St. Matthew and the Angel | Gerolamo Savoldo, c. 1543

Gospel Poetry: Lost in Translation

The poetry of Jesus is based on the poetic style of the Old Testament and owes nothing to Hellenism.

European poetry is based on end rhymes, which means that the focus is usually on the least important part of a sentence: the object. European poetry uses fixed meters, leaving little room within the poetry for creative interpretation.

Greek poetry is based on repeating “OOM-pa-pa” six times in a row, which is aggressively tedious.

Hebrew poetry is far more complex and beautiful. The repeating words can come anywhere in a sentence, and it is considered a wonderful flourish to begin and end a sentence, phrase, or paragraph with the same word. Hebrew also can vary the vowels while preserving the consonants, which is impossible to translate. Often, multiple lines are meant to be intoned in a unified melody, because the second phrase either restates or reveres the first phrase like its shadow. In Hebrew poetry, the breathing and intonation vary as needed to support the content and not the other way around, as in the relatively impoverished action-hero European poetry of the time.

It is unsurprising that each translation away from an original work, then delivered to an audience who communicates differently, dilutes or destroys the poetry it once included. Add in the fact that today it’s read instead of heard from a skillful narrator, and the result is a tedious wall of words that seems unnecessarily redundant and unenjoyable to read.

Image: St. Matthew and the Angel | Giovanni Gerolamo Savoldo, c. 1543.
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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