Monday, April 17, 2006

Artscroll and Allegories

Now, I usually do my best to defend Artscroll. Unlike a fair number of my friends, I do not think that they are run by scheming, nefarious trolls, bent on achieving world domination through mass brain-washing. I'm sure that they are a group of sincere, well-meaning, intelligent, and devout people whom I would like if I ever met.

BUT I simply cannot countenance what they have done to Shir Hashirim. Instead of sticking to their usual nearly literal translations, they decide to provide the reader with a "translation faithful to the allegory that is the Song's authentic meaning". In other words, they render the entire thing allegorically, completely neglecting the petty task of mere translation that you might have thought you would get from a translation.

It is no mystery why they chose to do so. I can perfectly well understand Artscroll's discomfort at producing a translation so full of sexual imagery, that might intrude upon the innocence of their young and sheltered readers, that sounds so little like a sacred work. This discomfort may be similar to that felt by the Sages in the Gemara who argued that Shir Hashirim ought not to become part of the Tanach, fearing, according to Artscroll sources (I don't have them in front of me to quote, I'm afraid) that it might be misunderstood by future generations. But guess what? They were over-ruled. As in "lost". As in "we don't hold like them."

But I guess Artscroll knew better than the Tannaim. I guess they knew better than Rashi, on whose commentary they theoretically based their translation, who wrote that "In the end, the verse does not leave its simple explanation. And even though the prophets spoke allegorically, one must explain the allegory on its base and in order..." and then procedes to provide both an allegorical and a simple translation of the text. I guess they knew better than Shlomo, since Artscroll attests that he knew that the allegory was the only possible way to deliver the passionate love for God that the story demands. Well, that's what he thought, at least. Little did he know that the need would be better served by giving a stilted translation that ignored any hint of an actual love poem.

I'm not saying this because I think that Shir Hashirim actually is just a secular love poem. Far from it. I think that it is one of the most beautiful expressions of love for G-d ever written, and that it can and should stir someone to euphoric love for her Creator. I just don't think that a clumsy line for line metaphor substitution is the way to do that. I prefer to let it wash over me like poetry, not stopping to decode the images line by line, but letting myself be drawn into them. But forget that. Whatever else it may be, however inspiring it may or may not be, it is not a translation. The point of a translation is to preserve the original, with as many nuances and as much clarity as possible, for those who do not speak the language of the original. Shlomo chose to write an allegory. Your job as a translator is to translate that allegory. Shlomo could have written a sanitized, Artscrollized, diagrammed, lifeless, historical sermon. He chose not to. And neither should you.

2 comments:

e-kvetcher said...

It's funny, because my wife told me that she looked at me across the mechitzah as Shir haShirim was being read and she could tell by my facial expression that I was about to blow a gasket.

You picked one of the topics that really sets me off. How can you not include the original? At least put it in the appendix or something!

Shana said...

Dear Tobie,
This is my vendetta against artscroll. They destoryed my favorite book fo the tanach.

part of what makes the book so holy, at least for me, is the fact that it speaks about love in such a universalistic way, the love between man and woman. it is something that everyone can appreciate.

Only when one comes to imagie that the metaphor comes from the fact that we are made in god's image, though, does the beauty of the greater signifigance of the metaphor between God and Israel come out. At our peak, Jews together are like one boyd, and that same feeling we feel on the individual level can be felt en mass. However, since the framework of that dfeeling is rare, it becomes natural to explain it in terms we all understand, that is our ownn everday passionate love. The compartive expereince of love for a nation must be even more extreme