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Why are Hebrew verbs in the "perfect" form so often translated as present tense in modern translations?

For example in Psalm 119:47 :

וְאֶשְׁתַּֽעֲשַׁ֥ע בְּמִצְוֹתֶ֗יךָ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָהָֽבְתִּי׃

Most old translations (LXX, Vulgate, KJV) translate אָהָֽבְתִּי by a past tense: "which I have loved" (KJV), but it seems that most modern literal translations (ESV, NASB etc) translate with a present tense. In the present case I understand that the author probably still loves the commandments, but in that case I fail to grasp why he uses the perfect form.

In other words :

Why do usually highly literal translations such as the ESV and NASB make this choice ?

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Biblical Hebrew doesn't have tense, it has aspect. English doesn't have aspect, it has tense. So, translators are in a pickle. The 'perfect' aspect (exemplified by אָהָֽבְתִּי) is about completion, not point-in-time.

However, this is poetry. In poetic BH poetry, just about every rule gets bent sooner or later in favor 'what it sounds like'. So translators feel rather empowered to mess with this sort of thing when they feel that the sense is clear enough. Context here is in favor of an imperfect aspect, not a perfect one.

You could also treat this as the use of the perfect as a way of emphasizing the complete status of the speakers affection: it's not that it's over and done with, but rather that it is complete.

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  • 1
    This isn't exactly accurate, because Hebrew prose also nearly always uses perfect for אהב even when there's no sense of completion
    – b a
    Sep 16 '19 at 12:44
  • 1
    Both English and Hebrew have both tense and aspect, they are just coded differently. There is also no such thing as (im)perfect aspect; it's (Im)Perfective, and third, Perfective aspect is not about completion but about viewpoint and event composition.
    – user2672
    Sep 16 '19 at 17:59
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"Asher" is used with past-tense hence making it past-tensive.

"Ahavti" with "kametz" alef and hey properly means past-tense as well.

However, it can be used as ongoing past-tense which applies in the present which as you pointed out its the easiest understandable meaning.

Now "וְאֶשְׁתַּֽעֲשַׁ֥ע" is past and present tense (ongoing past-tense almost like kamatz yud as beginning of a word), hence making a problem.

And if you write a literal translation for something as complicated as the Bible you probably want to write the most logical translation as well as most literal, as long as it's not a twist, just a less-obvious translation, if it's a lot more logical you might choose that one.

Just a theory.

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    Caveat lector - 'asher has nothing to do with "tense"; the double qamets in 'ahabti has nothing to do with tense. Quote: Now "וְאֶשְׁתַּֽעֲשַׁ֥ע" is past and present tense - is just nonsense. Not sure why this got the upvotes it did given the misinformation provided.
    – Dɑvïd
    Sep 11 '14 at 9:17
  • @Davïd asher could be translated as that or which, and is tense-insensitive, but if its referring to a past event it is a past-tensive type of which. the fact that the word ahavti (at the very least) can be a past-tensive word is clear, and im not gonna bother defending it. regarding וְאֶשְׁתַּֽעֲשַׁ֥ע its a bit more nuanced as i pointed out myself (ongoing past-tense, almost like kamatz yud as beginning of a word), i would refer you to job 1:5 where "כָּ֛כָה יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה אִיֹּ֖וב כָּל־הַיָּמִֽים" is commonly translated as thus job did continually. Sep 11 '14 at 19:51
  • 'asher is a relative particle: end of story! | Of course 'ahabti can be "past", but the "kametz" alef and hey has nothing to do with it (which was my my point). | Re: וְאֶשְׁתַּֽעֲשַׁ֥ע, it looks like the problem is with your expression "past and present tense" as a description of the form (that's the nonsense); if your intent was to say that here it represents ongoing action in the past (like your Job example), that's a different communication! Are we achieving clarity? ;)
    – Dɑvïd
    Sep 11 '14 at 20:02
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Very good question. There's a grain of truth in what user947 said, even if s/he's wrong about tense and aspect.

Hebrew doesn't have a perfect tense: it has a qatal construction. Hebrew doesn't have an imperfect tense: it has a yiqtol construction. The terms of European grammar have enjoyed a long tradition as the default lens through which all other languages are analyzed, but now we're more open to the idea that they don't always fit.1

Of course, there's certainly overlap, which is what makes translation and intelligibility possible at all. But it's a mistake to think that there's a perfect match (no pun intended). Instead, we have to establish the range of semantic and syntactic information that words and grammatical forms convey through careful study of how they're used in different contexts.

How do we know what a word means or what SRE information a verb form indicates? By finding passages that appear unambiguous. And if they conflict — well, we assume there's a range of uses or change over time.

In the case of the qatal, there are contexts where it's certainly something that happened in the past. Interestingly, this is common in dialogue, compared to narration, where the wayyiqtol is preferred. But there are also contexts where it seems impossible to read it as a past event. One of the long-recognized ones is the so-called "prophetic perfect". If a prophet refers to future events using the qatal, what are we to make of it?2

Here's a good website that lists some of the functions of the qatal as catalogued by looking at different verses and figuring out the most likely meanings — over the couple thousand years people have been studying Hebrew grammar. These functions include completed actions in past time, yes; but also imaginary actions, performative actions, and stative actions. Those and others can be read into the poetry of the psalmists and prophets more easily than they can into historical narrative. I suggest reading over that page and seeing which ones seem to apply best in the verses you were asking about. (And if none of them do, keep asking questions!)


1 Nevertheless, the terms have stuck around.

2 Besides challenging much deeper-seated assumptions about prophecy. ;)

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Psalm 111.5:

טֶ֭רֶף נָתַ֣ן לִֽירֵאָ֑יו יִזְכֹּ֖ר לְעֹולָ֣ם בְּרִיתֹֽו

He gave food to those who fear Him, He will remember His covenant for ever.

But NIV, RSV, ESV, Lexham etc translate נָתַ֣ן with a present continuous. Why? Could it just be a failure of imagination? Perhaps it is somehow thought that what is in view needs to be the same for both parts of the verse. But the contrast makes sense to me.

Discussion on B-Hebrew at http://bhebrew.biblicalhumanities.org/viewtopic.php?f=8&t=22353.

Most of the experts seem to agree with the modern approach, I have to say.

But Delitzsch translates:

'Meat hath He given to those who fear Him'

and sees the טֶרֶף as pointing 'to the food provided for the Exodus, and to the Passover meal..'.

Likewise, J A Alexander, 'Psalms': 'Prey hath he given to those fearing him;', understanding it as a general historical fact.

A F Kirkpatrick, Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, 'Psalms', retains the KJV: 'He hath given meat unto them that fear Him:' and comments:

'As He made provision for Israel's wants in the wilderness, so He provides for the wants of His people at all times'.

Why not treat the Qal 'perfect' as a perfect here?

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  • This post could be improved by quoting some authoritative source or providing some grammatical argument to support your thesis
    – Dottard
    Jun 3 '20 at 22:31
  • I have added some learned sources. As for the grammar, treating the 'perfect' as a perfect hardly needs defending surely? Jul 21 '20 at 10:06

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