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?

November 14, 2012 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , , , | 27 Comments

Q&A: On Sisters and Wives

From the About page comes this follow-up question from a presentation I recently gave:

Thanks for your presentation for the ARC — You mentioned the use of achoti in Song of Songs meaning more than “my sister,” but better translated as “my equal.” How do you understand Abraham’s turning to Sarah and telling her to tell the Egyptians that she is “…his sister, so that things will go well for him”?

The issue is the Hebrew word achot, literally “sister,” which forms half of the famous line from Song of Songs, “my sister, my bride” or “my sister, my spouse.” (I bring this up briefly in an on-line video.)

In And God Said I devote the better part of a chapter to achot, starting with the (obvious) point that “my sister, my spouse” isn’t incest. My conclusion is that kinship terms such as achot were used not just for family relationships but also for power structure. For instance, av (“father”) indicated “more powerful.”

The key point is that achot in Song of Songs specifically indicates “a woman who is equal” to the man.

In English, of course, “sister” doesn’t convey this important concept. But “equal” does. In many dialects, so does “partner.” (But for some, “partner” in this context means primarily “same-sex partner.”)

But this extended use of kinship terms doesn’t mean that the words weren’t also used for family relationships. So achot can also be a literal sister.

And this is what we find starting in Genesis 12:13. Abraham has Sarai pretend to be his (flesh-and-blood) sister. His reasoning, we read, is that Pharaoh will want her because she’s so beautiful, so Pharaoh will befriend her brother but dislike or even kill her husband.

The plot — played out again starting in Genesis 20:2 — is interesting and, to modern readers, sometimes disturbing. But the text is pretty clear. In both cases, Abraham’s wife pretends to be his sister.

October 29, 2010 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Gazelles, Stags, and Other Romantic Images

This final line of Song of Solomon, reprising a phrase that appears twice earlier, references two animals which the female heroine tells her male hero to be like as he leaves.

The most common translation of these animals is “gazelle” and “young stag,” as in the NRSV “Make haste, my beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young stag upon the mountains of spices!” (A “stag” is an adult male deer.)

Stag

Stag

In English, calling a man a “gazelle” sounds very different than calling him a “stag.” The word “gazelle” generally represents speed and grace, while “stag” is generally more overtly sexual, as reinforced by the phrase “stag party” (bachelor party). Does the common translation, which combines these images, capture the point of the Hebrew? Or did the Hebrew words refer to other qualities?

The NLT prefers “young deer” over “young stag,” perhaps thinking that both animals in Hebrew were meant to convey speed and grace.

The Message goes in a slightly different direction with, “Run to me, dear lover.//Come like a gazelle.//Leap like a wild stag//on the spice mountains,” adding the words “leap” and “wild” (though I think all stags are wild, because deer can’t be tamed), and then joining them in a way that I find incongruous.

Marcia Falk (in her The Song of Songs) — perhaps recognizing that the imagery of “stag” in English is inconsistent with the point of the Hebrew — renders the line, “Go—//go now, my love,//be quick//as a gazelle//on the fragrant hills.”

My own guess is that both animals were meant to allude to physical motion, so “stag” doesn’t work in English.

I also think that this demonstrates an important facet of translation: words convey more than their literal meanings, and sometimes — as in the poetry here — the associations of a translation are more important than its literal accuracy.

March 31, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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.
Continue reading

March 25, 2010 Posted by | translation challenge, translation practice | , , , , | 16 Comments

My Sister, My Bride

Dr. Joel M. Hoffman on Bible Translation:

With some reluctance — and with renewed appreciation for people who spend their professional lives in front of a camera — I’m posting this short video excerpt in which I discuss what can go wrong in Bible translation.

March 24, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory, video | , , , , | 6 Comments