Mary’s song: Luke 1

Posted: August 20, 2013 by J in Bible, Linguistics

Continuing our new translation of Luke inspired by Robert Alter’s approach to translating the OT:


And rising, Mariam journeyed in those days to the hill country, going with haste to a town of Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And it happened, when Elizabeth heard Maria’s greeting, that the infant leapt in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she called out with a mighty shout and said:

Blessed are you among women
And blessed the fruit of your womb!

“And whence this honour to me, that the mother of my lord should come to me? For look! as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the child leapt for joy in my womb. And blessed is she who believed that the things told her by the Lord would come to fulfilment.”

And Mariam said,

My soul magnifies the Lord
and my spirit is made glad in God my Saviour
For he has taken notice of the wretchedness of his slave-girl
for look! from now on ‘blessed’ will all the generations name me
For the mighty one has done great things for me
and holy is his name
And his mercy is from generation to generation
for those who fear him
He has worked power with his arm,
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their heart
He has taken down rulers from their thrones
and raised up the wretched;
The hungry he has filled with goods
and the rich sent away empty
He has succoured Israel his child,
remembering mercy
Even as he spoke to our fathers
to Abraham and his seed
for all ages.

And Mariam remained with her three months and then returned home. 



Once again the pace of the narrative is fast, the paratactic structure (‘and…and…and‘) driving the action forward with few pauses. This makes it a racy read.

That means the songs come as a definite gear shift: we all stop and reflect on the meaning and the feelings generated by the action. In fact, after the breathless narrative, the songs come as a welcome change of pace, a chance to catch our breath. That’s different from our normal translations where the songs often feel like they’re ‘in the way’ of the story unfolding.

Elizabeth’s words are stylised and a bit archaic, reflecting Luke’s greek. She is prophesying like a prophet of old, and the style boosts the sense of authority in her words.

Mary’s song is in the typical psalm-style of the LXX, very much like Hannah’s song in 1 Sam. 2. It is chock full of Hebrew-style parallelisms: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord/and my spirit is made glad in God my Saviour’. Once again she calls herself his ‘slave-girl’, emphasising her identification with the ‘wretched’ category in her song.

We have used a more ‘poetic’ syntax in the song, allowing us for e.g. to bring out the emphasised contrast in ‘the hungry…and the rich…’ – normally lost in translation.

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