Lamentations: translation notes

Translation? Or something else?

I would like to call this a translation. But that opens up the thorny question of that term's definition. Getting hung up on the term itself would probably only take us down a long, dark rabbit-hole to a dead end.

I have endeavoured to use the principles of translation. But whereas translation of ancient secular poetry allows some freedom to include considerations of poetic features, biblical translation, by contrast, places high regard on treating texts, even poetic texts, as prose, where accurate dictionary-equivalence is paramount; it makes relatively minor allowance for poetry.

By contrast, this translation has poetry as a defining characteristic. Certainly, the acrostic, including its "A" and "Z" endpoints, is key. Equally key is the underlying rhythm: that incessantly driving 3–2 'qinah' pulse of the first four chapters. To the best of my knowledge no other translation of Lamentations has both.

So is it a translation? A paraphrase? A version? A rendering? Let the reader decide.

Guiding principles

The alphabetic acrostic is central. The rhythm is central. But what about the text?

Hebrew poetry tends not to do rhyme. To add rhyme here, despite its prevalence in English poetry and hymnody, would gain very little, and would force far more constraint than is necessary. Accordingly this version makes no attempt at rhyme. Indeed, on a couple of occasions, the drafting process accidentally produced rhyme; I then specifically redrafted in order to avoid its distraction.

But Hebrew poetry does make quite frequent use of wordplay. Sometimes, something similar can be done in English translation; alliteration can be useful here.

Both Hebrew and English use metaphor. Where reasonably possible, this is conveyed, although achieving it sometimes requires substitution.

Often, subtle aspects of wordplay are untranslatable. But conversely it is sometimes possible to introduce English poetic features in unrelated places elsewhere. So, taking the bigger picture into account, an unavoidable loss of detail in one place may be compensated by an introduced poetic expression in another place.

Demonstration by example


The very first line, Lam.1:1, "Alas! Alone lies the city" demonstrates substitution. The original verb is more literally "sits", and most prose-oriented English translations use this. But in English, we tend to think of "lying desolate" rather than "sitting desolate". For us, "lie" is a better poetic metaphor than "sits". Further, and more subtly, the same verb is used a little later in the middle of v.3. This would be "…sits among the nations". But again, that doesn't really work in English. Yet neither would "…lies among the nations".

Part of the problem is that the original "sits" has an additional shade of meaning that can incorporate something like "dwells" or "resides". And the two uses here allow one common verb to express both ideas. No single English verb captures this.

So in v.3, I use "lodges among the nations". While I am now using two different verbs where the original has one common verb, nevertheless the pairing of "lies" and "lodges" lends alliterative commonality and association.


Acrostics constrain the choice of a verse's opening word. Sometimes there simply isn't an English word anywhere near suitable. One approach can then be to swap lines within a verse. Lam.1:7 is a case in point; its first line requires an opening "G" word. A workable solution is to switch its first and second lines, allowing for "great treasures" to begin the verse.

The acrostic use of "Z" for the final stanza of the first four poems is an interesting challenge, as there are so few such English words in regular use. The third poem in particular requires the use of three such words. These must all be different, to reflect the Hebrew "tav" words being different.

Conversely, the third poem's ninth stanza, Hebrew letter "tet" corresponding to English "I", requires a single word used three times, ideally meaning "good". But "good" is not available to us, as "g" is the seventh, not ninth, letter in our alphabet. We need an "I" word that is reasonably synonymous with "good".[1] "Irreproachable" seems a reasonable choice, with not too much compromise.

Poetic compensation

At Lam.1:3 the geographic word here translated as "straits" (or "narrows") cannot capture the Hebrew word's resonance with their word for "Egypt". To the original hearers, this would have conveyed a powerful reminder of other dire times in another place, alas, lost to us.

Meanwhile, at Lam.5:18, desolate Zion is vividly pictured as occupied by wild animals. Other translations variously use "foxes" or "jackals"; ancient zoological classifications are somethimes ambiguous to us. Here, I use "haunt of hyenas", which maintains the broad zoological classification and allows the use of a suitably unsettling alliterative expression.


Qinah or not qinah? That is the question.

Most biblical scholarship is agreed beyond reasonable doubt that the 3–2 qinah beat is prevalent in the first four chapters. But there is lively debate about particular details in particular verses. For example, the very opening verse is seen by some as 4–2, and a few translations accordingly set its opening "Alas!" (one beat) as a separate anacrusis.

Much of this gnat-straining debate will almost certainly never be unambiguously or satisfactorily resolved. In view of that, I simply endeavour to use qinah as consistently as possible in these chapters. This also helps highlight the contrast on entering chapter 5, where there is reasonable agreement that its rhythm is non-qinah, often 3–3. This, too, has been a guide.

[1]The other possibility would have been to make use of our needing to omit four letters. That would allow pushing out to "J" or even "K". But the smaller number of such words would only have made the problem harder, not easier.