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?
“Judge not…” Most people are familiar with this famous verse from Matthew 7:1 (and the similar Luke 6:37), and know that the full line runs along the lines of “Judge not, that you be not judged” (ESV).
The content of the line is pretty easy to understand, but the poetry is very hard to convey in English, as evidenced by the wide variety of translations: “Stop judging, that you may not be judged” (NAB), “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (NIV), “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” (NRSV), etc.
The Greek of Matthew 7:1
The Greek is a pithy five-word admonition: mi krinete ina mi krithite. The word mi means “not,” krinete means “judge,” ina means “so that,” and krithite means “be judged.” In addition to its brevity, the Greek offers a certain symmetry. The word ina sits nicely in the middle, with the two similar-sounding phrases mi krinete and mi krithite on either side. Except for the -ne- in the first part and the -thi- in the second, both sides are identical.
On Poetry and Symmetry
Similar in English is “you are what you eat,” where “what” fits nicely between the similar “you are” and “you eat.” (The original comes from German, where “are” and “eat” are both pronounced ist, so the similarity is even more pronounced: man ist vas man isst.)
Also similar in nature, if not in detail, is the English “no pain, no gain.” The phrase is successful because of the symmetry, and because “pain” and “gain” rhyme. This is why the phrase “without pain one is unlikely to achieve much” is unlikely to catch on as a training motto among athletes, even though it means the same thing as “no pain, no gain.”
Yet most translations of Matthew 7:1 are like “without pain one is unlikely to achieve much.” The translations miss the poetry.
Some people may dismiss the value of the poetry, but I disagree. I think that poetic phrasing is important. This is why so many of our proverbs either rhyme or otherwise “sound well” (as Mark Twain would say): “A stitch in time saves nine,” “no rhyme or reason,” “don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time,” and many, many more. And even if the poetry isn’t as important as I think, it’s still part of the original. It seems to me that a good translation should convey it.
Furthermore, also like my poor paraphrase of “no pain, no gain,” translations of Matthew 7:1 tend to sound stilted and awkward. “Judge not,” for example, is no longer standard English. (Compare, “comment not that you be not flamed.”)
And I don’t think that “judge” without an object is particularly successful in English. At least in my dialect, “I saw the modern art paintings, and I couldn’t help but judge” doesn’t work as well as “…couldn’t help but judge them.” I understand why translators want to force the English construction “do not judge.” They want to make the first part sound like the second part, “do not be judged.” But their decision comes at the expense of English grammar. In English (unlike in Greek), the most common phrasing is “do not judge something,” as in “do not judge others” or “do not judge people.”
Again, not everyone thinks that a translation into Modern English has to be in Modern English (at the risk of prejudicing the issue), but I do.
Translating Matthew 7:1
So where does that leave us?
We need a translation that means “do not judge (other) people, so that you will not be judged.” It should be symmetrical, with the first and second parts sounding similar. It should be pithy. And it should be grammatical in English.
In general, I’m unwilling to compromise on grammaticality in English, at least when the original is grammatical (in the original language), and I’m unwilling to compromise on meaning. When it comes to poetry, I think poetic texts should be translated poetically, but the details of the poetry can differ. So in this case, I think the symmetry is important, but I think — if something has to go — we can do without the pithiness.
So the best I can come up with is this: “Do not judge others, so that others do not judge you.”
What do you think? And can you come up with something even closer to the original?
[Between six appearances in four cities and then having to buy a new car, I haven’t been in front of a computer in nearly two weeks. So I’m playing catch-up, starting with a much-delayed installment of “translation traps.”]
Following up on some thoughts about myopic translations, here’s one way in particular that a translation can focus too closely on the words and not closely enough on the text.
This is a typical translation of a (Modern) Hebrew text into English:
Rain was falling, it was cold and wet. We sat at home, we looked out toward the street.
I sat with Tali. It was very cold. I said, “What a shame. We can’t do anything.”
[I’m] not allowed to go out and play ball. It’s just cold and wet and [I’m] not allowed. [I’m] not allowed.”
We kept sitting. Just, just, just, just [sitting]. It was the most boring [thing] in the world.
And then something moved. Bump. Wow, what a bump. We were so shocked.
We looked, and then he made his way in. We looked, and we saw, a mischievous cat.
For reference, here’s the original Hebrew, with word-for-word translations:
But the English translation above, even though at first glance it may seem pretty good, is wrong in almost every regard. Can you figure out what happened?
A recent post by Mike Aubrey (quoting and disagreeing with Paul Helm) again raises the issue of “dynamic equivalence,” and, more generally, the goal of translation.
In a comment, Jason Staples suggests:
Good post. I think the basic translation philosophy of attempting to most clearly convey the meaning of a text (which is effectively “dynamic equivalence”) is the whole task of translation. The more translation I’ve done, the more I’ve come to see “literal” as a bit of a problematic concept in itself, since equivalent words don’t always have equivalent meaning across languages and language tends to be figurative anyway.
I agree that conveying the original meaning is one goal (and I agree that word-for-word renderings usually don’t do this), but I don’t think it’s the only goal, because there’s more to a text than what it means.
The point of some texts is purely poetic and they don’t mean anything. (This isn’t to say that they are meaningless.) Some of the poetry of Psalms comes to mind.
A text can raise awareness, or make people think. A text can be funny. A text can be a source of inspiriation. And so forth.
I think a translation that captures the meaning but misses everything else gives people a very shallow understanding of the original text (though a translation that misrepresents the meaning is doing even worse).
Here’s a question: beyond any potential role in conveying the meaning of the original, is there any point to trying to translate each word?
It turns out it’s hard to write poetry, at least good poetry. But even so, many efforts seem to focus more on the words than on the poem.
Job 38:36 is an interesting example, because no one knows for sure what the words there mean, particularly tuchot and sechvi. Still, the poetic nature of the line is clear.
Yet we end up with translations like, “Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind?” (NRSV) and “Who gives the ibis wisdom [about the flooding of the Nile], or gives the rooster understanding [of when to crow]?” (TNIV). And the NAB offers the particularly unfortunate, “Who puts wisdom in the heart, and gives the cock its understanding?” It doesn’t sound poetic to my ear.
With so many possibilities for what the Hebrew words mean — the LXX expands the options by translating, “And who has given women skill in weaving, or knowledge of embroidery?” — surely no one can feel locked into any one word or phrase. Yet still we don’t have poetry.
And does anyone have a suggestion for a poetic rendition?