13. Qawwali: Can Biblical Poetry be Translated?

Is Meaning Related to Form?

A colleague in Pakistan more familiar with Sindhi(1) poetry than I am, recently pointed out some similarities between the Song of Deborah in the book of Judges and a type of Sindhi poetry called "qawwali." He noted that both qawwalis and the Song of Deborah range over a number of themes, they reference but do not explain incidents, they are repetitive, and they use "vivid imagery verging on hyperbole." He further commented that qawwalis are performance pieces to be sung with audience participation.  The function of the qawwali is to make an appropriate impact upon the audience and is essentially recreated by the performer through interaction with the hearers. The performer innovatively manipulates the content with both subtle and obvious references that stimulate the people into appreciative response. Our colleague then speculated that the Song of Deborah may be similar, i.e. rather than reading material it was probably intended as a performance piece.  Did the Song of Deborah have a similar function in Hebrew poetry?  And if so would not the meaning and significance be dependent upon the form and audience participation as much as upon a cognitive acknowledgement of the historical events being referenced?  Does the silence of dried ink on paper rob the text of much of its intended impact?

Suppose we reduced a Sindhi qawwali to words in the English language and handed it to our waiter at the Swiss Chalet after church next Sunday for their opinion.  Would they experience a qawwali simply by reading English words?  Without doubt it is impossible for one who has grown up in a Canadian context to experience a qawwali from reading an English translation of the words.  In fact, the more literal the translation (following the repetition, the hyperbole, the range of themes and the Sindhi expressions drawn from local knowledge), the less the impact, the understanding and the ability of the Canadian reader to value such poetry. It would not encourage further reading of qawwalis, but rather a deep skepticism that Sindhis are indeed sane.  In fact, the question must be asked, can a qawwali be understood by someone who does not know Sindhi and does not actually enter into the qawwali experience?  In other words, a qawwali by its very nature may be untranslatable, because it does not rely primarily on words as vehicles to communicate information, but as links to cultural background, cultural responses, cultural actions, cultural expectations and subtle cultural meanings, plays on words, particular styles of emphasis etc., that are absent within an alternate language and culture.  Without those links the impact and significance of the words cannot be retained.  Pasternak, referring to translations of his book "Dr. Zhivago," stated, "Don’t blame them too much.  It’s not their fault.  They are used, like translators everywhere, to reproduce the literal sense rather than the tone of what is said – and of course it is the tone that matters." (2)

The Dilemma of Bible Translation

This brings us to the dilemma of Bible translation.  Can biblical poetry be translated?  Since we are not Hebrews but live in a time and place and culture even farther removed from each other than Canadians are removed from Sindhis, is it really possible for us to "experience" Hebrew poetry?  Can we really enter into its meaning as it was intended, which, in the nature of poetry in particular, is far more than mere words on a page?  However before we abandon the attempt, there are two options we can consider.

The first option is to find a poetry style which will provide a similar "impact" that was intended with the original poetry.  This, unfortunately, is somewhat subjective as we do not have original Hebrew poets (such as King David) with us who could lead us into an experience of the intended impact.  Instead we must use our own poetic lenses and the expertise of those who have studied the function of ancient Hebrew poetry.  We then must find (for our goal of translating the OT into Sindhi) talented Sindhi poets who are capable of both understanding the meaning and the impact of original Hebrew poetry, and who can adequately represent that in an acceptable Sindhi poetic style – written or performed.  Unfortunately for our Sindhi translation we do not have the expertise, the time or the finances to produce a quality translation of the Hebrew poetry found in the Psalms, let alone in the rest of the OT.

The second option is to assume that even though the poetry is intended to be experienced (as with qawwalis) or sung (as with the psalms), the fact that they are written down on paper indicates that they also contain an important element of communicating cognitively.  They are intended to provide information, make an impact and move people to decision making or reflection through the use of intellectual perception.  That is, the vital essence of the message can be translated into other forms, styles and languages which will result in responses, if not equivalent at least comparable, to those expected from the original readers (or singers of psalms or dancers of qawwalis).  This does not imply that form is immaterial to the meaning and significance of the message.  However, the basic assumption of Bible translation (and all translation for that matter) is that the message can be communicated by using a different form that provides a comparable meaning and significance.

The Limits of Translation

Therefore, if the Song of Deborah is some kind of Hebrew qawwali, we do not want to translate it as closely to the Hebrew as possible because, as in the Canadian example above, the result would be disastrous.  Rather than providing an equivalent understanding and impact, the cultural differences and lack of appropriate context to appreciate the purpose would result in bewilderment and misunderstanding.  Instead, by choosing the second option, as translators we comprehend the original intention and impact as much as possible and seek to represent that meaning in such a way that it leads to the appropriate understanding and response in the reader.  Due to our limitations in the language, we (the Sindhi translation team) are able to accomplish this best through the use of prose, indicating poetry through the artificial means of indented and short lines.  Poetically this leaves a lot to be desired and arguably it limits comprehension.  Practically it functions very well as the tools for writing prose allow us to manipulate the words and sentences in such a way that the reader will be able to appreciate to a certain degree the intended meaning and impact.  However it must be admitted that there is also much that is lacking, like Van Gogh’s "sunflowers" seen in black and white.  It is a true representation, but limited.  Further, more profound, poetic translations will need to be left to those with superior perceptions and talents. Perhaps one day there will be godly Sindhis with a poetic bent who are so immersed in the original Hebrew poetry that they can envision and express what they are experiencing in an equivalent form of Sindhi poetry.


  • (1) FEBInternational works in Pakistan among the Sindhi Muslim people.  Mark is overseeing the translation of the Old Testament into the Sindhi language.
  • (2) Quoted in a footnote, p. 315 of Ellington, J. "Shleiermacher was Wrong", The Bible Translator, Technical papers, Vol. 54 No. 3 July 2003.
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Author: Mark Naylor DTh (missiology)

I have been with Fellowship International since 1984. Karen and I served in Pakistan for 14 years and returned to Canada in 1999. I have continued to be involved in Bible translation traveling twice a year to Pakistan. My current role with Fellowship International and Northwest Baptist Seminary is as Coordinator of International Leadership Development