Reviews of

Hebrew Wordplay and LXX Translation

In Adam W. Jones, Bloomsbury, Book of Psalms, Elizabeth H. P. Backfish, Septuagint, Translation on February 13, 2020 at 8:00 am


2020.02.04 | Elizabeth H. P. Backfish. Hebrew Wordplay and Septuagint Translation Technique in the Fourth Book of the Psalter. LHBOTS 682. London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2019.

Reviewed by Adam W. Jones, London School of Theology.

In Hebrew Wordplay and Septuagint Translation Technique in the Fourth Book of the Psalter, Elizabeth H. P. Backfish analyzes the nature of wordplay in the Fourth Book of the Hebrew Psalter and its translation in the LXX. This volume, a revised version of her PhD dissertation, fills a gap in scholarship on wordplay both in the Hebrew Psalter and in the LXX. Through this book, Backfish provides a significant contribution to multiple disciplines and creates room for the discussion to be carried forward in the future.

In her first chapter, Backfish surveys previous research on wordplay in the Hebrew Bible and translation technique in the LXX. Being careful not to provide an overly simplistic view of the LXX, Backfish identifies the translation of Psalms as exhibiting “a sense of controlled freedom in rendering the source text with consideration of lexical variety and style” (p. 12). Continuing this introductory chapter, she provides a historical and linguistic survey of wordplay in literary theory. Backfish identifies three types of wordplay. Homophonic wordplays play on the sound of words that sound the same. Paronomastic wordplays involve words that have similar sounds. Polysemantic wordplays involve words that have multiple meanings. Since homophonic wordplays are not found in the Psalms that this study analyzes, the focus is placed on paronomastic and polysemantic plays. Backfish concludes the introduction with a brief section on methodology. Of particular significance is her care not to call everything “wordplay.” Backfish provides clear criteria, including “quality and strength of the sound repetition” (p. 43), proximity and “contextual markers” (p. 44), for identifying wordplay in the Hebrew text. Further, she offers a rating system as “a measure of confidence we have in identifying” wordplays as legitimate (p. 44). In this scale, “1 = sure or strong; 2 = moderate; and 3 = weak” (p. 44). She uses similar criteria and the same rating system for the LXX representation of the Hebrew wordplay. This first chapter might be the most insightful as it contains clear and concise definitions to frame the discussion for the rest of the book, which mostly serves to demonstrate the usefulness of her methodology.

In chapter two, Backfish analyzes each wordplay in Psalms 90–106, identifying the specific type of wordplay and, when applicable, commenting on the purpose and significance of the wordplay. She also rates each one in accordance with the system described above. While in some passages the identification of a particular wordplay was a bit of a stretch, it was in those very places that Backfish identified her confidence in identifying the wordplay as 3 (weak). An example of a weak wordplay is found in Ps. 90:3. Here, “the psalmist uses the verb שׁוב twice in two different stems (Hiphil and Qal) and thus with two slightly different meanings” (p. 51). While this might be “a polysemantic punning repetition,” Backfish describes it as “not the most convincing example” (p. 52). A clearer example can be seen in Ps. 97:7b (הַמִּתְהַלְלִים בָּאֱלִילִים). Backfish identifies the wordplay in this example as end rhyme, noting that “end rhyme is often a natural byproduct of conjugational necessity” (p. 79). Left at that, this would not be a strong example of wordplay. However, Backfish draws attention to the double ל in each word and the proximity of the words to make the case for seeing this as true wordplay. She then identifies the function of this wordplay as “probably aesthetic, structural, and theological . . . drawing together two ideas in an ironic way” (p. 79). This chapter concludes with a few charts showing the ratings and distributions of the 74 wordplays found in the fourth book of the Hebrew Psalter.

Chapter three deals with the LXX’s rendering of the Hebrew wordplays. In this chapter, there are two broad categories for classification: “either the translator rendered the wordplay in some way or he did not” (p. 117). Additionally, if the translator did represent the wordplay, he either replicated “the same subcategory of wordplay using the same words employed by the Hebrew poet,” or he represented “a similar wordplay” (p. 117). If he did not represent the wordplay, he either “rendered the sense of the Hebrew,” or “the LXX contains a variation that results in not representing the wordplay” (p. 117). Again, Backfish goes through each of these categories and each relevant psalm, ranking her confidence that the representation in the LXX is a legitimate rendering of the Hebrew wordplay. As was the case with chapter two, this chapter ends with charts presenting the evidence from the text that illustrate Backfish’s examination. She concludes: “This study shows that the difficulties of translating wordplay into a very different target language accounts for transformations in the LXX translation” (p. 161). This is evidenced by the fact that of the 74 wordplays in Book IV of the Hebrew Psalter, only 32.9% of those are represented in the LXX.  However, the “great lengths” that the translator went to in order to replicate the wordplays that are replicated “shows that the translation technique employed was far from simplistic or mechanical” (p. 151).

In her final chapter, Backfish offers conclusions based on the data presented in the two previous chapters. She then provides short remarks on the contribution of this study to the fields of wordplay studies, Hebrew exegesis, Septuagint studies, theological interpretation of Psalms, and communication theory. Backfish’s main conclusions are simple: “the Hebrew poets used wordplay to enhance their messages for various purposes,” and “the LXX translators were often able to render the style of the original Hebrew poetry without sacrificing its divinely inspired message” (p. 171).

It is difficult to be critical of Backfish’s work because she provided clear criteria for identifying wordplay. In addition to the criteria, her confidence ratings for the various wordplays made for “a detailed and consistent classification system” (p. 163) that made her conclusions as objective as possible. Backfish carefully integrated multiple fields of study, without sacrificing clarity in the data from the text and her conclusions from that data. This study is successful its own right while also providing avenues for further work to be done on wordplay in the Hebrew Bible and its translation in the LXX.

Adam W. Jones
London School of Theology
adam.jones [at]


  1. […] via Hebrew Wordplay and LXX Translation — Biblical and Early Christian Studies […]

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