(long) time and tenses (re Alviero Niccacci)
furuli at online.no
Thu Dec 17 06:37:28 EST 1998
Paul Zellmer wrote,
Rolf Furuli wrote:
>> Given the principles behind your method your translation is systematic and
>> sound. My question, however, is: Does the translation make sense, i.e. does
>> it convey the true message to the reader?
>> As far as I can see, you have translated all wayyiqtols and all qatals
>> (except the one of v 14 which is rendered as perfect) by past tense. But do
>> you think that "she" in v 10 refers to a particular woman? And do you
>> think that the rest of the chapter refers to a particular woman? It seems
>> to me that a hypothetical woman is portrayed - the good wife! If this is
>> true, will not your past tense mislead the readers to think that *a
>> particular* woman is meant?
>> Consider for instance vv 15,16: "And she *rose* (wayyiqtol) while it was
>> yet night, And *provided* (wayyiqtol) food for her household and tasks for
>> her maidens. She *considered* (qatal) a field and *bought* (wayyiqtol) it,
>> While with the fruit of her hands she *planted* (x-qatal) a vineyard". By
>> using past tense in these verses the reader will definitely be led to
>> believe that the author has particular past events in mind. The phrases
>> "provide food", "consider a field", "buy a field" and "plant a vineyard"
>> are all telic. And do not telic events described by simple past always
>> refer to particular events in the past which where terminated?
>> I took a look at the six first English translations on the Gramcord CD with
>> the following results:
>> Today's English Version, New International Version, New American Bible,
>> Revised Standard Version, New American Standard Bible, and New Jerusalem
>> Bible renders all the 15 qatals, 4 yiqtols, 9 wayyiqtols in vv 13-28 with
>> present tense! An unanimous body of scholars thought this was the best way
>> to describe a hypothetical good wife.
>Are you not falling into a common translation fallacy here? Just because
>English idiom uses the present tense to describe the hypothetical does not
>that the Classical Hebrew language did it the same way. Of course, if we are
>attempting to come up with the "best" English translation, we must answer the
>"hypothetical or literal" question, because English makes a surface
>differentiation between the two. But, if Hebrew does not, and if our
>to try to come to the best understanding of the Hebrew form, then what is the
>significance of the unanimity of the English translations? If we can identify
>why they translated this as present tense, and that reason lies in *English*
>grammatical usage, it's of little value in understanding the *Hebrew* form.
>Now, I personally *do* think that we are dealing with the hypothetic, but the
>structure neither confirms or denies that.
>Although we *do* have some verbal forms modified here by the poetic [acrostic]
>structure, the poet here seems to be using many of the features of historical
>narrative here. Note, for example, the tendency to use the dreaded wayyiqtol
>(vv 13, 15, 17, et. al.) If that is the case, then the x-yiqtols and
>participle, etc., should be viewed in the same light as they would be were
>a story. Whether the original readers actually placed these events in
>is of little consequence here. (Actually, I wonder if the original BH
>stayed consciously aware of the "pastness" in a well-told story. Could it be
>that they "got into the action" with the use of the (way)yiqtol, that the
>came to be "present time"? I know that's what happens to me when I read a
>English story, which is normally written in present tense.) The passage
>actually is "timeless," but the structure must conform to the constraints
>language. So much of the information is presented using "background" forms,
>forms which do not move along a storyline.
>I am not attempting to address all, or even most, of the issues that you are
>debating with this (and other) thread. I wish to merely point out that the
>discussion on "time and tenses" would probably be better served by trying to
>limit the discussion to how these concepts are expressed (or not, as the case
>may be) in the *Hebrew*.
I agree with your point that we cannot take for granted that the
translation of a text into English exactly gives the meaning of the
Hebrew. On the other hand does English play an important role in our study
of Hebrew, because we look at Hebrew in the light of English. The term
"past tense" for instance, is only meaningful because we know what it means
in English. On this basis can we ask: Is past tense grammaticalized in
As you can see from Alvieros post today, our approaches are completely
different. He started with some simple prose texts and ascribed tenses to
the verbs as he understood them, worked further and found patterns for
which verbs were used in different kinds of discourse (as he defined the
groups). He followed the hermeneutic circle and adjusted his hypotheses as
more material was reviewed. However, his basic view that the system contain
tenses was never tested, it was assumed. And this is my basic criticism to
his and similar systems. What is described is pragmatics! There is no
attempt to differentiate between pragmatics and semantics! Such a system,
therefore, is not falsifyable!
If discourse analysis is used as a means to find patterns in the language,
to find which part of a text is the more important one, what is
accompanying circumstances, what is stressed and what is not etc. it is a
very fine tool. But once it is used in a hypothetic-nomologic way it is
dangerous. The only way to test the view that tense is grammaticalized in
Hebrew is to look at all the verbs in the whole corpus where we by help of
the context definitely can fix the time, and see what we find. However,
also in this case may our views color our judgement.
As an example, two great Hebrew scholars (who worked before and after
world war II), Frank Blake and Harris Birkeland both believed that
wayyiqtol was preterite. Both of them published studies including the same
about 100 examples of wayyiqtols with alleged non-past meaning, and both
concluded that these examples did not falsify their view. What is
interesting, however, is that Birkeland said that the examples were past
and was mis-interpreted as non-past, while Blake said that the examples
were non-past but they were pointed wrongly by the Masoretes!
It therefore may be revealing and see how different scholars have
translated particular texts, in order to test our own view of the context.
What is more important with Proverbs 31 than the fact that the 6
translations render it by present tense, is that they do not differentiate
between qatals, yiqtols and wayyiqtols in translation. So the translators
believed that all these forms were used quite similarly. I do not dispute
that other nations can use tense in an idiomatic way, but this must be
shown and not just postulated. If it is at all meaningful to try to
understand a dead language, Proverbs 31:25 must be an example of wayyiqtol
with non-past meaning. "Therefore she laughs (wayyiqtol) at the time to
come." The words "the days to come" excludes a past meaning.
There is one expression in your post that I want you to elucidate. You say
"Although we *do* have some verbal forms modified here by the poetic
[acrostic] structure, the poet here seems to be using many of the features
of historical narrative here." What do you mean by "modyfy"? Sometimes, or
rather quite often. I see or hear views that the same verb form has
different meanings when used in different genres or has different discourse
functions (I am speaking syntactically and not lexically). Is this what you
mean? In my view has any wayyiqtol or qatal the same meaning in *any*
context, and I have never seen evidence that a form has one meaning in
prose and another in poetry.
Lecturer in Semitic languages
University of Oslo
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