Lamentations: translation notes

Translation? Or something else?

I would like to call this a translation. But that opens up the thorny question of that term's definition. Getting hung up on the term itself would probably only take us down a long, dark rabbit-hole to a dead end.

I have endeavoured to use the principles of translation. But whereas translation of ancient secular poetry allows some freedom to include considerations of poetic features, biblical translation, by contrast, places high regard on treating texts, even poetic texts, as prose, where accurate dictionary-equivalence is paramount; it makes relatively minor allowance for poetic form.

That creates a tension here in Lamentations, which is strongly poetic. And this translation emphasises this inherent, structural poetry as a defining characteristic. Certainly, the acrostic, including its 'A' and 'Z' endpoints, is key. Equally key is the underlying rhythm: that driving 3–2 qinah rhythm of the first four chapters. To the best of my knowledge no other translation of Lamentations has both.

So is it a translation? A paraphrase? A version? A rendering? Let the reader decide.

Guiding principles

The alphabetic acrostic is central. The qinah rhythm is central. But what about the text?

Hebrew poetry tends not to do rhyme. To add rhyme here, despite its prevalence in English poetry and hymnody, would gain very little, and would force far more constraint than is necessary. Accordingly this version makes no attempt at rhyme. Indeed, on a couple of occasions, the drafting process accidentally produced rhyme; I then specifically redrafted in order to avoid its distraction.

But Hebrew poetry does make quite frequent use of wordplay. Sometimes, something similar can be done in English translation; alliteration can be useful here.

Both Hebrew and English use metaphor. Where reasonably possible, this is conveyed.

Often, subtle aspects of wordplay are untranslatable; see for example 1:3 and 2:20. But conversely it is sometimes possible to introduce English poetic features in unrelated places elsewhere. So, taking the bigger picture into account, an unavoidable loss of detail in one place may be compensated by an introduced poetic expression in another place.


Qinah or not qinah? That is the question.

Most biblical scholarship is agreed beyond reasonable doubt that the 3–2 qinah beat is prevalent in the first four chapters. But there is lively debate about particular details in particular verses.

For example, the opening "Alas!" verse of the first chapter, and probably also of the second, may be seen as 4–2. Accordingly some of the rhythmically alert translations set that single-beat "Alas!" as a separate anacrusis. This version, too, adopts that practice.

Much of this gnat-straining debate will almost certainly never be unambiguously or satisfactorily resolved. In view of that, I simply endeavour to use qinah as consistently as possible in these chapters. This also helps highlight the contrast on entering chapter 5, where there is reasonable agreement that its rhythm is mostly non-qinah, often 3–3.

Acrostic challenges

Acrostics constrain the choice of a verse's opening word. Sometimes there simply isn't an English word anywhere near suitable. One approach is to swap lines within a verse. A case in point is 1:7 whose first line requires an opening 'G' word. A workable solution is to switch its first and second lines, allowing for "goodly treasures" to begin the verse.

But a chapter later at 2:7 a similar problem arises, and also, as it happens, with a 'G' verse. Here, too, a similar line-swap solution offered itself. This was tempting. But other factors argued against its adoption, despite the fact that it would solve an additional problem. See the footnote there.

The acrostic use of 'Z' for the final stanza of the first four poems is an interesting challenge, as there are so few such English words in regular use. The third poem in particular requires the use of three such words. These must all be different, to reflect the Hebrew 'tav' words being different.

Conversely, the third poem's ninth stanza, Hebrew letter 'tet', requires a single word used three times, ideally meaning "good". But "good" is not available to us, as 'G' is the seventh letter in our alphabet, and we are at 'I' (ninth letter). "Irreproachable" seems a moderately acceptable choice, with not too much semantic compromise, although its five syllables rather than one pull against our desired linguistic compactness. Fortunately, the overall acrostic requirement to omit four letters also makes 'J' (tenth letter) a possibility. This allows for "judicious", which seems better both semantically and in having only three syllables.

In the triple acrostic at 3:43–45 the first two verses have noticeably similar structures, both leading with a powerfully pictorial verb meaning "cover", "veil", "screen" or "envelop". At this point we need an 'R' word, but there is no readily apparent such verb, nor is there another word suitably shareable across them both. So the unusual, but clear "re-cloak" was used. While its "re-" prefix suggests a concept of recurrence which is not apparent in the original verbs, nevertheless it hints back to ideas to which the wider context of those verses seems to allude. See the footnote there.

On the positive side, our 26 letters over Hebrew's 22 means we can drop four English letters. This provides some flexibility. 'X' is an obvious candidate. 'Z' would also have been, but our strong desire for that sense of "A to Z" totality requires its inclusion.

A thematic example

There are a few cases of words being repeated within a poem, and in some cases across them. I try to retain these.

The verbs "look" and "notice" recur, sometimes in emphatic pairing. Other English verbs would have been candidates: "see", "behold", "observe" etc. But our acrostic requirement drives the choice, particularly at 1:12, which has to be at, or very close to, alphabetic 'N'. A typical good, but non-acrostic translation is the NRSV:

Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
Look and see

if there is any sorrow like my sorrow,
which was brought upon me,

which the Lord inflicted
on the day of his fierce anger.

—Lam.1:12, NRSV

The obvious acrostic-leading 'N'-word would be that "nothing" in the first part of the first couplet. Despite that, there seems no decent, readable means to re-organise the couplet to start with "Nothing…" or similar. But its second part is "look and see". This would allow the 'N'-word "Notice" and presents a possible way forward:

Notice! And look, you passers-by;
 is it nothing to you?
Is there any…

But there is more. The verbs and their frequent pairing present a recurrent theme, not only within the first chapter but across other chapters. So when locking in the acrostic "Notice" these, too, must be considered. The run up to that 1:12 prepares the way:

Then observe that 2:20 uses it, and even more that the final poem almost opens with that same pair of verbs. The "notice" root also puts in an appearance at 3:63 and 4:16, and "look" at 2:16 and 3:36:

Further, look also lies behind 3:1 where the Hebrew verb carries the additional nuance of "to experience, know", important to this instance of its use.[1] The man's opening use of the verb follows hard on the heels of Daughter Zion's commanding use of it at 2:20 in her brief but devasting speech. But the lack of an equivalent English verb which would clearly carry this additional meaning (it would be something like "I am the man who has looked [squarely] at affliction") makes it impractical to pursue this idea. The additional requirements of the acrostic (which tends to expand the line), and of the qinah rhythm (which needs to constrain the line) conspire to put its incorporation beyond reach.

But underlying all this consideration of notice and look was the requirement at 1:12 for a leading acrostic 'N'-word.[2]

Word choices

Lamentations was written in contemporary language. Accordingly this version sometimes uses words and terms that are relatively modern or that have a modern edge. Examples include: "zero in" (1:22), "blitzed" (2:2), "hell-bent" (2:8), "slow-clap" (2:15), "snide-song" (3:63), "zilch" (3:64), "ziplock" (3:65), "firestorm" (4:11), "boozed" (4:21), "up to our necks" (5:5).

Meanwhile the verb "zoned" (2:22) is old, whose meanings include "encicle". And "ranked" (4:2) also now carries an appropriate modern slant of disdain.

YHWH, Adonai, Lord and Lord

Most English translations face the issue of representing two closely related but different Hebrew words that name God: "YHWH" and "Adonai". This has considerations both for writing/reading and for recitation. Alter's 2019 translation writes, respectively, "Lord" and "Master".

Jewish custom avoids saying the Divine Name "YHWH", instead saying the other word "Adonai".[3] This results a common-sounding word for recitation. Representing "YHWH" as "Yahweh" or, worse, "Jehovah" seems unsatisfactory in a version designed for recitation, And representing "Adonai" as "Master" seems unsatisfactory because it is outside normal Christian practice. Some English translations bring "Sovereign" into play, especially when the Hebrew is "Adonai YHWH", which becomes "Sovereign Lord". But in Lamentations that double term doesn't appear, so we needn't consider that slightly awkward wording.

The net result here is firstly to adopt the usual present-day practice of writing "YHWH" as "Lord" (small capitals) and "Adonai" as "Lord" (normal case). And then because "Adonai" generally appears in a grammatically possessive context (the underlying noun being "Adon"), it is secondarily here represented as "my Lord" or "our Lord", so that the subtle written difference is also audibly present in recitation.[4]

Daughter Zion

Central to chapters 1 and 2 is "Daughter Zion" ("Daughter Jerusalem"). The "Daughter X" metaphor extends across all the first four chapters with "Daughter Judah" and "Daughter People". In chapter 4 it is given a further, but sarcastic, twist of schadenfreude with "Daughter Edom".

Yet this seemingly simple form of wording, in Hebrew bat Tzion, is notoriously difficult to translate across from Ancient Near East cultures into modern Western cultures. Many older translations had opted for "Daughter of X".

Perhaps the majority of recent translations and commentators specifically avoid the inserted English "of". There seems a widely agreed recognition that this grammatical construction is a conceptual metaphor, yielding multiple meanings for God's relationship to the people, the land, and the Temple at its sacred centre, and is not to be understood in the sense of daughter of Zion, but rather in the sense of Zion as daughter.[5] This is not merely a secular-usage "Land of X" or "City of X" or "People of X"; rather, all these concepts are wrapped together, and in relationship to God, as "Daughter X". Further, an attempt to retain "of" stretches to breaking point of unnecessary obscurity in what would have to become "Daughter [of my] People" (2:11, 3:48, 4:3,6,10).

With the "Daughter" (bat) component, most translations keep this. Nevertheless some commentators use other words for illustration, not least to reflect, in their context of study, that the Hebrew bat Tzion has a wider semantic range than its English representation "Daughter Zion". Further, the sense of endearment in "daughter" also varies among commentators. Adelman (2021) and Berlin (2004), p.12, endorse it; Goldingay (2022), p.60, downplays it.

A few examples. The NIV has "Daughter X" (upper-case 'D'); the NABBRE and NIV (also Provan (2016), p.41) have "daughter X" (lower-case 'd'); Berlin (2004) has "Dear X" (which heightens the sarcasm in chapter 4's "Dear Edom"); Hens-Piazza (2017) writes about "Woman Zion"; Goldingay (2022) has "Ms. Zion" (Miss/Mistress); Berman (2023) writes about "Bat-Zion". Those recent versions which omit the "of" generally capitalise "Daughter" (or their equivalent word), making it a proper noun, with a sense not merely of description but also of title.

For a deeper introduction to this topic, both grammatical and cross-cultural, see the three page discussion in Berlin (2004), pp.10–12 and the two page discussion in Berman (2023), p.34b–36a.

This version, with its slants towards recovery of the original poetry and to present-day dramatic usage (including worship contexts), specifically follows the "Daughter X" route.[6] In a couple of instances the pervasive challenge of the acrostic constraint have necessitated an inversion from "Daughter Jerusalem" to "Jerusalem-Daughter" (2:10) and from "Daughter Zion" to "Zion-Daughter" (4:22).

Sit/lodge/lie: a worked example

The very first line "[Alas!] Alone she sits:…" ignites a translational ambiguity in vocabulary. The original verb may be legitimately represented as 'sit', 'abide', 'lodge', 'reside' or 'lie'. But no single English verb naturally embraces this range. From the very start of this version, I had opted for "Alone she lies" (a) reasoning (with hindsight, weakly) that in English we tend to think of a city as "lying" rather than "sitting" in a landscape and (b) liking the alone/lies alliteration. But almost immediately at 1:3 a problem arose in describing the exiled, deported populace which would be "she lies [among the nations]". So I used a different but nonetheless alliterative verb "she lodges [among the nations]". I left it at that, having become perhaps over-attached to 1:1 'lies', and despite knowing full well the importance of poetic resonance across the text as a word recurs in different contexts.

A long time later, I began to notice that same Hebrew verb (although often obscured in existing English translations) recurring elsewhere, particularly:

Surely this threaded repetition of the verb was intentional by the original author(s) and editor(s). While translation inevitably forces some compromises in some places, this instance seems too important to fudge, particularly in our avowedly poetically-driven framework.

But in this 5:19 case, I immediately realised that in saying of God that he "forever lies" creates a new problem of ambiguity, this time within English: "God forever [tells] lies". However unintentional, this would clearly be unsatisfactory!

As a result, I reworked the verb across the text to become 'sit'.

Other examples

Inclusive language

Contemporary writing and translations rightly veer towards inclusive language, such as preferring "humankind" for "mankind". In general, this version adopts that principle.

Nevertheless, gender-specificity is a strong feature of some of the Lamentations poetry. The "Daughter Zion" and "Daughter Jerusalem" personalisation is integral to chapters 1 and 2. Similarly, the "strong man" characterisation recurs through chapter 3. In these contexts, attempting to downplay these characteristics would seem not only pointless but even counter-productive. Accordingly this version maintains this distinction.

Particular points include:

[1] Dobbs-Allsopp (2012), p.111.

[2] Ideally, the leading verb at 3:59 and 60, which are W-acrostic, would also be included here. But that was a stretch too far, so I used the visual near-synonym "witness".

[3] Sometimes "HaShem", "the Name", is pronounced.

[4] "Much Ado about Nothing"? Reducing further the concern about such detail is that one of the earliest Hebrew witnesses, Dead Sea Scrolls 4QLam, itself shows some variation of YHWH/Adonai usage from the authoritative but later Masoretic Text. Kotzé (2011), p.115.

[5] Adelman (2021).

[6] As a beneficial side-effect this short-form "Daughter X" can occasionally aid recitation where strong qinah beats are a scarce commodity. While "daughter Jerusalem" still normally uses two beats, it can be eased into a single beat (e.g. "daughter Jerusalem") if necessary.

[7] Goldingay (2022), p.143.

[8] Dobbs-Allsopp (2012), p.137.

[9] Alas, the acrostic constraint prevents its use to head the first line, so we instead position that repetition at the line ends.

[10] See, for example, the near-adjacent uses in Genesis. Gen.1:27 is the generic "God created adam:… male and female he created them". Gen 2:7 is the male-specific "The Lord God formed adam from the dust of the ground", where the context prepares the way for the further creation of his female partner, Eve.