Sunday, April 15, 2007

Artscroll's Shir HaShirim Translation

Yeah, I know that it's over a week late... :)

It's been well over twenty years since Artscroll made their editorial decision to replace a literal translation of Shir HaShirim with an allegorical one following the interpretation of Rashi, so anything I have to say on the subject certainly won't be new. Nonetheless, I do have a thought or two that I'd like to share on the subject.

Personally, I think the decision to replace the literal translation with an allegorical one is wrong. I certainly don't object to including an allegorical translation - I believe that Shir HaShirim certainly *is* an allegory and has a much deeper meaning than simply love poetry - but it should not replace the actual, literal translation.

An allegory has value on more than one level; it not only serves as a veil on the subject matter being alluded to, but also has value when read strictly at face value. A good example of this (from the secular point of view) is George Orwell's tale Animal Farm. Animal Farm can be read as a simple fairy tale. On the other hand, it also serves as a vehicle and (very) thinly disguised criticism of a socio-political system. The value of the story isn't only in the way it allegorizes (and criticizes) communism; it also lies in the choice of setting and characters in the story. Orwell's choice of pigs to represent the leaders of the Communist revolution is of value in and of itself. The same could be said for Herman Melville's choice of a great white whale for Moby Dick and Art Speigel's Maus. Or, to put it in more yeshivish terms, the value of the mashal isn't only in the nimshal, but in the choice of mashal as well.

Now, it can be said that in some cases, the choice of characters and settings in an allegory is purely arbitrary and serve only to illustrate. But I find it hard to believe that someone as wise as Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon, to whom Shir HaShirim is ascribed) didn't choose the allegory with precise care and purpose. I think that the fact that Shlomo chose to write his allegory in the form of love poetry has value in and of itself. The exact text, as written, has value, and does not merely serve as a vehicle to explain deeper concepts. As such, leaving out the literal translation, IMHO, is simply wrong.

The Wolf


Anonymous said...

artscroll is part of this establishment that decides what is and what isn't appropriate for us to read regardless of what the literal interpertation is .if you look for example in "yehoshua" by the story of the spies and the prostitute in the literal interpation of the word "zonah" artscroll has "innkeeper" as opposed to prostitute-

Nice Jewish Guy said...

Anyone who thinks Artscroll is the be-all and end-all of scholarly work relating to the Biblical texts is sadly unenlightened. Artscroll exists in a vacuum. Read contemporary "secular" scholarly literature and you'd be amazed.

Zach Kessin said...

I daven in a sephardi shul. We sing Shir Hashirim every friday night. I firmly expect any sons I may have to have it memorized by the time they are Bar Mitzvah

Yaacov David Shulman said...

Surprising myself, I find myself sympathetic to Artscroll's decision. This is because I remember how as a middle-schooler I eagerly scanned an English translation of Shir Hashirim for its erotic fascination.

It also avoids awkward questions by eight year olds at the Shabbos table. "Mommy, why is the man climbing up the woman's breasts?"