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Interpretive Spins and Literary Sparks in the Ψαλμοὶ: part I, thrown to the crows

January 16, 2012


Darling, do me this favour!  Let me wail on my own, will you please? There’s a good girl! Now, please stop!


…girl! Now please stop!


Argh! To the crows with you, woman!


Argh! To the crows with you, woman!


What IS it with you?


What IS it with you?


Babble, babble, babble!


Babble, babble, babble!

The above are the funny lines from Aristophanes’ play “Θεσμοφοριάζουσαι,” which is also pronounced in transliterated English as: “Thesmophoriazousai; meaning Women Celebrating the Festival of the Thesmophoria, sometimes also called The Poet and the Women

Although it’s a dramatic play, Aristophanes is using wordplay in Greek here at line 1079a and 1079b.  I mean wordplay in at least three ways.  First, the clause Βάλλ’ ἐς κόρακας is performed in repetition:  Βάλλ’ ἐς κόρακας.

Second, the Greek words are playful.  There’s the persistent and nagging echo, a mocking of if not simply a reinforcement of the Greek notion that women just talk and talk and, incessantly, babble and babble.

And third, there is hermeneutic play:  interpretive wiggle room for interpretive spin.   You might laugh differently if you were one of the audience members watching one of the first performances of the play — depending on whether you were a woman or a man.  The actors — who would have been men playing women — might have been more or less authentic in their womanlinesses, depending on the effects they were going after.  Would they exaggerate the babble, to make it stereotypically female, for example?

And notice this:  even English translators of Aristophanes’ would-be womanly Greek get to play with how this sounds today.  Eugene O’Neill, playwright and Nobel laureate in Literature, interprets Βάλλ’ ἐς κόρακας / Βάλλ’ ἐς κόρακας  as “Go and hang yourself! / Go and hang yourself!

But it’s the interpretation of George Theodoridis, B.A., M.A. (Prel.), Dip.Ed. (Univ. of Melbourne, Australia), that you first heard above:  for “Βάλλ’ ἐς κόρακας / Βάλλ’ ἐς κόρακας” we get from Theodoridis:  “Argh! To the crows with you, woman! / Argh! To the crows with you, woman!

Again, the Greek clause has hermeneutic play in it.  There’s no need for some literal, one dimensional, “Throw to crows / Throw to crows.”  Both O’Neill and Theodoridis are picking up on the play in the words, how they suggest a dialectic, a mock dialogue, an appearance of back-and-forth conversation that is really mere babble.

And yet, Theodoridis gets that the Greek also has the idea of tossing the other to the crows.

So, all of that is an introduction to a possible blog series on what’s lost in translations of the Greek of the texts of the Septuagint.  In this Part I, this particular post, I want to look at the Greek phrase or clause,  ἀποσκορακίζω, or literally “crow-ward thrown” or somewhat more figurally something like “thrown from somebody toward the crows.”  It’s only used four times in all the Septuagint, or the Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible.

In Psalms 26:9 (numbered 27:9 in its Hebrew counterpart), the clause ἀποσ κορακίσῃς has been rendered thusly:

  • to “damn” by NETS translator Albert Pietersma
  • to “forsake” by translator Sir Lancelot C.L. Brenton

In Isaiah 17:13, the clause ἀποσ κορακιεῖ has been rendered thusly:

  • to “damn” by NETS translator Moisés Silva
  • to “drive away” by translator Sir Lancelot C.L. Brenton

In Isaiah 66:15, the phrase ἀποσ κορακισμὸν has been rendered thusly:

  • a “repudiation” by NETS translator Moisés Silva
  • a “rebuke” by translator Sir Lancelot C.L. Brenton

In I Maccabbees 11:55, the clause ἀπεσ κοράκισεν has been rendered thusly:

  • to “fight against” by NETS translator George Themelis Zervos
  • to “fight against” by RSV translators

The important questions are these:

  1. Why did the Jewish translators of their Hebrew texts, from Hebrew into Hellene, use this Greeky playful word, ἀποσ·κορακίζω?
  2. Especially in the Psalms, where NETS translator Albert Pietersma rightly notes that the Greek is used more as a literal gloss, as an interlinear of the Hebrew, why depart from the Hebrew literalness here for some sort of interpretative spin and literary spark instead?
  3. Since Pietersma notices that ἀποσ·κορακίζω is an interpretive spin and a literary spark, and a rare one at that, then why does he stop the spin with his English and dowse the spark with his translation?  And why does he seemingly advise Silva and Zervos to do the same?
  4. Would this be such a bad translation of Psalms 26:9 from the Greek?

μὴ ἀποστρέψῃς τὸ πρόσωπόν σου ἀπ’ ἐμοῦ,
μὴ ἐκκλίνῃς ἐν ὀργῇ ἀπὸ τοῦ δούλου σου·
βοηθός μου γενοῦ, μὴ ἀποσκορακίσῃς με
καὶ μὴ ἐγκαταλίπῃς με, ὁ θεὸς ὁ σωτήρ μου.

Do not turn your face away from me,
Do not bend out in anger away from your slave:
My helper be, do not throw me away from you

nor throw me like a theosmophorian woman to the crows;
and do not leave me to the rest of them, O God my savior.

Now, for the rest of this post, here are a couple of salient statements from Pietersma. In these statements, the NETS translator and translation project chief seems to recognize how, in of all places – in the Greek translation of Psalms where the intention is simply to retain Hebraisms, the Jewish translators are exercising agency. There are Hebraic Hellene “Interpretive Spins” and “Literary Sparks” (which the NETS nonetheless, by English translation, seems to ignore).


And here’s that bit on “to throw the crows” (simply in the NETS English as a gloss, “to damn”) with perhaps more to blog about later:

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 16, 2012 8:20 pm


    I have noticed that of the 4 cases Al discusses on page xviii, the only one not translated literally is aposkorakizw. I just emailed Al now to ask him about it. thanks for an interesting post.

  2. January 17, 2012 7:37 am


    Thank you very much for talking with Dr. Albert Pietersma! I do hope you’ll share his reply here. (And I’ve now added a missing link to my post, one that directs blog readers to his NETS commentary and translation, where they can find page xviii directly, or rather page 544 in the online pdf version of his commentary.)

  3. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 17, 2012 11:41 am

    Dear Al,

    … a question came up recently from another blogger, that we cannot quite figure out. In your introduction to your NETS Psalter page xviii you write about ‘earthborn’ ‘shoot in a moonless night’ and ‘morning star’ and these are translated literally into English. But when it comes to aposkorakizw in Ps. 26(27) you translate ” to damn.” It may seem a fine point, but that is the kind of thing we blog about, the tiny details. Just wondering what made the difference for that one time, that you would not attempt to translate “throw to the crows” or some such thing.

    Dear Suzanne,
    Nice to hear from you and glad to know that at least somebody reads some of the things I write –-:).
    Interestingly, you essentially answer your own question in the closing phrase of your note, where you write “. . . or some such thing.” I read that as suggesting that a literal translation of APOSKORAKIZW may not do. I would agree since “to throw to the crows” is not an English figure of speech for utterly casting off. If that is correct, I didn’t really have the option (in terms of NETS principles) to translate this Greek figure of speech literally. My options were essentially two: (1) to translate it with a comparable figure of speech in English or (2) to unpackage it. Note that LSJ understandably does the latter, and one of the glosses it uses curse/damn. Needless to say, “damn” in Ps 26:6 is not meant in a theological sense of eternal damnation but rather as a term of utter rejection.
    Hope that helps,
    All the best,

  4. January 17, 2012 6:23 pm

    Thank you again, Suzanne. And please thank Dr. Pietersma too.

    In preparing my post, I did see the LSJ entry, which goes like this:

    ἀποσκορα^κ-ίζω, (ἐς κόρακας)
    A. wish one far enough, curse, damn, LXX Is.17.13, Plu.2.740a, Alciphr.1.38, Iamb.VP25.112.

    I’m glad to know what Pietersma was actually relying on. Nonetheless, there are three unfortunate issues with relying on this Lexicon entry.

    First, it’s rather circular to say that ἀποσκορα^κ-ίζω at LXX Is.17.13 means “damn” because it means “damn” in the LXX. Yes, I see the other references, but even there Liddell, Scott, and Jones are just logging what other translators have glossed without giving a clue as to how these translators are getting the sense. And how did they all miss the I Maccabbees 11:55 sense that RSV gives, namely “fight against” which NETS translator George Themelis Zervos then goes with?

    Second, what LSJ see that other translators have done (with “damn” and such) and what the RSV translators have done (with “fight against”) and what Eugene O’Neill has done with with his “Go and hang yourself!” for Βάλλ’ ἐς κόρακας is just use Dynamic Equivalence theory. Now, in principle, there’s nothing wrong with DE. It was good enough for Eugene Nida. However, it robs the Greek of the wordplay, especially in Aristophanes’ Greek. Imagine a translation — into Greek, or French, or Japanese, or Vietnamese — of Poe’s “The Raven” that didn’t get the line “But the Raven still beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,” and sought to chose an abstracted sybolic action for the animal and erased every beguiling allusion to “this ominous bird of yore” and to “nevermore” it Quoth.

    Pietersma suggests he only had one choice, either “(1) to translate it with a comparable figure of speech in English or (2) to unpackage it.” He chooses “damn” instead, and unpackages this now in his kind email of explanation: “Needless to say, ‘damn’ in Ps 26:6 is not meant in a theological sense of eternal damnation but rather as a term of utter rejection.”

    Third, it’s not only important what the LXX translators have chosen (i.e., to use an admitted “literary spark” and a highly “interpretive spin” — one that makes us think of Aristophanes’ “Women at the Festival”). But it’s important, also, I think to show how the Septuagint translators made this choice. This is not DE, nor is it — as is mostly the case in the Psalms, as per Pietersma’s comment — simply a literal translation of the Hebrew by Greek. Rather, the translators are being wildly interpretive perhaps and extremely rhetorical definitely. The text, with its ἀποσ κορακίσῃς, is extremely marked. It pushes the reader and the listener to the sounds and to the sights of whatever crows or ravens and being thrown away to them would imply.

    I think Theodoridis is on to something with his translation, “Argh! To the crows with you, woman! / Argh! To the crows with you, woman!” My attempt at an English translation of the LXX translator’s translation above tries to get at these literary sparks and interpretive spins, to note them especially to readers in Alexandria, Egypt who might have attended a showing or even heard a reading of Θεσμοφοριάζουσαι.


  1. Interpretive Spins in the Ψαλμοὶ: the enthymeme « BLT
  2. The Psalm Rendered by the Strange, Furious Tongues of the Goyim | BLT

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