Song of Songs: [8:5-7] "The Seal of Love" (From Hebrew)

A reader once said to me "You seem to have a constant interest in Biblical Hebrew. Have you ever translated any Biblical poetry?" And I never had before- although I love Biblical poetry dearly. So why hadn't I? Probably because it never seemed like something I needed to do: after all, the Bible is the most translated book in the world. Would it really do any good for me to go where no one hasn't gone before?
Yet most of these translations are more motivated by theological considerations than literary ones, and (with a very few exceptions) most attempts to treat Biblical poetry as as literature are little more than versifications which use one of the theological translations as a crib.

And few have attempted to give a representation of Biblical rhythms and soundplay. So here you have my attempt at a translation of a portion of the Song of Songs, which, alongside some translations of Psalms and a version of the Song of the Sea constitute my foray into translating Biblical poetry. For a less-than-reverent discussion of the text's history, see my note after the original Hebrew.

The Seal of Love
Song of Songs [8:5-7]
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original in reconstructed Late Classical Hebrew pronunciation

(He speaks:)
Who is that coming up from the wildlands,
Her head on her lover's shoulder?

(She speaks:)
Beneath the apple tree I aroused you.
Beneath that tree I received you
There where your mother conceived you
Where your mother gave birth to you.
Bind me now as a seal on your heart,
As an amulet upon your arm.
For love is fierce as predator death,
But jealousy cruel as the nethermost grave.
Even its shards are the sparks of fire,
Of an almighty flame.
No ocean can put love out,
No river can sweep it away.
Any man who tried
Bartering his life savings for love,
Would be paid in full with shame.


The Original:

מִי זֹאת, עֹלָה מִן-הַמִּדְבָּר,
מִתְרַפֶּקֶת, עַל-דּוֹדָהּ;

תַּחַת הַתַּפּוּחַ, עוֹרַרְתִּיךָ-
-שָׁמָּה חִבְּלַתְךָ אִמֶּךָ,
שָׁמָּה חִבְּלָה יְלָדַתְךָ.
שִׂימֵנִי כַחוֹתָם עַל-לִבֶּךָ,
כַּחוֹתָם עַל-זְרוֹעֶךָ-
כִּי-עַזָּה כַמָּוֶת אַהֲבָה,
קָשָׁה כִשְׁאוֹל קִנְאָה:
רְשָׁפֶיהָ-רִשְׁפֵּי אֵשׁ
שַׁלְהֶבֶתְיָה.
מַיִם רַבִּים, לֹא יוּכְלוּ
לְכַבּוֹת אֶת-הָאַהֲבָה
, וּנְהָרוֹת, לֹא יִשְׁטְפוּהָ;
אִם-יִתֵּן אִישׁ
אֶת-כָּל-הוֹן בֵּיתוֹ, בָּאַהֲבָה
בּוֹז, יָבוּזוּ לוֹ

Note:

The poem now known as the Song of Songs gives a narrative of a young couple engaged in a long lovely tryst. The narrative takes the form of a series of interrelated scenes which often function quite well as poems on their own, and which I believe are easier for modern audiences to appreciate in that form (which is why I've happily given a mere piece of it above.) It is also known as the "Song of Solomon" because some copyist ascribed the poem to the mythical figure of Solomon centuries after its main redaction. I like to imagine that he (she?) did so in the well-founded hope that such illustrious provenance would help prevent the poem from being ejected from the canon by the later prudes.

The canon to which I refer in the previous paragraph is not a religious one, however. We often think of "Scripture" today as a single collection of text, fixed in its contents, and fixed in its usage. And this is certainly truer of many later collections of scripture such as the Qur'ān. But in antiquity these books existed in many varying editions, as collections of scrolls in sundry caves. Moreover, the canon of works that have survived from ancient Israel (known rather misleadingly in English as the "Hebrew Bible") were not all primarily religious in purpose or selection. Some of the books are even in direct contradiction to what eventually became normative Judaism.

Take the book of Job, for example. Not only does it have a creation-story that contradicts that of Genesis, but it contradicts the basic notion that good is rewarded and evil is punished. Then there's Ecclesiastes, which challenges the notion that Humankind is the pinnacle of God's creation. Oh and the book of Esther (like the Song of Songs), doesn't even mention God at all by any name (the one ostensible instance of God's name in the Song of Songs is in the section of it translated here, and seems to have been more a figure of speech in late Hebrew than anything else.)

There's relatively little incontrovertible evidence for how the Hebrew Bible was collected over the course of over a millennium, but it seems that for some (but not all) of that time texts could be included not for religious reasons necessarily but also because they were treasured and widely read among the Jewish people. In other words, the Hebrew Bible makes much more sense as a literary and cultural canon than a religious one, a situation which two thousand years of exegesis have done a remarkable job of obfuscating.

That obfuscation began early in pre-christian times after the Iron Age "Yahweh-only" movement in Canaan had developed into what we now call Judaism (though the Song of Songs itself was not even written by then.) Eventually the tendency reached such a level that, by the first century, figures such as Rabbi Aqiba took delight in threatening hellfire against people who sang the Song of Songs as if it were a love poem rather than a sacred text.

Early Christians also tried to massively retool the interpretative apparatus of the Hebrew Bible to make it Jesus-compatible. This process lead to some of Christianity's most severe philological embarrassments, (such as the insistence against all sanity that עלמה really does mean "virgin" instead of "young woman," and the attempt to explain away all discrepancies between the Masoretic Hebrew text and the Greek Septuagint as a sign that the Jews had corrupted the word of God.)

Meanwhile the Jewish tradition continued apace in a similar vein. The process of sanctification to which posterity owes the poem's preservation in the first place eventually transformed the text into something quite other. It reached such a level of exegetical loop-dee-loop in the Middle Ages that a commentator such as Rashi could insist, for example, that when the Song of Songs mentions the female beloved's luscious breasts, it's just an allegorical reference to Moses and Aaron (i.e. the two great "breasts" of Judaism. Yes, really.)

While religious traditions are, like all vibrant traditions including scholarly ones, at bottom a process of constant reinterpretation of the same material to suit ever-changing times and climes, I take particular exception to this instance of it. The Song of Songs is the only known surviving example of Israelite love-poetry, and the exegetical tradition (including, some hyper-Orthodox versions of Judaism today) has been consistent in its denial of this fact, engaging often in severely bad scholarship. For example, the phrase עוררתיך which in its context clearly means "I brought you to arousal" has had pious scholarship insist that it means no more than "I woke you up" (rather as if one were to try and insist that the modern English phrase "a bitch in heat" was concerned purely with air-temperature rather than sex-drive.)



Note on the recording:

Although the Song of Songs is usually attributed to Solomon by the devout, modern exegesis has rejected any such notion as a pious fiction. The syntax and morphology of the text (clearly influenced by Aramaic, and more akin to that of Mishnaic Hebrew than Biblical Hebrew) as well as the vocabulary (containing Persian, Greek, and Aramaic borrowings at every level of the lexicon- including words for things like "where" and "paradise") make it as likely as can be, without actually knowing, that the final redaction occurred some time well after the 6th century BCE, and presumably before the final canonization many hundreds of years later. Given the popular nature of the text (we know people were singing it in wine-taverns, much to the chagrin of the Rabbis who recorded that fact), its post-exilic language, and its late redaction, it is plausible to assume that the Song of Songs represents a stylized, gussied up snapshot of the Hebrew people were actually speaking a a few centuries after Babylonian exile- a kind of Proto-Mishnaic Hebrew, as it were (or Late Classical Hebrew, if you prefer.) Thus, my recording reflects a personal best guess (informed by a recently published analysis of the greek-transcribed Hebrew found in Origen's Secunda, the Aramaic that influenced Hebrew at the time, and the Tiberian Hebrew which is attested centuries later) at what this version of what Hebrew could have sounded like.

10 comments:

  1. Thank you for your translation, and for your commentary. As I lack the linguistic toolkit to translate more than badly, and even then from cribs, I admire the ability in others.

    What you say about the Song of Songs as love poetry interests me tremendously.

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  2. For another creation story than does not contradict Genesis do a search: The First Scandal.

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  3. You're welcome. The song of songs is indeed love poetry. I don't think anyone (except hyper Orthodox Jews and the most thoughtless sorts of Christians) buys the "its all allegory" nonsense anymore. But all but a few of the translations available in English (such the notable exception of Chana and Ariel Bloch's handsome versions) seem to be done with the allegorical interpretation in mind.

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  4. Oh yeah. That old shit. I once had a Sunday school teacher tell me that Eve's giving the apple to Adam was a metaphor for the evils of female lust and lusciousness. Rather like the medieval Jewish myth that Lilith was sent to hell because when she had sex with Adam she insisted on being on top.

    All the fun people go to hell, I swear.

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  5. Just ran into this site, and am thrilled by what you write.

    I know the Song of Songs as Nasheed al-Anasheed. In Arabic, it's drop-dead gorgeous, as I'm sure you know (we read a passage from it at my marriage ceremony a million years ago).
    I was so glad to read that there were poems you kept reworking as your understanding deepened and your feelings for and about them changed. Music to my ears as I continue to work on one more version of "Ila Taghat al-3alam" by the Tunisian poet, Aboul Kassem al-Shabbi.

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  6. مرحبا بمدوّني يا اخت.

    Yes, I've had the pleasure of reading the Song of Songs in Arabic. (I also know a couple of Sufis who absolutely love it, for obvious reasons.) In fact, when I was living in Israel, I saw one of my Palestinian Christian friends do a refreshing version of it in Palestinian colloquial as rap.

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  7. مرحبا بمدوّني يا اخت.

    Yes, I've had the pleasure of reading the Song of Songs in Arabic. (I also know a couple of Sufis who absolutely love it, for obvious reasons.) In fact, when I was living in Israel, I saw one of my Palestinian Christian friends do a refreshing version of it in Palestinian colloquial as rap.

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  8. by the way, if you listen to my recording in Late Classical Hebrew, you can hear lots of semitic sounds that are still found in Arabic (e.g. ح، ع، ق، ط، ص، ث ) which have been dropped from most widely-used modern pronunciations of the language.

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  9. This is a beautiful piece of poetry, beautifully rendered. I'll need to re-read it a few more times now that I've read your commentary and have a much better context within which to place it. Phenomenal, Sasha, really.

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  10. excellent. The translation "beneath the apple tree" is appropriately sensual enough to capture the true nature of the poem. I love it.
    Les F.

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