Hebraic Draughts

Rough drafts of thoughts, following reading, studying and teaching Hebrew and Jewish texts.

Reading Song of Songs in Translation

I was reading Song of Songs with my students this morning. They were surprisingly mature about it, and I was even more surprised to see I was more embarrassed than I expected myself to be. Ultimately, it is impossible to discuss sex without disclosing, if only partially and implicitly, one’s own experiences. Naturally, I don’t care to share these intimate experiences with anyone other than my partner, let alone my students. Somehow, we all managed to brave through, and pretend we were only analyzing the text.

We reached v. 5:4. JPS translation reads: “My beloved took his hand off the latch, and my heart stirred for him”. I am sure there could be better ways of translating ומעי המו עליו than “my heart stirred for him,” but that is not half as bad as translating “latch” for חר. Curiously, this word is translated as “hole” in 2 Ki 12:10 and Ezek 8:7 (cf. also in Isa 11:8), “lairs” in Nah 2:13 and “sockets” in Zech 14:12.

JPS does confess that the meaning of the Hebrew in Songs 5:4 is “uncertain,” betraying an uneasiness about the translation offered, but this hardly compensates for this poor choice. If the translator truly believed a door was in question in that verse, why not translate “hole” as in 2 Ki 12:10 and Ezek 8:7, or at least “socket”. Not only does the translation mask the ambiguities – not to mention the double entendre – of the text, it in fact leads its readers astray. Whatever חרmeans in Songs 5:4, it is receptive, something that can be opened or entered. Not so the latch, which adds to something, and cannot contain anything within it. This would be obvious to any Hebrew reader tackling the text, and is completely hidden from anyone relying on JPS for the study of the Hebrew Bible. Mistaking the חר for a part of a door is forgivable, but avoiding the “hole” which is used in a quite straightforward manner in other occurrences (and even as a parallel of “lair” in Isa 11:18), discloses that the translator was well-aware of what actually was alluded to, and was uncomfortable with it. The final choice is one that is disloyal and untruthful to the task of the translator, as well as to the wide public using the translation.

Such choices have infamously rendered the JPS translation less than adequate, which is truly a heartbreaking pity, because giants such as Orlinsky should have been capable of a more respectful and accurate translation, deserving of their name, knowledge and expertise.

Extra Reading: See Joel Hoffman’s And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning (New York: St. Martin’s, 2010). It is written as a popular book, and might feel a little too popular for the biblical scholar, it is still raises important methodological points regarding translation, and is rife with excellent observations and helpful examples for the classroom. All in all, a very enjoyable book.

Links: Book website; Joel Hoffmann’s homepage.

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