Sing to the Lord a new translation

27 May 2016

Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics

Indigenous form: Natügu speakers, in the Solomon Islands, wearing the distinctive nelc nose-piece

Indigenous form: Natügu speakers, in the Solomon Islands, wearing the distinctive nelc nose-piece

NEW translations of the Bible are most “optimal” when they set its poetry to music, research published in the journal Open Theology suggests. As such, it should become “standard best practice”.

In her article “Freeing Biblical Poetry to Sing”, Dr Brenda H. Boerger, of the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics, Dallas, Texas, writes that “the cognitive effects of music on the brain reinforce the biblical exhortation to ‘Sing to the Lord a new song.’” Using her experience of translating Hebrew poetry into indigenous song forms in Natügu (a language spoken in the Solomon Islands) and English, Dr Boerger says that “the musical component in sung poetic scripture contributes numerous advantages over (poetic) scripture without song.”

The way in which music and language are processed in the brain means that sung translation has several advantages over written or spoken, she says. Texts with melody “engage more of the brain”, and “scriptures learned through song will be memorized more easily.”

While working on a translation of the Psalms into Natügu, Dr Boerger was advised to work with a local poet. She came to believe that a failure to represent the poetic forms of the Bible was as important as a failure to capture the lexical meaning, since part of the meaning of a literary work rests in its genre. Consequently, she set about learning the indigenous music form, which is used in conjunction with nelc dances that determine rhythm and pulse. The resulting translations were compiled into song books, and, she says, “people who routinely used the song books to sing along in church became more fluent readers than those who only read the story books we produced.”

On her return to the United States, Dr Boerger resisted the idea that the acrostic nature of Hebrew poetry was impossible to represent in English. But she noticed that the results of her attempts at this kind of translation were monotonous to read, because of the level of repetition. When chanted or sung, however, the composition was enhanced.

Dr Boerger concludes that sung translation, therefore, should be considered more than merely an “effective scripture use tool . . . but rather as an inherent and essential feature of best practices in Bible translation.”

“We are commanded to sing a new song. It is accurate to do it. Our brains are structured to do it. It is beneficial to do it. So, let’s do it.”

Forthcoming Events

5-6 May 2018
Church Times Festival of Poetry
With Sarum College, Salisbury.
Speakers include: Rachel Mann, Mark Oakley and Michael Symmons Roberts, among others.
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