Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Thoughts on translation, Part 9.15: Don't get explicit unless you mean it; then speak out

Topic fourteen:  Throughout Song of Songs, you will need to guard against words that have come to mean something different from what the poet intended: my lover will come; he will go down; among the queens.  At the same time, you have to present truthfully some very explicit physical language.   

A once-neutral term like virgins used to just mean young women, not a statement about their sexual track record.  "My sister, my bride" was a metaphor for closeness, not an invitation to incest.  

Also, some words are no longer suitable for polite speech; Bowels used to mean simply your insides, so when a lover in Song of Solomon says “my bowels were moved” in the King James Version, we would say “my stomach turned over” or "my heart trembled."  Or you can turn to other renderings from 50 different translations since then.  
But one later translation goes too far the other direction, with a mealy-mouthed "mine heart was affectioned toward him." 

Translators must walk a fine line.  While avoiding unintentionally X-rated words, they must still convey the original meaning of those verses that are explicitly sexual--there are a lot of them--and that give Song of Songs its power.  For centuries, theologians denied this eroticism and insisted that the poetry was simply a metaphor for God's love for the Israelites, or for the church.  But there is no good reason now to continue treating this richly erotic book of the Bible with squeamish euphemisms.       

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