Mystery of the Missing Silence

To you, silence is praise, O God in Zion: and unto You shall the vow be fulfilled. ~ Psalm 65, Stone/Artscroll Translation

Everyone knows that nuances and shades of meaning get lost in translation. This is why Muslims insist on praying and reading the Quran in Arabic, and why up until about forty years ago, the Catholic mass was always prayed in Latin. Even the most artful and scholarly of translators will face countless challenges when attempting to render idioms, metaphors, puns, and words with multiple possible meanings in a language foreign to the original text. By its very nature, the art of translation entails compromise and interpretation.

I stumbled across a fascinating example of this recently. Not long ago I began researching the words for "silence" in both Hebrew and Greek, to get a sense of what kind of riches might be hidden in scripture. "Hidden" turned out to be uncannily accurate.

One of the Hebrew words for silence, dumiyya, has the sense of not only silence, but also "quiet waiting" or "repose." This caught my eye, for such a connotation seems particularly contemplative. Dumiyya only appears a handful of times in scripture, all in the Psalms, in verses like Psalm 62:1: "For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation."

But my amateur word study took an unexpected turn when I looked at one of the other verses where dumiyya appears, Psalm 65:1. In the New Revised Standard Version, it reads: "Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion; and to you shall vows be performed." Where is the silence? Confused, I turned to the New International Version ("Praise awaits you, O God, in Zion; to you our vows will be fulfilled") and then the New American Bible ("To you we owe our hymn of praise, O God on Zion; To you our vows must be fulfilled"). Silence—dumiyya -- appears to be missing in action in those translations. Only the NIV with its use of the verb "awaits" seemed to convey anything even remotely resembling dumiyya.

I consulted one other translation, the clunky but supposedly literalistic New American Standard Version. It rendered this verse as "There will be silence before You, and praise in Zion, O God, and to You the vow will be performed." Clearly, I had not lost my mind: at least this translation acknowledged that silence was part of this verse!

Confused, and humbly recognizing that this was beyond the scope of my limited knowledge of Hebrew, I turned to several Jewish friends, including one person currently in rabbinical school. I asked them to help me understand why dumiyya seemed to be absent in so many translations.

The answers came back quickly. Two friends pointed me to an Orthodox Jewish translation, the Stone/Artscroll Tanach (Hebrew Bible). It rendered this verse as "To you, silence is praise, O God in Zion: and unto You shall the vow be fulfilled."


My friends wondered if, when the Hebrew scriptures were first translated into Greek—an ancient translation called the Septuagint—this verse might have been mistranslated, with most subsequent Christian versions of the Old Testament following the Septuagint in rendering Psalm 65:1 as declaring praise owed to God, rather than silence as praise for God. Thankfully, Jewish scholars (and at least some Christians) have endeavored to remain faithful to the Hebrew, recognizing that the text powerfully affirms silence before God, even to the point of seeing such reverent silence as an act of praise.

A footnote in the Stone/Artscroll Tanach includes this fascinating commentary from a medieval rabbinic scholar Rashi (1040-1105), who said, "The praises of infinite God can never be exhausted. Silence is his most eloquent praise, since elaboration must leave glaring omissions."

Finally, another friend pointed me to a commentary by Rabbi Benjamin Segal, who explains how both the "waiting" and "silence" senses of the word dumiyya are important for fully understanding this verse—and, indeed, the entirety of Psalm 65.

What's the takeaway? Obviously, I'm reminded of how impoverished even our most scholarly translations of our sacred texts must be. But as a contemplative, I find Psalm 65, in its original Hebrew splendor, positively electrifying. To you, silence is praise, O God. Anyone who meditates can attest that silence is healthy; it promotes calm abiding and self-knowledge. But dumiyya suggests that a more immediate spiritual benefit lies in silence as well. When we sit down and shut up, God is glorified. The practice of intentional silence is simultaneously an act of worship before the Holy One. What a wonderful viewpoint to keep in mind.

3/13/2012 4:00:00 AM
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