Lamentations: introducing this version

In brief: Alphabetic acrostics. And metrical 'qinah'.

Lamentations is poetry. Not prose.

Arid brutality and vicious harshness are the hallmarks of both the text and message of Lamentations. Despite that, many English translations persist in deploying linguistic styles redolent of a gentle ramble through flowery meadows on an English summer's day in the company of pastoral poet William Wordsworth.

Contrast this traditional translation of Lam. 3:1-3 (New English Bible):

I am the man who has known affliction,
I have felt the rod of his wrath.

It was I whom he led away and left to walk
in darkness, where no light is.

Against me alone he has turned his hand
and so it is all day long.

with the beat-driven, rhythmical version freshly offered here:

Agonies: I know their searing
from the rod of his wrath;

Away he has driven, force-marched me
in darkness, no light;

Against me he turns his hand
from day-dawn to dusk;

As is known by any astute reader of poetry, whether secular or biblical, poetry is far, far more than its mere component words and phrases. Prose often (not always, of course) attempts to tie down meaning to a particular intent. When we read scripture, we often come bearing a prose-shaped bias that pre-disposes our expectations: the earnest, spiritual quest for "the meaning". And often it is, indeed, our pre-formed expectation that there is one, and only one, such "meaning". And we then, subconsciously, expect scripture to conform and behave in accordance with our pre-formed expectation.

By contrast to this "pinning down" of prose, the very form and nature of poetry can take us in the opposite direction: it opens out the edges of meaning; it invites and encourages the reader to explore an open landscape.

Poetry through the ages deploys a range of techniques. There is rhyme. Metre. Alliteration. Even the physical feel of aloud-spoken words in the mouth plays a part.

In Lamentations there is also the acrostic, discarded in most translations.

But perhaps even more important, and also completely lost in most translations, is a forceful, angst-driven rhythm, known as 'qinah'.

Qinah...

Lamentations is poetry. Not prose.

Declaim it aloud! Vital to the Hebrew verse of Lamentations is its three-two qinah stress pattern. Hebrew poetry can be tightly concise compared to English equivalents which tend to wax more loquaciously expansive. This version aims for that original tight conciseness.

Hit those stresses. This is rap. This is beat. Or, in more refined society, "sprung rhythm with attitude".

     Agonies:  I know  their searing
from the rod  of his wrath;

    Away he has driven, force-marched me
   in darkness, no light;

    Against me he turns  his  hand
  from day-dawn to dusk;

It is sadly rare for an English translation to capture this condensed rhythmic vitality of the scriptural text. Admirers of the translation by Robert Alter will know his work to capture it; see, for example, his Psalm 29 and Genesis 1. Also notable is the New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE); see their Introduction to Lamentations and their online translation. By coming to such texts from the poetic angle, some of this can be regained.

I thoroughly recommend these translations. But note that both had other constraints which ruled against using acrostics.

...and acrostics

Lamentations is poetry. Not prose.

Several psalms use the technique of acrostics in the Hebrew alphabet of 22 letters. Many of us may already be familiar with this, lurking, but usually ignored by us, in the background.

In the Lamentations anthology of five poems, four are Hebrew-acrostic and the third of these is even triple acrostic:

Agonies: I know ...

Away he has driven ...

Against me he turns ...

 

Breaking my bones ...

Besieged by him ...

Bound by him ...

—Lam. 3:1-6

The final poem, while not Hebrew-acrostic, nevertheless also has 22 stanzas and some see a surprising hidden acrostic in its final four stanzas, whose principle is also made manifest in this rendering.

An aim of this new version is to capture that foundational acrostic technique that almost all modern translations lack, that of Ronald Knox being the masterly exception.

In his magesterial translation of the Hebrew Bible, Robert Alter notes: "This [acrostic] form leads to even more syntactic inversions than is common in biblical Hebrew, with the object of the verb 'fronted' at the beginning of many lines, but the poet exploits this pattern for expressive emphasis."[1] Again, a prose-biased quest for "meaning" might miss this. But it can come across with authentic power in the poem, including in English translation or paraphrase.

Given that Knox has already done an acrostic version, why this one? In mapping Hebrew's 22 letters onto the western alphabet's 26, four letters need omitting.[2] Knox chose to omit the final four letters (W, X, Y, Z). But an appeal of alphabetic-acrostic poetry is its all-encompassing "A to Z" sense of totality: in the case of the people of Lamentations, the totality of the destruction of their beloved Jerusalem; the Annihilation of Zion.

And isn't this "aleph to tav", "A to Z" totality equally valid as an integral, even essential, component of "meaning"? So whatever necessary four letters are chosen for omission, "A" and "Z" surely remain indispensable.

In summary

The only reason I persist with this version is that there seems to be no existing version that captures the three characteristics of the original Hebrew: acrostic; qinah; compactness of language.

A final note

If you are silently reading this version, you are doing it incorrectly! This version is not intended to be read silently, nor merely heard in abstract recitation. It is, rather, to be simultaneously seen on the page (or e-page) and spoken aloud as poetic expression.

See the visual acrostic; speak that 'qinah'.


Acknowledgement: I am deeply grateful to Adam Carlill, Oxford DPhil in Hebrew Bible theology, for excellent and inspirational critique of portions of this.


[1]Alter, Robert (2019) "The Hebrew Bible: Volume 3: The Writings", footnote to Lam. 3:1. p.657. 978-0-393-29249-7

[2]The further subtlety of two different versions of the Hebrew alphabet having a reversal of two of its letters, with some chapters using one and some the other, is deemed a geek-fest too far for this particular exercise.