Studies in the Psalms: Literary-Structural Analysis with Application to Translation

Written by Ernst R. Wendland Reviewed By Peter C. W. Ho

This book is a tour de force of poetic discourse analysis. Those familiar with Wendland’s contributions will quickly locate him among the ranks of Louth, Kugel, Alter, and Berlin. In this detailed and well-researched work, Wendland systematizes a method for higher-level (entire poem) poetic discourse analysis and formulates techniques to improve the translation of Hebrew poetry into different languages. These two valuable contributions combine some of the latest advancements of linguistic studies in Psalms research and contextualization methodologies in Bible translation.

Typically in each chapter of the book, Wendland begins by explaining a component of his method and then applies it to a particular psalm. His basic methodology is presented in the first chapter. Subsequent chapters further clarify and expand on it. The last few chapters of the book are more focused on translation theories.

Wendland’s ten-step process for analyzing poetic discourses is as follows: (1) Delimitation, (2) Spatialization, (3) Text criticism, (4) Segmentation, (5) Confirmation, (6) Distinction, (7) Contextualization, (8) Conversation, (9) Summarization, (10) Translation and Testing.

Delimitation (1) is the process of identifying the pericope for analysis, and Text criticism (3) is understood in the traditional sense. In my opinion, the heart of Wendland’s method of higher-unit poetic discourse analysis is found in steps (2)–(6).

The figure above shows how Spatialization (2) is done (Ps 31:1–2a; p. 101). With the aid of software (Paratext), Wendland lays out every colon of the text on a grid (under column, we have stanza A; “0.1” means line 0 and colon 1). The main verb of each colon is centralized (in 1.1, חָסִיתִי, “I took refuge”) and words that come before or after the main verb are located along the grid. This exercise provides a way to visualize the text and facilitates the identification of syntactical, morphological or phonological patterns that may be present. From a linguistic point of view, the vertical plane of this spatialization grid allows the student to explore the paradigmatic features of the text (recurring concepts), while the horizontal plane expresses the chosen syntagmatic combination of words. Wendland points out, for instance, that the usage of pre-verbal elements is potentially a display of “added significance” (p. 10).

With Segmentation (4) Wendland seeks to clarify the continuity and discontinuity of text within the poem. Specifically, he looks for shifts in topic, content, repetitions of words, etc. that distinguish the poem’s main stanzas and strophes (p. 16). Confirmation (5) and Distinction (6) are further elaborations of Segmentation (4) based on linguistic and artistic considerations. Steps (2)–(6) also clarify any thematic progression or macrostructural prominence in the poem. The process of Contextualization (7) identifies certain lexeme or concepts that require further historical, intertextual or canonical examinations. In Conversation (8), the exegete looks for clues in the text to understand how words or speeches act upon their implied recipients and accomplish the desired effect. In Summarization (9), major text units of the poem are crystallized with thematic (or topical) titles that are subsequently combined and reworked into a message-oriented, structural outline of the entire poem.

The final step in Wendland’s method is Translation and Testing (10). For him, this process involves translating psalms into the Chewa language (or the vernacular, ndakatulo). A key translational principle that Wendland adopts is to “express the biblical text in a euphonious, rhythmic, more literary and lyrically-equivalent manner—one that is amenable to public recitation, oration, chanting, or simply oral elocution in an appropriately reverent mode” (p. 289).

Several other positive features of Wendland’s work are easy to list. First, this book is up-to-date, detailed and comprehensive. Wendland’s prodigious footnotes and bibliography show that he is aware of the most recent scholarship in this field. His analyses of Exod 15:1–21 and Ps 22 alone span 100 pages collectively. At one point, he provides seven continuous pages of footnotes discussing the Hebrew text (pp. 344–50). Wendland’s analyses also take us from ANE poets to Athanasius to the Alakatu poets of Africa (pp. 363, 254, 278). Second, Wendland emphasizes sensitivity and fidelity to the oral-aural aspects of the text. This means that the exegete and translator need to understand any assonance, cadence, euphony, paronomasia, rhyme, and other phonetical parallelism in the text. These need to be replicated in the translation where possible (p. 276). Third, Wendland’s discourse-oriented approach and focus on macrostructure have not only allowed interpreters to embrace the poem as an aesthetic whole, but also corrected a century-old fixation on genre categories and diachronic concerns of the psalm for interpretation (this is not to say that he has excluded the latter in his analysis). Wendland’s structural-oriented approach is somewhat akin to those of Pieter van der Lugt, Jasper Labuschagne and Jan Fokkelman, though analyses of syllable, word or colon counting are absent from Wendland’s work.

Nonetheless, several areas of Wendland’s work can be improved. I have found the five hundred pages a laborious read partly because of the detail of the analyses and the somewhat loose connections between the chapters. As such, the title of the book, Studies in the Psalms, is apt because it accurately depicts Wendland’s work as a compilation of connected studies. The ten-step method presented at the beginning of the book is not consistently adopted or systematically explicated (e.g., analysis of Ps 85, pp. 381–99). New interpretive terminologies do occur abruptly at times (“porhetorical analysis,” p. 339). Without tightening these inconsistencies, it is not always easy to understand how Wendland works through a particular poem methodologically.

I heartily recommend this book to any serious student of Hebrew poetry. Especially for those involved in the translation of the Psalms, this is a must-read!

Peter C. W. Ho

Peter C. W. Ho
Singapore Bible College
Republic of Singapore

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