Psalm 136 Refrain
As a beginning point for liturgical use of Scripture, I begin with cadence/rhythm of language. Specifically I explore how English can provide an appropriate spoken cadence, while still doing justice to the Hebrew.
Derek Kidner offered these words at the beginning of Psalm 136. “Our versions of this psalm are mostly cumbersome: they lack the swiftness which should rid its repetitions of their tedium. The six Hebrew syllables of the response have their happiest equivalent in the Gelineau version of Psalm 118:1 (117:1 in Gelineau’s numbering): ‘for his love has no end.’” I have included several translations of that refrain with the number of syllables in parentheses.
Obviously, one concern is how to translate הסד, ranging from “love” (1) to “lovingkindness” (4). As Kidner notes, if the context of the Psalms are noted, then the concept of “covenant faithfulness” can still come through in the translation “love.” A second problem concerns whether the Hebrew supports the idea of “endures” or is better rendered with the implied “is”; which is Kidner’s choice. finally how do we translate לעולמ as “forever” or “eternal” or “everlasting,” which adds 3 or 4 syllables. Also, do we translate the conjunctions כי and לֹ, and if so, how? For those that translate כי, it is either “for” or “because”; about half of these translations leave it untranslated. Yet it seems necessary within the context of antiphonal reading.
My concern isn’t as much on the theological choices in each case (there is a definite need for that!), but rather how does this affect the oral cadence of the choices. In order to evaluate each, I had to speak them out loud several times to see whether the cadence was consistent and sustainable. The CEV is shortest in terms of syllables, but the possessive “God’s love” seems almost awkward in such a short sentence, especially after a few repetitions. The more formal equivalent (word-for-word) translations include the conjunction “for,” which is needed and seems appropriate. On the other hand, the desire to expand on הסד also increases the length of the response, which seems contrary to the sense of the Hebrew six-syllable structure.
For those translations remaining, NIV/TNIV have a good sound, but lack the conjunction, which loses something of the connection of the response to the preceding statements. Also, both use “endures” (as do most of the translations), rather than “is.” Surprisingly, HCSB provides the same six-syllable structure of the Hebrew “ His love is eternal.” The one draw back is that the first three words are monosyllabic, whereas the last word is trisyllabic. This means that the syllable count is correct, but is a little jarring to the oral sense of the response. It appears that Kidner’s approval of Gelineau is the best, “for his love has no end.” In this case, the six-syllable structure is maintained, and each word is monosyllabic.
Now, obviously not every passage in English will be able to sustain the same syllable count as the Hebrew. But in the case of an oral response, there is something to be said for the terseness of this translation. As a suggestion, perhaps the reader can experiment with a group of people. Use three or four of the translations (each with a different syllable count, i.e. don’t use NIV and TNIV, or KJV and ESV) and antiphonal speak 6-8 verses. Then try using Gelineau’s translation. See what impact it has on the group. Notice whether the interest flags with the longer response line.
As we explore liturgical use of translations, we can see the importance of oral cadence in that process.
 Derek Kidner, Psalms 73–150: A Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentary, edited by D. J. Wiseman, Downer’s Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1975, p. 457.
One thought on “Liturgical Translation – Cadence and Psalm 136”
Rich, a nice indepth post on an important verse. I’m no Hebrew scholar like you. But to stick with the concept of “covenant faithfulness” I think NLT and NJB seems to have it, and the ESV and NJP are still okay too. I agree, “love” is too simplistic and doesn’t have the antiphonal ring to it.