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Biblical Archaeology Review 47:4, Winter 2021

Epistles: Not Lost in Translation: Hebrew Wordplay in Greek

By Elizabeth H.P. Backfish

Biblical Archaeology Review

How does Moses make his coffee? Hebrews it. What kind of man was Boaz before he was married? Ruthless. Bible puns are like pineapple on pizza: Some people love them, and some people find them absolutely abhorrent.

The Bible itself is full of various kinds of wordplays, including puns, but they functioned quite differently than puns function in our modern culture. Rather than inducing groans, wordplay in biblical literature often functioned to mark structure in a poem, link two concepts, emphasize a central idea, or highlight irony or dissonance.

There are two broad categories of wordplay in the Hebrew Bible: those that play with meaning (polysemy) and those that play with sound (paranomasia). Of the wordplays that play with meaning, an author could use a word once with an implicit double meaning (double entendre, like the puns above) or the author could use punning repetition, where the word is repeated with a different meaning.

Wordplays that play with sound are more common in the Hebrew Bible and include alliteration (repetition of consonants), assonance (repetition of vowel sounds), parasonancy (the change of only one root letter), letter transposition (the order of the root letters changes), and more.

But how does a literary device that is so tied to the original language of a text translate to other languages? Is it even possible? Consider the following line from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”: “While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping.” We could translate this line into any language and maintain the sense (the meaning) of the line, but if we cannot communicate the style as well, have we succeeded as translators?

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