The Biblical cadence of Barack Obama

Posted: 5th November 2008 by ElShaddai Edwards in Uncategorized

An incalculable number of commentators have noted Barack Obama’s oratory gifts – his unerring ease behind the microphone and ability to motivate an otherwise complacent mob into a roaring frenzy of support. Where does this skill come from? How does one man speak with the practiced ease of someone born to inspire, while another’s speech is as rigid and halting as his wounds of war?

I’ve posted a few times now on the topic of cadence, slowing building some definitions and framing them into the world of Bible translation. I want to mix together some of the definitions previously presented into this single statement:

Cadence is the natural rising and falling of the rhythms created by the spoken word.

With that in mind, *read* the opening phrase from Obama’s acceptance speech last night:

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

It’s a long sentence and if you read it, you tend to get lost in the phrases and the punctuation. Yes, Obama spoke slowly and deliberately, but he spoke with rhythm – not reading a book, but speaking.

Now, with the echo of Obama himself in your ear, speak it. Don’t just read it out loud. Speak it with a rhythm that crescendos and withdraws – pause, but speak through the punctuation – don’t stop! Breath if you must but speak it. Do you feel the parallel phrases? Not just read in sequence, but voiced together as one thought.

Obama’s speech is not written to be read. It’s written to be spoken. And there is a world of difference in how we process his English from that of John McCain. Compare these remarks:

In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance. But that he managed to do so by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president is something I deeply admire and commend him for achieving. This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight.

Tremendously gracious in spirit, McCain’s speech was written to be read, preserved, perused at leisure. You cannot *speak* it that same way that Obama’s speech can be. The cadence is literary, not spoken.

Too often, I think, our Bibles have been translated to be read, preserved, perused at our leisure. But the Bible wasn’t written to be read, it was written to be spoken. It was written to be read with “the natural rising and falling of the rhythms created by the spoken word.”

Let’s look again at Obama’s speech – this time through the lens of the NLT:

Does anyone still doubt that America is a place where all things are possible? Does anyone still wonder if our founders’ dreams are alive today? Does anyone still question our democracy’s power? If so, tonight is your answer.

Same thoughts, many of the same words – totally different cadence. Can you read it the same way? I suggest that you cannot. And this is why the NLT is a wonderful written translation in idiomatic English, but it fails where the KJV does not. The KJV captures the rhythm of the spoken word. Not written words.

I voiced the question in one of my last posts whether a translation could speak with the modern vocabulary of the NLT, but the cadence of the KJV. Look at Obama’s words. They are not massive multi-syllabic testimonies to a thesaurus. They are simple, plain, hand hewn. So too the NLT. Yet I listen to Barack Obama and I hear the KJV. Not because he speaks with archaic 17th-century language, but because the cadence of his speech is born out of a spirit of drama, conflict and poetry. Natural rhythm and cadence.

Why not too the Word of God?

  1. […] The Biblical cadence of Barack Obama The Biblical cadence of Barack Obama […]

  2. Wayne Leman says:

    This is a very good post, ElShaddai. Very few English Bible versions have been translated to be spoken, or read aloud well. But they can be. They can even have cadence, as you put it so well. It just takes work. Cadence in English versions would better reflect much of the original biblical texts, especially the large numbers of poetic passages.

  3. Peter Kirk says:

    It would be good to get Obama, or his speechwriter, to work on improving the style of Bible translations. But then both of them will be busy with other things probably for the next eight years!

  4. Excellent! Love the comparisons. Have you had a chance to read the Voice bible translation? I think this is what they are trying to achieve but I am not sure if they have.

  5. John Hobbins says:

    It is an interesting fact that long flowing periods such as are found in much of biblical oratory in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek are systematically revised in DE translations to conform to current canons of literary English style. Said style favors short, staccato-like sentences and a minimum of repetition.

    But let’s put the shoe on the other foot a moment. How many people are capable today of reading a passage of anything well in public with proper emphasis and intonation?

    These skills need to be practiced and learned irrespective of the translation read, such that the read passage is spoken as an organic living body, not deciphered line by line disconnectedly.

  6. J. K. Gayle says:

    There are some language scholars, like Willis Barnstone, who see the need for translation to carry cadences (not only in Spanish sonnets and Chinese poetry but also in the Hebrew bible and the Christian as well). Martha Cutter says of him (in Lost and Found in Translation p 32): “Following Roland Barthes’s theory that some texts are more writerly than readerly, translation theorist Willis Barnstone speaks of writerly translations that involve an active participation with the source text.”

    In his preface to his translation of the gospels and the apocalypse, Barnstone suggests that Jesus has a voice, a cadence, like Barack Obama’s:

    “The poet of the New Covenant is invisible, obscured in prose. And we do not know the voice and identity of the recorder or recorders. Yet hear that voice and hear a poet. Few have recognized the poet, because they were not led, by the shape of the print of the page, to use their ears, although Yeshua’s voice (except in brief dialogue) came uniformly and sonorously in verse sayings. The poems remained confined to lucent and fluent English prose of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but no matter. So were Job and the Song of Songs until their release into verse in the English Revised Version (1885). Once released, the tradition of verse was settled. Now there is a sound of poetry in the air for the Greek scriptures. It has been slow and irregular in coming, but with new versions the sound will prevail. It is time to hear the poet.”

  7. David Gregg says:

    I would ask: What is the makeup of this sort of cadence? Can we articulate it? Might there be a way to define it or describe it?

  8. Wayne wrote:

    Very few English Bible versions have been translated to be spoken, or read aloud well. But they can be. They can even have cadence, as you put it so well. It just takes work.

    Thanks for the link at BBB and the comments. My curiosity regarding “oral Bibles” was of course initially raised when reading about the revision process of the REB and how they tried to adapt the NEB text for more spoken applications. It would be interesting to know what translations have been prepared with public speaking as a primary consideration.

  9. Robert asked:

    Have you had a chance to read the Voice bible translation? I think this is what they are trying to achieve but I am not sure if they have.

    I have not seen much about the Voice. I’ve heard of it and remember browsing some examples a while back, but I don’t recall specifics. I’ll have to take another look…

  10. John:

    It is an interesting fact that long flowing periods such as are found in much of biblical oratory in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek are systematically revised in DE translations to conform to current canons of literary English style. Said style favors short, staccato-like sentences and a minimum of repetition.

    Yes, they are very different styles indeed. I speculated in a previous post on how media like radio and television have impacted our English styles, with their emphasis on soundbites to make an impression in as little time as possible.

    These skills need to be practiced and learned irrespective of the translation read, such that the read passage is spoken as an organic living body, not deciphered line by line disconnectedly.

    Agreed. When laypeople lead the common readings at church, it is easily discernible whether the reader has looked at the text beforehand to get a sense of it or if they are simply reading, line by line.

    My tongue used to crawl into my belly when speaking in front of people, but I was fortunate to have a job where presentations were frequent and necessary, and I learned to overcome that.

  11. Peter:

    It would be good to get Obama, or his speechwriter, to work on improving the style of Bible translations.

    I would be very curious to know more about the speechwriting process for Obama – whether those rhythms and cadences are planned, or whether he is applying “interpretation” to the words as he speaks.

  12. J.K. quoted:

    […] translation theorist Willis Barnstone speaks of writerly translations that involve an active participation with the source text.

    Yes! Give me blood, sweat and tears on my translation where the translator has grappled like Jacob with the words of God. Clinical concordance cannot compete with the cadence of raw language.

    Thank you too for the link to that past discussion. You’ve previously inspired me to get a copy of the Lattimore NT – now you’ve urged the Barnstone!

  13. Iyov says:

    I agree with your basic premise. However, I would also say that the KJV is more transparent to the original Hebrew cadences.

    There are many fine works to develop cadence from — not only the KJV. Churchill is famous for developing his unique style from reading Gibbon. Others have developed the spoken style from Shakespeare or the other great poets.

    Finally, we must give credit to the sermon style of the Black Church (which in Obama’s case, largely means that of Jeremiah Wright’s church.)

  14. David asked:

    What is the makeup of this sort of cadence? Can we articulate it? Might there be a way to define it or describe it?

    It’s a fair question, David. I haven’t spent much time “under the hood” with the KJV examining things like meter and rhythm, and I suspect that many others have already done so. In the link thread on Better Bibles, Wayne talks about the speaking traditions of the African-American church.

    Dissecting and connecting the two is probably a project over my head – this post was more about a listener’s response to oratory and a regret that our Bible traditions are more reader oriented than listener oriented.

  15. Iyov:

    However, I would also say that the KJV is more transparent to the original Hebrew cadences.

    I would love to see you write more on the similarities or otherwise on speaking the original Hebrew vs. the KJV and/or other English translations. If that’s not an interest, do you know of resources along those lines?

    Finally, we must give credit to the sermon style of the Black Church (which in Obama’s case, largely means that of Jeremiah Wright’s church.)

    Indeed. Wayne began to touch on that influence in his comments on BBB.

  16. Peter wrote:

    It would be good to get Obama, or his speechwriter, to work on improving the style of Bible translations. But then both of them will be busy with other things probably for the next eight years!

    Perhaps a few of us would prefer that they spent their time working on Bible translations for the next four to eight years rather than on what they will be doing! 😉

  17. L. Wells says:

    Excellent, well thought out post ElShaddai. As someone who serves as a lector in the Church, this really hits home for me. In the Episcopal Church we are now on the Revised Common Lectionary, which uses the NRSV as its text. It usually flows easily, but sometimes is downright tongue twisting in places if you’re not extremely careful. Overall it’s a great translation, but I wish we had stayed with the old RSV. The RSV has a much better cadence than the NRSV. It just grabs your attention, somewhat like the KJV does, though not to quite as high a degree. I surmise that of the modern translations the only one retaining much of this cadence is the ESV, and that because of its RSV background. I truly wish some publisher would pick up on your idea.

  18. Thanks, L. It’s been interesting to read the various comments and think about how the Bible fits into our different worship experiences. As a member of the “low church”, we spend far more time reading the Bible than speaking it in service – yet a liturgical “high church” may have the opposite experience.

    A modern liturgical translation would be a very interesting indeed.

  19. Jessie says:

    barack obama written speech…

    I personally agree with your comments, but there will always be some people who may not feel the same….