[b-hebrew] Psa 107:19-21 (was WAYYIQTOL)

furuli at online.no furuli at online.no
Mon Mar 15 04:41:31 EST 2004

Charles David Isbell writes,

>Rolf writes,
>"I have worked with questions related to Bible translation for many years,
>and I have also translated works from different Semitic languages into
>Norwegian; so I am very sensitive for translation issues. By studying
>different Bible translations, the scholar will see that the translators are
>heavily influenced by the traditional views of the Hebrew verbs, which in a
>way serves as a straitjacket. I will estimate that if the model of my thesis
>was used instead of the traditional one, that would necessitate a change in
>the English tenses of more than ten thousand verbs, and many, many other
>changes would be necessary as well. So our view of verbs does have
>This is a bold assertion. "Ten thousand" errors by not following your model!
>Perhaps the list could profit from seeing your English translation of Exodus
>3.1-4.17 with this model. Or maybe you have another narrative passage that
>you find more instructive. I appreciate that you are sold on your own
>theory, but I cannot imagine the wholesale changes you predict, all of which
>no one else has caught from LXX to JPS. And I cannot imagine the theological
>gains to be made as a result. Bandying a new linguistic theory is one thing.
>Claiming that your way of translation brings thousands of changes can only
>mean that a new world of theology awaits. What have I missed?
>I hope you are well today, that tomorrow you will be well, and that on
>Tuesday you can say, "On Monday I was well."

Dear Charles,

The picture is not the only clever guy versus all the others, but 
rather one model of two components versus a model of four components. 
We should not forget that there was no grammatical works extant for 
Hebrew when the Masoretes started their work and that grammatical 
theory gradually was built on the basis of induction. The 
four-component model was created almost a thousand years ago, and its 
basis was tense - each component was ascribed a particular tense, 
just as in the other languages that the grammarians knew. In the 19th 
century the view of tense was dropped by some, and each of the four 
components was viewed as aspects. This switch should cause alarm 
bells to ring for modern linguists, because there is no one-to-one 
correspondence between tense and aspect. Today there seems to be a 
growing tendency to view the four components as tenses, while some 
views them as aspects. What I criticize is that we have a model with 
four components, which were made a thousand years ago without the 
help of modern linguistic principles, and whose very essence have 
never been thoroughly tested.

Almost thirty years ago (1976)  Walter Gross published his study 
"Verbform und Funktion wayyiqtol für die Gegenwart?"  One interesting 
observation of his is what he calls "Die Flucht ins Präsens". When 
Bible translators have problems with fitting their theoretical 
understanding of Hebrew verbs with their understanding of the 
context, they often use present, because present can be used with 
past, present, and future reference. Poor readers!  The view that 
Hebrew has two rather than four conjugations need not affect 
sequential narrative accounts so much because the characteristics of 
the Hebrew imperfective aspect are so different from its English 
counterpart. So it it is often good just to use simple past in 
English, though more modal expressions should be used. The area where 
most problems of communication exist is when the reference is future. 
Take for example Jeremiah chapters 50 and 51 (I recommend that all 
interested persons study these chapters and the renderings of the 
verbs by different translations.). Leaving alone the question whether 
the text is written before or after the events, it is clear that the 
author portrays the events as future. But what do we find in these 
chapters and throughout all the prophets? We find what I would call 
"ping-pong" renderings. The context is future (save digressions) and 
would require English future renderings. But what we find are future 
in a few cases, then past tense,  and perfect, and to a great extent 
present. Why is not the context followed? Because of grammatical 
theory!  The forms QATAL and WAYYIQTOL should not normally be 
rendered by simple future is the theory. In the two-component model 
there is no restriction at all for rendering QATAL and WAYYIQTOL 
with English future. So particularly the verbs in the prophets, but 
also to a great extent in poetic passages would be greatly influenced 
by the new model. And my estimate that ten thousand verbs would be 
affected in one area or another probably is too low.

Best regards


Rolf Furuli
University of Oslo

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