Sunday, August 13, 2017

Thoughts on translation, Part 1: Choosing words for "My Beloved Spoke"

Chapter II: 10 - 13

Song of Solomon: timeless love poetry in contemporary calligraphy.
Over the years, I have enjoyed lettering "My beloved spoke" from Song of Solomon, to give as a wedding gift.  It was my introduction to the depth of Song of Solomon.  Each one came out different, as I reread the poetry, thought about its meaning, and rethought its design.  

But gradually it dawned on me that the words themselves, from the King James translation of 1611, needed redesign too.  For instance, the verse actually started with "My beloved spake."  Readers seemed to stub their toe against that antiquated verb "spake," the 16th-century way to say "spoke."  I crossed my fingers that lightening would not strike me for changing holy words, then updated "spake" along with several other words.  For instance, the voice of the turtle has actually been acknowledged to be the voice of the turtle dove.  More words in Song of Solomon are up for debate, in fact, than in any other book.    

This gave me a new perspective on the whole book of Song of Solomon.  I had given up on trying more of the text from the King James version, because almost every passage seemed to hold an awkward word or phrase that I was sure would make it hard for the reader.  My calligraphy style is strongly modern, not historical, making some of the language  seem even more antiquated; but on the other hand, some of the newer translations seemed to lack eloquence.  I needed both.  The design shown above is my current version, though I intend to find more ways, eventually, to make the meaning clearer through the calligraphy.    

* A note to people whose religion confines them to one particular translation: it's surprising how much of the meaning shines through in any English translation, starting with the Wycliffe Bible of 1382 CE, and continuing right up to last year.  The Song of Solomon is in fact harder to translate accurately than any other book of the Bible, because it has the most hapax legomenon.  We will learn about them later on, but you can begin to look for them.  Meanwhile, please enjoy these translations as art and literature while you remain faithful to your own text.  


  1. I struggle against bit, also, with texts, but I usually don't change the words.

  2. Replies
    1. I agree. That does read mostly snag-free. And one should never change text when dealing with works that were written in English. Translations have a different set of problems--there is not one "authorized version." For some designs I am looking for a different effect--a more historical tone of voice or a more illuminating translation of a difficult word in the text. I'll be writing more about this soon.