God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Recovering the Erotic Poetry of Song of Solomon

Song of Solomon is replete with erotic poetry, but if you only read the translations, you’d never know it.

Phrases like “my beloved is to me a bag of myrrh that lies between my breasts” (1:13, NRSV) and “my beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms in the vineyards of En-gedi” (1:14, NRSV) demonstrate the problem, as these translations are neither poetic nor erotic. They are barely even coherent.

I see three kinds of problems.

First, we have the fairly common Bible-translation gaffe of mimicking the original too closely.

In the two previous examples, the problem is the grammar. The construction “my beloved is to me…” (and the similar “my beloved is for me…,” from the NAB) is grammatical but awkward in English. In Hebrew, though, the same word order is fluid and poetic.

A translator can perhaps get away with turning straightforward language into a clumsy translation when it comes to prose, but certainly not with poetry. The translations end up sounding more like a parody of courtship than the real thing.

Similarly, the translations miss the poetic impact of the Hebrew grammar. This is the second problem.

Again looking at these two examples, we see that the Hebrew phrases for “bag of myrrh” and “cluster of henna blossoms” start the sentences, thereby emphasizing them in a way that the English misses.

It’s a subtle but important difference, similar to the difference in English between, “blue skies please me//dark clouds depress me” and “I like blue skies//I dislike dark clouds.” The first one (like the original Hebrew in Song of Solomon) emphasizes the poetry; the second one (like the translations) sounds mundane.

The biggest challenge comes from the imagery. That’s the third problem.

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.”)

The solution to the first two problems is easy in theory, if not practice: don’t mimic the grammar but instead capture the poetic impact.

The solution to the actual imagery is more difficult. In principle, the goal is to do in English what the original does in Hebrew. But what did “sack of myrrh” convey, and is there anything like it in English? I doubt it.

Here’s what the poet Marcia Falk does with these two lines in her The Song of Songs:

Between my breasts he’ll lie —
   Sachet of spices,
Spray of blossoms plucked
   From the oasis.

What she’s done is take the irrelevant “myrrh” and translate it as “spices,” just as “henna blossoms” becomes just “blossoms,” and “En-gedi” becomes “oasis.” (Though I’m not entirely sure what the difference is, I think En-gedi is a spring, not an oasis, but “blossoms … spring” would suggest the season, which may be why Dr. Falk chose “oasis.”)

It’s poetic, but is it a translation?

There’s room for debate. She thinks the Hebrew means “he will lie,” not “it will lie.” Fair enough. Her translation omits “my lover” (wrongly “my beloved” in the NRSV and NAB); this seems more problematic to me. She changes the word order to create what (I assume) she thinks is better poetry. For me, this is also a mistake.

So, starting with Dr. Falk’s work, I might suggest:

Sachet of spices,
   my lover between my breasts.
Spray of blossoms,
   my lover in the oasis vineyards.

(What do you think?)

I still wonder, though. Was there something important about “myrrh” that we’re missing? Or if not, maybe we should pick a specific spice in English. (“Sachet of cinnamon”? “Cluster of cloves”?) Is alliteration a reasonable way to make the English text poetic, even though the Hebrew text is poetic in different ways? And if we’re going down the path of alliteration, maybe we should opt for “bouquet of blossoms.” I wonder in particular about “vineyards,” which in Song of Solomon may be overtly sexual.

With all of this mind, how would you translate these two lines?

Advertisements

November 14, 2012 - Posted by | translation practice, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , , ,

27 Comments »

  1. Might it have been a common form of perfume for girls to wear a small bouquet or sack of potpourri dangling from one’s neck?

    “He lies between by teats, like a fragrant floral and spicy perfume”.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | November 14, 2012 | Reply

  2. Here’s how I translated it in The Passion Translation

    A sachet of myrrh is My Lover,
    Resting over my heart.
    As a bouquet of sweet henna blossoms—
    I hold Him and never let Him part.
    Fragrant with redeeming love
    Plucked from the vines near the fountain of the lamb.

    1) The Hebrew word for ‘henna’ is a homonym for ‘atoment.’
    2) The Hebrew word for Engedi means, “fountain of the lamb (kid)’

    I did fotenote why I translated it that way

    Comment by Brian | November 14, 2012 | Reply

  3. Sorry for the typo, should read in footnote 1) “atonement”

    Comment by Brian | November 14, 2012 | Reply

  4. My lover between my breasts,
    The smell of musk,
    The fragrance of the blossoms,
    As we lie in our vineyard by the spring.

    Comment by Dennis De Jarnette | November 14, 2012 | Reply

  5. Have you read the new revision of the NAB OT, the NABRE? Its version of Song 1:13 is a little different: “My lover is to me a sachet of myrrh; between my breasts he lies

    Comment by Timothy | November 14, 2012 | Reply

    • I think, unfortunately, this is a perfect example of what not to do. The grammar of “between my breasts he lies” mirrors the Hebrew word order but in English strikes me as too awkward to convey the original impact of the poetry.

      Comment by Joel H. | November 19, 2012 | Reply

  6. why not place in your article the transliteration of the hebrew text in its physical integrity ie in continuous linear text or in a composed succession of short sentences?

    Comment by maurice amiel | November 14, 2012 | Reply

    • I sometimes do, when I think that assonance plays a central role. Here I think it’s the imagery of the words more than their sounds that’s important.

      Comment by Joel H. | November 19, 2012 | Reply

  7. the significance of the myrrh is this. at night when woman would lay down for sleep, they would place a bag or “sachet” of myrrh on their chest that was wrapped around their neck with some sort of rope or string. while she slept, the heat that her body would give off warmed the myrrh producing it’s lovely aroma. It acted as a perfume if you will and likely absorbed into her skin so when she woke up, she smelled delightful!

    so her lover is like a bag of myrrh resting between her breasts. maybe this is a poetic way of saying that he either literally rests his head on her chest like the she does the myrrh at night, or that when he caresses and kisses her breasts, she gets all warm and flushed like at night when the myrrh is heated by her body heat. could be both! ohhh yeahhh.

    Comment by Josh Gould | November 14, 2012 | Reply

    • Would you happen to know what primary source describes this practice? Thanks.

      Comment by WoundedEgo | November 14, 2012 | Reply

      • I originally heard about this during a sermon years ago. I forget where the pastor learned it but I could easily listen to it again since I have the MP3. There are a few herb websites that claim the laying of myrrh on the chest as a popular custom. One refers to the story of Ester and how she used it for 6 months before being presented for her king.

        Comment by Josh Gould | November 14, 2012

  8. Is it even reasonable to expect that poetry in one language can be faithfully represented in another? No matter how creative the translation, English readers should face up to the fact that they’re missing out. “ללמד תרגום זה כמו לנשק את הכלה דרך צעיף.”

    Comment by Aaron | November 14, 2012 | Reply

    • Even though no translation is perfect, I don’t think that that means we should give up on good translations.

      I also think that most people, even people who know Hebrew (or Greek, etc.), will get a better sense of the original from a good translation than from trying to read the original themselves, because a good translation can give them the benefit of expertise that they almost certainly don’t have.

      (BTW, the Hebrew in Aaron’s comment is modern, and it means, “teaching translation is like kissing one’s bride through a veil.”)

      Comment by Joel H. | November 19, 2012 | Reply

  9. What is she saying? Is the sense one of these?

    * when he buries himself into my bosom, he smells yummy?
    * he spends the whole night buried in my bosom, like an all-night application of myrrh?

    Fragance? Or longevity?

    Or both?

    Comment by WoundedEgo | November 14, 2012 | Reply

  10. As a Czech (i.e., member of a minority nation with a lot of translated literature) and a man with kind of good English (graduate from US Law School, living 5+ years in Boston), let me add couple of notes:

    * @Aaron yes it is possible to translate poetry; there are tons and tons of poems translated to Czech, some of the rather excellent and part of the best of the Czech poetry in itself; even though I really don’t have problems to understand written English text, a good Czech translation of poetry or songs (or Bible as whole, for that matter) is always much stronger and has more impact on me than reading the same thing in English.
    * On the other hand, translating poetry is hard. Really difficult. I mean, so difficult, that unless you are an excellent poet in the target language (I mean, with published and appreciated poems) you have no chance in my opinion to translate poetry well.
    * Poetic quality is not in the mere language being contemporary. There is really more to it. So, for example, talking about the Song of Salamon, although otherwise I use normal current Czech translations of Bible (and we have excellent ones), I prefer for the poetic text old Czech Kralická Bible. Although the Kralická Bible translation is quite definitively an archaic one (the last revision from 1613) it is much more poetic and beautiful.

    And strictly speaking, exactly with the poetry I don’t feel archaic language be such a hindrance. Yes, it takes a bit of work to understand what so awesome about her beloved being red (So 5:10), and I wouldn’t mind a better word there, but with every poem I have to do a bit of work and at least here I know I will get (if I get it) the original poem, and not something completely different created by the contemporary Czech (and most likely worse as a poet) author.

    Comment by Matěj Cepl | November 15, 2012 | Reply

    • One might be able to translate a poem and end up with another poem in the target language, but I would argue that unless those two languages are very similar and share the very same poetic devices and imagery, then you have not translated the poetry; you have written a new poem.

      Comment by Aaron | November 15, 2012 | Reply

      • Exactly that’s one of the reasons why it is so hellishly difficult to translate poems 😉 Writing another poem is too easy copout from the situation.

        Comment by Matěj Cepl | November 15, 2012

  11. With regard to the third (and in my mind most difficult) problem, it might be useful to actually look at the image for inspiration. For example, En Gedi is a mountain oasis. From a distance, there are barren and sandy hills suddenly interrupted by a shock of green (see http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_nbNVAcrsK3A/SjPs1qCxlbI/AAAAAAAAAVA/a0k7UmMW4HQ/s400/engedi.jpg or http://cache.virtualtourist.com/6/4998181-Oasis_Town_of_Ein_Gedi_En_Gedi.jpg).
    In other words, the poet is euphemistically referring to a woman’s genitalia.
    It’s even more apparent in 4:12-16: “My bride, by companion is a locked garden, a sealed-off spring… my lover will come to his garden, to eat its luscious fruits.”

    Another example is 4:11: “Your lips will drip nectar, my bride; milk and honey beneath your tongue. Your clothes smell like snowy peaks.” Normally, “Levanon” is translated as “Lebanon.” But in a verse describing a woman’s lips dripping nectar and milk under her tongue, it’s pretty clear that the whiteness implied by Levanon (lavan = white) is a key element of the image.

    In other words, the translator needs to make these verses absolutely drip with sexual innuendo.

    Comment by Elli F | November 15, 2012 | Reply

    • gigitty!

      Comment by Josh Gould | November 15, 2012 | Reply

    • Excellent contribution, Elli. Thank you for posting.

      Comment by WoundedEgo | November 15, 2012 | Reply

  12. To what extent does questioning the artistic integrity of a line of poetry count in the same category as mistranslation? It seems that poetry is always historically couched, and that’s part of the beauty of it (that it lives in history of its surrounding culture and language, so in understanding the poem you’re prompted to understand its context as well). So I wonder if translating for artistic intent so aggressively is more like a reinterpretation than retranslation – akin to remaking the Leo Dicaprio version of Romeo and Juliet

    Comment by adamsfallen | December 12, 2012 | Reply

    • Thanks for weighing in.

      I think you’ve put your finger on the issue when you mention the balance between translation and reinterpretation, between the original setting and our modern one.

      I’m not questioning the artistic integrity of the poetry, but rather asking how best to convey that artistry in translation. I think that a good translation conveys the impact of the original.

      Comment by Joel H. | December 13, 2012 | Reply

  13. Can I just confirm, speaking as a published poet, that getting the sense right in any language is difficult!

    Retranslating needs to take into account the entire milieu of the writer – but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. You do, however, have to slip into the mindset of the original author, and not just pull in elements that appeal to you, or that you’re familiar with. We need to do the original author justice.

    Personally, I think the attempts here in this thread are all pretty darn good, but it’s easy to see particular worldviews affecting the results. It does need to be more neutral than clever, in the end. FWIW, I liked the transliteration in the original post.

    One last point. If a biblical translation is to be truthful, you can’t just hand over a bunch of mss. to a committee of linguistic specialists. There needs to be a poet with expertise in each era to present the most honest translations of poems and songs. Of course it’s not that easy…that’s why it needs to be done that way. Otherwise we just get the sinewed husk of what was once a robust and healthy text.

    What I read in nearly every English translation of the bible, regardless of the publisher’s context, is nothing more than putting the original Greek through the Google translator! Oh, they can be more or less refined and even grammatically legitimate, but they’re all pushing the envelope, one way or the other. They all go too far, or not far enough, and usually both.

    Still, I live in hope of a true work of art one day.

    Comment by Cephas Q. Atheos | December 13, 2012 | Reply

    • Your comments, while appreciated, also sound a bit off in the right brain. Can you suggest some practical way to get in their brain as a true poet might?

      Comment by WoundedEgo | December 13, 2012 | Reply

    • Thanks for your comments, Cephas.

      What I read in nearly every English translation of the bible […] They all go too far, or not far enough, and usually both.

      I like the imagery, and I agree.

      I also agree that even though translating poetry is difficult it’s not impossible. And when it’s done well, a good translation has the power to expand the reach of great writing to new audiences.

      Comment by Joel H. | December 14, 2012 | Reply

  14. From where I sit, the song should be entitled “Hot for Teacher” or “Hot for King” or something because it is obviously written by a subject of Solomon that finds him as sexy as her slave labor day is long. She can’t sit in the audience with “getting wet” and exuding “perfume”. She wants nothing but his kisses, touches and dirty talk. It is an extremely feminist piece in that it is all about sex and all from the woman’s point of view. It is not only full of sexual liberation but also social liberation because the king has slipped across the meadow alone to woo this black slave through her lattices. This is forbidden love. Maybe we are to learn that having all the queens and bimbos you can possibly engorge yourself with is not as gratifying as the one your parents would not approve of. Dunno. I do know that they hook up with abandon, over and over, in secret and she for one is glad about the whole thing. And marriage ensues, and they all live happily ever after. Quite a flick if you have a good director.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | December 13, 2012 | Reply

  15. […] class last year, Joel Hoffman ((author and editor of God Didn’t Say That)) authored a post titled Recovering the Erotic Poetry of Song of Solomon in which Dr. Hoffman challenges translators to translate verses 1:14-15 in such a way as to […]

    Pingback by Erotic Imagery in Song of Songs - Thus Said the LORDThus Said the LORD | April 9, 2015 | Reply


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s