God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Translation Challenge: Song of Solomon

In keeping with the spirit of spring, here’s another post on the Song of Solomon, this time addressing how hard it is to translate the romantic imagery there.

Here are two translation challenges:

Fragrant Oils

Verse 1:3 is supposed to express the physical beauty of the male hero of Song of Solomon, but translations like “your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is perfume poured out;” (NRSV) or “Your name spoken is a spreading perfume — that is why the maidens love you” (NAB) seem neither particularly poetic nor to mirror the Hebrew.

Here’s the text:

l’re’ach sh’manecha tovim
to the odor of your oils good
shemen turak sh’mecha
oil will be emptied your name
al-ken alamot ahevucha
therefore women love you

The grammar is confusing here, but I think we can proceed without reviewing it completely, because the components of the imagery are clear. In addition, notice the repetition of “sh-m,” in sh’manecha (“your oils”), shemen (“oil”) and sh’mecha (“your name”). I would also add that — at least in modern America — “perfume” in English doesn’t seem right for the masculine image of the original.

Any suggestions for a nice, romantic, poetic rendering?

White and Red

Verse 5:10 is supposed to set the stage for the color imagery in 5:11, which describes a golden head and raven-black hair, again regarding the male hero. But mistranslations along the lines of “my beloved is white and ruddy”* (KJV) or “my lover is radiant and ruddy” (NAB) seem to miss the poetic mark. Here’s the Hebrew:

dodi tzach v’adom
my lover dazzling(?) and red

Who wants to offer some nice poetic English?

(*) As I say in And God Said, the “white and red” translation is “more reminiscent of a children’s riddle about a newspaper than the Bible.”

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March 25, 2010 - Posted by | translation challenge, translation practice | , , , ,

16 Comments »

  1. I am glad to see this question. Definitely not ‘white’ was my only apophatic comment in my recent work. Because the word is unique… what can we say?

    My beloved is clear and ruddy
    intent among ten thousand

    My comment here has more to do with ‘standard’ which I rendered everywhere with ‘intent’

    Intent – no intensity is greater than the love of God whether it manifests itself in what is perceived as good or as wrath which is another disguise of the fire of love. I am guessing at this word דָּגַל. It rhymes with the traditional translation of Song 2:4 and it links then to the use of banner in Numbers. In English we have a similar duality in the word ‘standard’ which may mean flag or example.

    The gold hair section has a number of issues with it too –

    This ‘refined’ fine gold – כֶּתֶם is rarely used but in each case it is in texts where we might just pass over it though it might be pivotal. Why is there an adjective applied to a word that is already glossed as fine gold? It occurs twice in Job 28, the hymn to wisdom, where I missed its potential significance. The word that qualifies it is derived from an identical word with a sense of deep stain. That is a gold that includes the knowledge of good and evil רע and its relationship to us לָנוּ, to me לִי and to you לָךְ my sister bride.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | March 25, 2010 | Reply

  2. “Your cologne smells wonderful.
    Even your name is like fine cologne.
    That’s why the girls all love you.”

    For Valentine’s Day I kind of went through part of SoS for fun and revised the NASB as I saw fit.

    Comment by Gary Simmons | March 25, 2010 | Reply

    • As a side note, I’m particularly proud of the ridiculous way I rendered the beginning of chapter 2.
      [Bride]
      I’m the pick of the litter! Best in show!

      [Groom]
      Like a Pomeranian among pugs, so is my darling among women.

      Comment by Gary Simmons | March 25, 2010 | Reply

      • Although the first verse may mean something along the lines of:

        I am merely a rose from the land of Sharon,
            a lily from the valley.

        (CEV)

        Comment by John | March 25, 2010

      • These are not bashful lovers, but bold, confident ones. The rose of Sharon, I believe, is in fact unique to that valley. That makes it special. When I lived in Argentina, the favorite beer (other than the many artisan beers) was made with a flower that only grew in Patagonia (the southern section of Argentina). I think the pug (while not my particular taste in lovers) captures more of the sense (in a way only a pug lover can appreciate!)

        Comment by WoundedEgo | January 15, 2011

  3. And they called it puppy love – rof’l

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | March 26, 2010 | Reply

  4. re 1:3
    as for scent your oils are pleasing
    an oil poured out is your name,
    therefore maidens love you

    The oil poured out seems metaphorically significant to me but I haven’t studied oil much yet.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | March 26, 2010 | Reply

    • Naturally occurring body oils that give each person a unique scent, I would guess.

      Comment by Gary Simmons | March 26, 2010 | Reply

  5. “White and red” challenge;

    My lover shines and glows.

    (I attended your talk at Barnert Temple this evening. I asked the question about stealing and coveting.)

    Comment by Susan Adleman | April 12, 2010 | Reply

  6. It is my considered opinion that this story is about the fantastic power of erotic love. This is a paean of Solomon, the “larger than life” lover. Could this verse not be suggesting that Solomon has a reputation as a great lover, so that the reputation of his smell excites girl to throw themselves into bed with him?

    Song of Solomon 1:3
    Because of the incredibly intoxicating fragrance of your great ointments,
    it is your reputation that [your lovers] will exude oil,
    so girls flock to you, to make love with you.

    If I’m right on this, then in some small way, this is also about me, although the smell seems to be installed backwards, so it actually repels them.

    Where can I find some of Solomon’s magic cologne??!

    Comment by WoundedEgo | April 18, 2010 | Reply

  7. Joel, or someone who knows Hebrew, I would appreciate any feedback on the possibility that “your name” is referring to “your reputation [as a great lover]”, or, “your celebrity [as a great lover].”

    Comment by WoundedEgo | April 22, 2010 | Reply

  8. In Hebrew, the word for “name” can, and often does, mean “reputation.”

    Comment by Kate Gladstone | January 14, 2011 | Reply

    • Bible names seem to indicate a person’s or thing’s nature, rather than reputation. In some cases there would be little difference between the two. Regarding Bible names I would go even further than “often does” and say that names are almost universally significant in the Bible. (although to greater or lessor degrees in various stories)

      Comment by Caleb J. | July 8, 2012 | Reply

      • “seem to” in the stories, but it would be a mistake to think that this was so in reality in the culture, except in the case, perhaps of nick names.

        Comment by WoundedEgo | July 8, 2012

      • Name can mean a things nature, or reputation and even ownership – Adam names the animals because he is their governor. The Sethites call on the Name of the Lord, to show He is their Lord and protector,provider, etc.

        Comment by Geoff | November 14, 2012

  9. […] A “bag of myrrh” and a “cluster of henna blossoms” just aren’t romantic in English-speaking cultures. The NAB’s “sachet of myrrh” is only marginally better. (I’ve mentioned similar problems before, for example: “Translation Challenge: Song of Solomon.”) […]

    Pingback by Recovering the Erotic Poetry of Song of Solomon « God Didn't Say That | November 14, 2012 | Reply


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