[b-hebrew] Hebrew poetry as "libretto"

B. M. Rocine brocine at twcny.rr.com
Sat Jul 30 08:58:41 EDT 2005

Hi Rolf,

Thank you for your kind words and considered comments.  I really like 
the Gross quote; I think it is elegant, insightful, and just a bit 
humorous.   You nicely qualified the relationship of Gross' concern to 
my use of the present translation in Isaiah.

"my tongue is the pen of a skillful writer"...

I think the existence of an oral tradition before, during, and/or after 
the writing of the Tanakh can be pretty reliably established with mostly 
circumstantial evidence like the existence of stock pairs as a 
foundation for constructing BH poetic parallelism.  (But I certainly do 
not want to entangle the list in another unseemly authorship debate!) 
The studies of Lord and Parry on oral poetry seem to convincingly 
establish that stock pairs is the vital mechanism for creating oral 

I do not claim that every Biblical poem has a performance behind it.  I 
doubt Psa 1 does, because I think it was written as an introduction to 
the psalter.  I doubt some acrostic poems, which must largely be seen to 
be appreciated, have performance backgrounds.  Psa 119, on the other 
hand, with its turning over and over eight designations for the Word of 
God, may well use those eight together with the acrostic to enhance the 
performer's memory and reputation as well as the audience' contemplation 
and pleasure.

You speak of the uncomfortable zig-zagging through tenses that 
translators may create if they try to follow the Hebrew verb forms.  The 
zig-zagging is sometimes the essence of the poetry.  To smooth it out is 
to re-write rather than translate the poem.  The zig-zagging sometimes 
manifests as zig-zagging through Hebrew verb forms, but it is truly only 
an effect of shifting performance deixis.  I'll illustrate with an example.

The performance deixis of Deborah's Song in Judges 5 shifts as follows 
(the "bard" is the theoretical performer of the song when he is playing 
the role of himself):

Verse 2:  bard > general audience (Israel)
3:  bard > specific audience (rulers)
4:  bard > YHWH
6:  bard > Deborah (I am taking the ti ending (v. 7 shaqqamti) to be an 
old 2. f. s. suffix)
9:  Deborah > Israel (IOW, the performer "plays" Deborah rather than 
12a: bard > Deborah
12b: bard > Baraq
13:  Baraq (or Deborah) > Israel
14a: bard > Israel
14b: bard > Ephraim
16a: bard > Reuben
16b: bard > general audience
23a: Messenger of YHWH > special addressee
23b  bard > general audience
23c: Messenger of YHWH > special addressee
25:  bard > general audience
28c: Sisera's mother > special addressee
29:  bard > general audience
30:  Sisera's mother > herself
31a:  bard > YHWH
31b:  bard > general audience

Now that's a lot of zig-zagging!!  ;-)

The shifting performance deixis segments the poem.  The segments are 
largely unannounced by any speech introduction formulas.  They happen on 
the fly.  It is a bit hard to follow when we read the text.  In reading, 
we have to track noun and pronoun references very attentively. On the 
other hand, it would make a spell-binding live performance by a virtuoso 
dramatic specialist.

This has a lot to do with the use of the verb forms.  If we simply chart 
the verb forms in the whole poem as one continuous string, the string is 
incomprehensible.  If, on the other hand, we segment the text with a 
recognition of the shifting performance deixis, the forms *within each 
section make sense within that section*.

Bryan Rocine

Rolf Furuli wrote:

I can not exclude
> your "libretto"-view. But it of course  very difficult to find clear 
> evidence for it. My concerns, however, relates to the application of this 
> view to Bible translation.
> The German Hebraist Walter Gross once used the phrase: "Die Flucht ins 
> Präsens" ("the flight to present"). This means, that when Bible translators 
> have problems with the translation of verbs (e.g. different conjugations 
> seem to have the same reference), they often end up with using present. 
> Because present in English and other languages can refer to the past and 
> future, the reader must find the temporal reference. My view of Bible 
> translation is that the translators should refrain from exegesis as much as 
> possible and instead whenever possible make a text that gives the reader the 
> opportunity to do the interpretation. There may be situations where the 
> temporal reference is ambiguous in the original text and where the 
> translators will preserve this ambigousness. But in most instances it is the 
> duty of the translator to make decisions regarding the temporal reference of 
> the verbs and convey these to the readers. In other words, the reader should 
> be able to in an easy way to find the temporal reference of a passage in an 
> English Bible translation.
> You choose present to a great extent, not because any "flight," but because 
> you want to convey your views of the nature of poetic texts in Hebrew. 
> Nonetheless, the use of present in your translation probably will have the 
> same effect on the readers as Die Flucht ins Präsens, they simply do not 
> understand the temporal reference.  You agree that the setting of Isaiah 
> 52:13-53:12 is future, and in my view, verbs in such a setting should be 
> rendered by English future, so the readers immediately see the temporal 
> reference. To use present to such a great degree as you do is not as 
> confusing for the reader as the the zig-zag renderings of modern 
> translations with past, perfect, present, and future renderings. But still 
> the text is much easier to understand for the reader when simple future is 
> used.
>>1. Do you view the whole text as referring to the future, i.e. do you see
>>each action as an action where reference time comes after the deictic
> Interpretively, of course.  That is, it is prophetic.  But
> linguistically, no.  The vision is "right there," "right in front of
> them," so to speak.
> I think, in both the translation and interpretation of Hebrew poetry,
> not enough value is given to the text as a libretto.  I use the term
> libretto loosely.  What I mean is that the style of a lot of Hebrew
> poetry reflects an oral or performance tradition, perhaps as the
> writers' unconscious preservation of a text's oral origin or as a
> conscious attempt to honor the oral tradition.
> I suspect many of these texts, Isaiah 52:13-53:12, were first performed
> and later written.  It is often challenging to understand libretti in a
> written-only medium.  They are stripped of tone of voice, facial
> expression, gesture, musical or dramatic accompaniment, and all the
> context that the performance arena can bring to a performance.  The
> Slavic _guslar_ (bard) Halil Bajoric said of his story, "It has to be
> said like that."  What he means is that the delivery of the song is
> inseperable from its message. The _guslar's_ story is never only the
> words; it is also the performance.
> When it comes to Hebrew poetry, I think we need to explore the idea of
> re-constructing the performance.  I think a text like the one we are
> examining in Isaiah is begging us to reconstruct the performance by its
> use of verb forms that are stringed together in a somewhat unusual way.
> A skillful Hebrew _guslar_, as I believe the prophets and poets of the
> Hebrews were, could deliver sections of our passage from Isaiah that use
> a preponderance noun sentences and X-qatal clauses, such that he
> describes a vision that is before him and his audience at the moment he
> speaks but tells of things to come.  "hinneh!" he says to his audience.
>   Do they see what he sees?  He will help them.

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