Translation, Transcription and Transition in the Song of Songs

As one of the most frequently transcribed biblical texts in the days of monastic copyists and the stimulus and impetus for swathes of poetry, including works by Shakespeare, Spenser and Milton, the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon) has always posed as an intriguing volume for scholars and laymen alike. Past interpretations of this particular book have been diverse, moving from a discussion of the text as a metaphor for the relationship between Christ and Ecclesia (the church), often taking a harshly clinical tone and glossing over the more vivid emotional passages, to the openly erotic, in which the text is seen only as an ancient love song, forming a rich dramatic dialogue between three voices. Viewed through the former, one is left somewhat suspicious of quite what has been omitted in an endeavour to make the text fit the metaphor and dubious of some of the arguments held therein; yet when viewed through the latter interpretation the reader cannot help but face the decidedly questionable place held by the Song within the series of books that make up our holy text.

__Into which of these two extremes then does the Song of Songs fit? Indeed, do we merely accept it as a biblical text due to its opening verse: ‘The song of songs, which is Solomons’, which attributes the book to Israel’s great and renowned wise king? It is certainly not our place to question the relevance of a text granted a position within the scriptures by numerous eminent scholars, however, with many changing impressions of this song, it is left to the individual to find an appropriate guided means in which to view the text. Perhaps in truth it is folly to demand that, as with all poetry, any singular view of this text may stand alone, and yet, in combining the two standard viewpoints we find ourselves frequently caught between clashing ideas, our attentions distressed by challenging questions. Does this text, like Samson’s cruelty, Saul’s jealousies, Jacob’s deception, and the repeatedly fallible nature of David, show us only the very human elements of a history of religion, or do they delve much deeper and demonstrate through a more poetic approach the relationships between man and God? Furthermore, can one, maintaining due reverence and propriety, allow for an organic transition back and forth between the complexities of sexuality and spirituality as is to be found in the pursuits of poets throughout the English Renaissance, or should our viewpoints be guided by a more Victorian sensibility towards the sensuous?

__These are not questions that we can easily answer and I do not propose to do so within this brief discussion, my intention rather being to suggest a few thoughts to hold in mind when approaching this section of the bible, and to provide some of the reasoning behind my own accompanying text.

*

Our engagement with the Song of Songs is aided majorly by our approach to the New Testament. The God that we view in the Old and New Testaments can often feel like two very different factions: a violent and wrath-filled God or a loving father figure. The uniting of these two images can be difficult to comprehend and yet it is the same God that is found within each depiction. The teachings of Jesus, with which the image of God as father come, do not negate any of the texts that make up the older scriptures, they merely explain them from a new perspective, from a different social context. This is important to remember as we approach all scripture, particularly in this current era when we, as a church, are once more divided over a number of issues, such as views towards women priests and bishops and homosexuality, and are faced with major changes in the make-up of the establishment. What this means in relation to the Song of Songs is that perhaps we should not make it our endeavour to understand the original intentions of the poem, nor what it meant for the monks copying it time and time again for the first half of the last millennium, nor even for the scholars of the twentieth century, but rather for what it means right now. As such, my focus within the creation of this study has been to provide a translation that might allow the reader to contemplate each verse for its individual merit as well as within a wider context. The image of God, or of Christ, or of Ecclesia that we find, if indeed any are found, and the love displayed, is then discovered through the eyes of the individual reader and is one that must be sought through an inner questioning.

__One article that I realise may cause upset in my companion text is that in one breath it switches between forms of love. The text moves from the love between young lovers to elderly couples, to the married, to the unmarried, to homosexuals, to parents and children, to siblings, to friends, to nurses and patients, to man and nature, to companions. However, from my own perspective at least, there is only one emotion displayed here and that is love. Whether we should house this (as is British tradition) under the category of shame or of not-shame I do not know, only that there is no distinction between the various types as far as language is concerned. One may use such terminologies as amorous-affection, motherhood or gay-love, but these are irrelevant, for the essence of the emotion is not changed. There is only love, and it is with this and through this that we come to more fully understand the great power of God’s love, which eclipses even the strongest of our own emotions. That is what is important.

__Proposing this piece as a ‘Translation’ may also cause some concern for readers, however, if we return to an older sense of the word this description seems less nonsensical: for example, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream after the transfiguration of Bottom, his friends cry “O Bottom, thou art changed! […] bless thee! thou art translated.” Perhaps then a translation does not have to be a direct equivalent, but rather a movement to something new.

__As Ruth Padel reliably informs us, the Latin root of the word translation (translatio) means ‘carrying across’. Interestingly, this is a precise equivalent of the Greek word metaphora, from which we draw our word metaphor (meta: to carry, pherein: across). Thus we are confronted by what is frequently considered the most challenging aspect of poetry: metaphor – talking about one thing under the guise of another. As Alexandra Büchler writes in relation to translation: “Translation reinvents the poetry of the original, […] any translation is the outcome of a dialogue between two cultures, languages and poetic traditions, collective as well as individual imaginations, conducted by two voices, that of the poet and of the translator, and joined by a third participant in the process of reading.” This same description can be granted then to metaphor, and to the manners of creation engaged by all poets as part of the composition process. All metaphor is translation and all translation metaphor, yet still, no matter how many layers of each are created, one upon another, the third voice (that of the reader) remains a constant.

__Metaphor is said to be a means for opening the mind to new spaces, creating relationships between the alien and the known, and that is my primary endeavour with this text: to find a human angle for the reader to engage with that may not only allow a relationship with the foreignness of the Song as it is printed in our bibles and the Song as it may have sounded in its numerous other languages and incarnations, but also to acknowledge the very Otherness of God.

__It is only possible to understand the Other through what is known to us, its complexities and similarities alike, and the inclusion of the Song of Songs within scripture acknowledges this. Here we find that there is nothing wrong with lacking understanding.  Whether or not this was intended in its original form as a description of God’s love is irrelevant. It is the passion and the calm and the violence and the desolation and the beauty of this poem that is important [and it is these elements that I have endeavoured to address within my study]. If by engaging with these entirely human elements of emotion we are able to come closer to the Otherness that is the Word of God then, in my opinion, these mere eight chapters hold at least as much importance as any other biblical book, and to a certain degree can provide us with more. Perhaps herein lies the reason behind the frequency of this book’s transcription.

Bibliography

 

Büchler, Alexandra, ‘Preface’ in Isakovski, Igor (ed.), Six Macedonian Poets, (Todmorden: Arc Publications, 2011)

Flinker, Noam, The Song of Songs in English Renaissance Literature, (D.S. Brewer, 2000)

Hirshfield, Jane, Hiddenness, Uncertainty, Surprise: three generative energies of poetry,(Northumberland: Bloodaxe, 2008)

Padel, Ruth, Silent Letters of the Alphabet, (Northumberland: Bloodaxe, 2010)

Radcliffe, Timothy, Seven Last Words, (London: Burns & Oates, 2012)

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