the text becomes rather dull.
The translation of the conjugations
Psalm 68:8–10 illustrates in a clear way how the idiomatic translations often ignore the differences between the conjugations.
|NRSV||quaked (perf); poured down (perf); showered (impf); restored (perf); languished (part); found a dwelling (perf); provided (impf)|
|NIV||shook (perf); poured down (perf); gave (impf) abundant showers; refreshed (perf); weary [adjective] (part); settled (perf); provided(impf)|
|RJF||shook (perf); poured down (perf); were causing to fall down (impf); was becoming weary (part); made . . . secure (perf); dwelled (perf); were causing the poor to get (impf) their provisions|
The text deals with a historic situation, and all three translations give the finite verbs a past reference. There are four perfects that all three translations have presented as perfective, with no details visible. However, the two imperfects are translated as perfective as well, although they are imperfective. And NRSV also gives the participle a perfective force. Because there is no distinction between the conjugations, and not even between the participle and the conjugations in NRSV, it is obvious that NIV and NRSV fail to convey important nuances in the Hebrew text to the readers. In all the verses there are 19 instances where the difference between the conjugations, between perfectivity and imperfectivity are not expressed by NIV and NRSV.
In contrast with the two translations, RJF gives the perfects a perfective force and the imperfects an imperfective force. The participle is given a progressive force.
The translation of the Hifil stem
The Hifil stem is the causative stem, and the causative force can be lexically expressed. The verb bō’ has the meaning “come/come in” in the Qal stem and “bring” (cause to come) in the Hifil stem. It can also be expressed by using the basic meaning of a verb preceded with the words “cause to.” I will now look at the renderings of the Hifil stem.
|NRSV||Rain in abundance, O God, you showered (Hifil imperfect) abroad;|
|NIV||You gave (Hifil imperfect) abundant showers, O God;|
|RJF||Rain in abundance, God, you were causing (Hifil imperfect) to fall down.|
|NRSV||O God, you provided (Hifil imperfect) for the needy.|
|NIV||O God, you provided (Hifil imperfect) for the poor.|
|RJF||God, you certainly were causing (Hifil imperfect) the poor to get their provisions.|
|NRSV||snow fell (Hifil imperfect) on Zalmon.|
|NIV||it was like snow fallen (Hifil imperfect) on Zalmon.|
|RJF||it [your inheritance] caused snow to begin falling (Hifil imperfect) on Zalmon.|
|NRSV||“I will bring (Hifil imperfect) them back from Bashan, I will bring (Hifil imperfect) them back from the depths of the sea.”|
|NIV||“I will bring (Hifil imperfect) them from Bashan; I will bring (Hifil imperfect) them from the depths of the sea.”|
|RJF||“From Bashan I will begin to bring (Hifil imperfect) them back. I will indeed continue to bring (Hifil imperfect) them back from the depth of the sea,”|
|NRSV||kings bear (Hifil imperfect) gifts to you.|
|NIV||kings will bring (Hifil imperfect) you gifts.|
|RJF||kings will be bringing (Hifil imperfect) gifts to you.|
|NRSV||let Ethiopia hasten to stretch out (Hifil imperfect) its hands to God.|
|NIV||Cush will submit (Hifil imperfect) herself to God.|
|RJF||Ethiopia herself will quickly be giving (Hifil imperfect) her hands to God.|
The Hifil imperfects in verses 9, 10, and 14 are translated as Qal verbs without any causative force by NIV and NRSV. The Hifil verbs in verse 22 are given a causative force by both translations by the use of the verb “bring.” In verse 28, NIV gives the verb a causative force, but not so NRSV. In verse 31 the opposite is true; the NRSV account for the causative force by the use of “hasten,” but not so NIV. In four instances, which are two thirds of the examples, NIV and NRSV ignore the causative force of the Hifil stem.
All the Hifil verbs are of the imperfect conjugation, but in no example have NIV or NRSV translated the verbs in an imperfective way with a part of progressive action being visible. In contrast with the two translations, RJF has in all examples expressed both the Hifil force and the imperfective force.
The emphatic use of verbs
I will consider several verses in Psalm 68 and compare the translations in connection with emphasis.
|NRSV||Let God rise up (impf), let his enemies be scattered (impf); let those who hate him flee (impf conj) before him.|
|NIV||May God arise (impf), may his enemies be scattered (impf); may his foes flee (impf conj) before him.|
|RJF||May God arise (impf). May his enemies be scattered (impf). May his adversaries flee (impf conj) before him.|
The two first imperfects in verse 1 are sentence initial and do not have a prefixed waw. This suggests that they are modal (jussive). Two of the four imperfects in verses 2 and 3 are sentence initial as well. On this basis it is logical that the two imperfect conjunctives are modal as well. All three translations render these imperfects and imperfect conjunctives in verses 1–3 as modal.
|NRSV||O God, you provided (Hifil imperfect) for the needy.|
|NIV||O God, you provided (Hifil imperfect) for the poor.|
|RJF||God, you certainly were causing (Hifil imperfect) the poor to get their provisions.|
The imperfect in the second clause of verse 10 is sentence initial. The context indicates that the verb is not modal, and therefore it must be emphatic. NIV and NRSV do not mark this, but RJF uses the adverbial “certainly” to mark the emphasis.
|NRSV||“they flee (impf)!”|
|NIV||“Kings and armies flee (impf) in haste;”|
|RJF||they were certainly fleeing (impf).|
The verb nadād (flee) occurs two times in verse 12, and they stand side by side with no waw in between. This suggests emphasis, and RJF has marked this emphasis by the use of the adverbial “certainly.” NIV indicates emphasis by using “in haste,” but NRSV has no emphasis.
|NRSV||You ascended (perf) the high mount,|
|NIV||When you ascended (perf) on high,|
|RJF||You did ascend (perf) on high;|
Because the first perfect in verse 18 is sentence initial, it is emphatic. RJF has marked this by using “did.” The NIV and RSV have no emphasis.
|NRSV||“I will bring (impf) them back from the depths of the sea,”|
|NIV||“I will bring (impf) them from the depths of the sea,”|
|RJF||“I will indeed continue to bring (impf) them back from the depth of the sea,”|
Verse 12 has two examples of the verb “flee,” one following the other without any waw in between. And the second is sentence initial. Exactly the same construction is found in verse 22 with the Hifil imperfect form of s∑ūb (“to return”). Thus, the second verb is emphatic. RJF has marked this by the use of the adverbial “indeed.” But the two other translations mark no emphasis.
|PSALM 68:24, 25|
|NRSV||Your solemn processions are seen (perf), O God . . . the singers in front (perf),|
|NIV||Your procession has come into view (perf), O God . . . In front are (perf) the singers,|
|RJF||They have certainly seen (perf) your processions, God . . . The singers were indeed in the front (perf),|
The perfects in verses 24 and 25 are sentence initial, and therefore they are emphatic. RJF has marked this by using the adverbs “certainly” and “indeed.” The NIV and NRSV have no emphasis.
|NRSV||Summon (perf) your might, O God;|
|NIV||Summon (perf) your power, O God;|
|RJF||Your God will certainly support (perf) your power.|
The perfect in verse 28 is sentence initial, and therefore it is emphatic. RJF has marked this by using the adverb “certainly.” The NIV and NRSV have no emphasis.
|NRSV||Let bronze be brought (impf) from Egypt;|
|NIV||Envoys will come (impf) from Egypt;|
|RJF||Bronze articles will indeed be coming (impf) from Egypt.|
The first imperfect in verse 31 is sentence initial. Because of this the NRSV takes it as modal (jussive). This does not fit the context, and RJF takes it as emphatic. This is marked by the adverbial “indeed.” The NIV uses indicative without emphasis.
The emphatic use of substantives
|NRSV||the earth quaked (perf), the heavens poured down (perf) rain at the presence of God,|
|NIV||the earth shook (perf), the heavens poured down (perf) rain, before God,|
|RJF||the earth itself shook (perf), yes, the heaven itself poured down (perf) rain before God;|
|NRSV||The Lord gives (impf) the command;|
|NIV||The Lord announced (impf) the word,|
|RJF||The Lord himself was giving (impf) the command.|
|NRSV||The kings of the armies, they flee (impf),|
|NIV||Kings and armies flee (impf) in haste;|
|RJF||The very kings of the armies began to flee (impf);|
|NRSV||where the Lord will reside (impf) forever?|
|NIV||where the LORD himself will dwell (impf) forever?|
|RJF||where Yehowa himself will be dwelling (impf) for an indefinite time?|
|NRSV||But God will shatter (impf) the heads of his enemies,|
|NIV||Surely God will crush (impf) the heads of his enemies,|
|RJF||Surely, God himself will be crushing (impf) the heads of his enemies,|
|NRSV||let Ethiopia hasten to stretch out (impf) its hands to God.|
|NIV||Cush will submit (impf) herself to God.|
|RJF||Ethiopia herself will quickly be giving (impf) her hands to God.|
There are six examples where a subject expressed by a substantive precedes the verb. This indicates emphasis, and in order to mark this emphasis, RJF uses the expressions, “the earth itself,” “the Lord himself,” “the very kings,” “Yehowa himself,” “God himself,” and “Ethiopia herself.” The NIV and NRSV do not mark any emphasis.
The discussion and analysis of Psalm 68 above have shown a great number of nuances in the Hebrew text that are not conveyed to the readers by the idiomatic translations. Both NIV and NRSV fail to convey 39 nuances of the Hebrew text to the readers (no difference between the conjugations, 19 times; no emphasis, 16 times, no marking of Hifil, 4 times) to the readers. In addition, there are many nuances of the lexical and syntactical meanings of words that are not conveyed to the readers. This Psalm is just a small part of the whole Hebrew Bible, but it is representative of the other parts of the Bible.
There are a little more than 27,000 verses in the Hebrew Bible. If the frequency of nuances that are not conveyed by idiomatic translations is the same in these verses as in Psalm 68, there are about 29,000 nuances that are not conveyed to English readers. Besides, there are many other nuances of lexical and syntactic meaning that are not conveyed. Moreover, many nuances that are not in the original text are added in idiomatic translations. Therefore, those readers who are interested in all the nuances of the original text should use concordant translations and not idiomatic and interpretative ones