God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

On Psalm 137: A Romp On The Banks of Babylon’s Rivers

Polycarp has posted the God’s Word translation of Psalm 137, along with the NASV and NLT for comparison. I’m glad he did, because it’s always a treat to revisit Psalm 137. (I won’t copy his translation chart here, so you might want to open his page for comparison while you read this.)

I posted a while ago about the impressive nature of the guide the translators of God’s Word wrote, even as I voiced my concern that the translation might not live up to its promise.

With Psalm 137 we see more evidence that practice is harder than theory.

The first verse of Psalm 137 starts with the Hebrew al naharot bavel, and the second follows up with al aravim b’tocha. Notice the repetition of “al.” While I’ve yet to find a translation that captures this, it’s still disappointing.

More disappointing is the continued insistence on the awkward “rivers of Babylon.” Robert Alter gets this right with his “Babylon’s streams”: “By Babylon’s streams//there we sat, oh we wept,//when we recalled Zion.” I’m less concerned about “streams” versus “rivers” than I am with the “X of Y” phrasing, which frequently should be “Y’s X.”

However, Alter’s reason for choosing “streams” is interesting. He says in a footnote that:

naharot generally means “rivers,” but because the more probable reference is to the network of canals that connected the Tigris and the Euphrates, “streams” is a preferable translation here.

I’m note sure. If the word means “rivers” in Hebrew but was nonetheless used for streams, why can’t we do the same thing in English, and use the word “river” for streams? On the other hand, maybe Alter’s point is that the Hebrew is ambiguous, but in English we have to choose.

The next line variously refers to “poplars” or “willows,” and while clearly the matter is important to many translators (the ESV, NAB, NRSV, and probably others have a footnote), I must admit that I have no idea what a poplar is. However, the Hebrew word is aravim, which also means both “evenings” and “Arabians.” I wonder if the word didn’t form a pun in the line, “on the aravim in it, we hung up our harps.” If so, “weeping willows” is probably a good translation, even if the trees were poplars.

I’m surprised to see italics for “They said” in verse 3. The idea of italicizing words that “aren’t in the original” is usually a terrible one, but I have to admit that in verse 5 it’s pretty convenient. The issue in verse 5 is that the Hebrew reads “may my right forget.” It’s very common in Hebrew to find “right” for “right hand,” so: “may my right hand forget.” But forget what? Again, Alter explains the issue perfectly:

[footnote] 5. may my right hand wither. The Masoretic text reads “may my right hand forget [tishkah].” This is problematic because there is no evidence elsewhere for an intransitive use of the verb “to forget” — hence the strategy of desperation of the King James Version in adding, in italics, an object to the verb, “its cunning.” But a simple reversal of consonants yields tikhhash, “wither.”

God’s Word goes with, “let my right hand forget how to play the lyre” (original italics).

Most translations miss the key word play in verses 3-4. The Babylonians (“they”) demand, “sing to us from a song of Zion [shir tzion]” and the Israelites (“we”) reply, “how can we a song of Adonai [shir Adonai]….” “They” think it’s just a nationalistic song “of Zion,” but “we” know that it’s God’s song. Surprisingly, the NLT doesn’t do too badly in this regard with “one of those songs of Jerusalem” and “the songs of the Lord.” (But so much else the NLT rendition here is wrong.)

As for verses 8-9 and the horribly gruesome image of smashing children against rocks, I would hope that we’ve missed something, but the “children” in verse 9 seem to be “child[ren] of Babylon” that we see in verse 8 with the Hebrew bat bavel, “daughter of Babylon.”


October 20, 2009 - Posted by | translation practice | , , , , ,


  1. The best thing I can do with Hebrew is to compare the English translations and wait for such a post as this.

    137 is one of my favorite, for various reasons, but something about the GWN just doesn’t ‘flow’.

    Thanks for all of this.

    Comment by Joel | October 20, 2009

  2. It is good to see your pointers. I had ideas on the last verses something like this

    Devastating daughter of Babel
    happy the one who makes peace with you
    even weans you as you weaned us
    happy the one who takes and dashes
    your unweaned against the rock

    There seems to be some wordplay – the horror of mutual destruction might in some cases point out to the destroyer the nature of their state. One Anglican Psalter just leaves these verses out (and the whole of Psalm 58!)

    I am hoping some day to do a third pass at the Psalms – no time at the moment.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | October 20, 2009

  3. […] For a comprehensive look at this Psalm, see here. […]

    Pingback by Examining God’s Word – Psalm 137 | The Church of Jesus Christ | October 20, 2009

  4. Here’s a pleasant romp into the psalm:

    and a more somber romp:

    There are a couple of wonderful documentaries on Netflix regarding the incredible urgency that the Jews had after Hitler fell to get to “Zion.” Be it ever so humble…

    Comment by WoundedEgo | April 18, 2010

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