Bible Review 13:2, April 1997

As Simple as ABC

What acrostics in the Bible can demonstrate

By Harvey Minkoff

Acrostics are alphabetical texts.
Bible scholars disagree on their purpose.
Consequently, translations differ.
Despite differences in emphasis,
Every translator acknowledges that
Form and meaning are connected.
Given the strictures of acrostics, however,
Holding on to both is impossible.
If the acrostic in a poem is
Just an ornament or aid to memory,
Keeping it intact is not necessary.
Leave it with the detritus of translation.
Meaning is what matters.
Nothing has been lost.
Or has it? Some critics say
Poetry is a unique wedding of form and meaning,
Quite different from artless prose.
Rather than being mere bangle,
Structure is meaning.
Translations must convey this unity.
Unable to mirror the original exactly,
Versions must choose which aspect to favor.
Whatever they do, though,
Xerography is not one of the choices.
You try: Is alpha to omegaA to O” or “A to Z”?

In the difficult work of translation, words are relatively easy. Style is hard. Especially troublesome is the problem of determining how form contributes to meaning. Hardest of all to translate is a text that consciously calls attention to its language. How, for example, should a translation into English treat biblical acrostics—poems built on the successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet?

Join the BAS Library!

Already a library member? Log in here.

Institution user? Log in with your IP address.