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Ecclesiastes 12:6-7 NIV reads:

Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
and the wheel broken at the well,

Each line has alliteration -- silver/severed, bowl/broken, pitcher/spring (the p is the alliteration), wheel/well.

Given that this is translated, I have to wonder whether the words were changed entirely. It seems impossibly convenient that the same words alliterated in Hebrew as in English.

Was the text changed, or was there no alliteration in the original?

Here is the same text in KJV:

Or ever the silver cord be loosed,
or the golden bowl be broken,
or the pitcher be broken at the fountain,
or the wheel broken at the cistern.

Same ideas but little to no alliteration.

Is NIV taking poetic license? Is the original Hebrew poetic?

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  • All translation changes words. If you have the option to choose between synonyms in the target language then choosing ones which are more poetic when you're translating poetry is a great idea. The most interesting difference between the NIV and the KJV in this verse is "severed" vs "loosed", which have quite different meanings. But I don't know what the Hebrew is to be able to say which is more justified.
    – curiousdannii
    Nov 10 '20 at 23:00
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Ecclesiastes 12:6-7 transliterated from the Leningrad Codex MT in Yemenite Hebrew pronunciation is:

Aad1 ashair lo yeyrathek hevel hakasaf,

wa'tharuts2 julath3 ha'zohov,

wa'thishavair cad aal1 ha'maboaa',

wa'norots2 ha'jaljal3 al1 habor,

Wa'yashov ha'ofor aal1 ha'orots, ca'sha'hayoh4,

wa'ho'ruah tashuv al1 ho'alohim ashair nathonoh4

Sonorous and rhythmic, i.e. poetic. There is a subtle pattern of alliteration between the phrases, indicated by the superscripts. This alliteration is most sustained in the play between alternation of aal/al ("on"/"to") with five occurances. This alliteration is not congruent with the NIV alliteration and is more subtle - I missed it until I repeated the verse several times out loud.

The NIV interpolates "Remember him".

I prefer the NIV's "spring" to the KJV's "fountain". The KJV suggests a fountain in a city square, but a "spring" is what we call a maboaa in today's English.

The NIV's "and" instead of the KJV's "or" is also much closer to the MT.

I think that the NIV captures the spirit of the MT verses for the modern English reader much better than the KJV. The NIV alliteration is a stand-in for the rhythmic qualities of the MT and conveys much of the same feeling. So taking a bit of poetic license can help the translation if it reflects some aspect of the original text that escapes lexical translation.

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  • Thanks for transliterating that! Really interesting to see. Is there a source for transliterated Biblical text or did you do it by hand? I suppose there must be automated Hebrew transliteration somewhere online. Nov 11 '20 at 7:33
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    @temporary_user_name I wrote this transliteration myself while listening to myself recite the verse from the codex. There might be transliteration tools available but not for the Yemenite Jewish pronunciation used in the community in Jerusalem where I live.
    – user17080
    Nov 11 '20 at 7:53
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    Thank you for going to that effort! Nov 11 '20 at 7:54
  • @temporary_user_name I updated this answer after more though and after reciting the verses repeatedly. There is indeed some alliteration, not just rhythm, but different from the NIV.
    – user17080
    Nov 11 '20 at 16:38
  • The transliteration is not fully accurate. You need to distinguish ע and א.
    – aefrrs
    Nov 12 '20 at 17:49
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I think you would to reassess your definition of ‘alliteration’.

You write: “… pitcher/spring (the p is the alliteration)”.

If a single repeated letter – in different positions inside a term, too! - would have be able to trigger an alliteration almost all the Hebrew Bible texts would cause alliterations to follow one another…

A couple of examples of clearer alliterations in the Bible:

Psalm 55:9 (מסער סעה), “storm, tempest”, with the repeated sound 'so-'.

Genesis 24:21-22 (משׁתאה […] לשׁתות), “gazing […] drinking”, with the repeated sound '-št-'.

In the instance you quote (Qoeleth 12:6-7) I see no alliterations, unless you define an alliteration the swap between the two graphemes ghimel and mem in the opening words of the verse 5 (מגבה גם), “Also, of heights…” [really, these two terms appear in the inverse order. I am not able to write them in the correct order, since the system swap them, independently. Sorry].

You ask:

‘Is NIV taking poetic license?’ Yes.

‘Is the original Hebrew poetic?’ Yes, but not owing to a supposed use of alliteration, but through the use of the poetic device of antonomasia. This term (drawing from the Greek verb αντονομαζω, ‘to change the name’) focuses on the literary device that imply that an expression takes the place of a proper name.

So, any meaning we may attach to the expressions we find in the text at issue (the explanations vary) we are before to some expressions that substitute the proper names of several body parts.

A single correspondence - on which all commentators agree - that we may find is in the verse 3. In fact we find the expression הטחות (‘the grinders’) instead of the proper name שׁנים (‘teeth’).

I hope these information will be useful for you.

P.S. Sorry for my wobbly English.

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  • I think the pitcher/spring thing is beside the point-- there's 3 lines of alliteration without troubling over that. Nov 11 '20 at 0:27

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