In my senior year at Oberlin I was asked to prepare a twenty-verse section from the Hebrew Bible as the final assignment for a translation seminar. By then I was already immersed in my thesis work on a medieval commentary on the Song of Songs, and the choice of a text felt obvious. I picked Song IV and the beginning of Song V in large part because it was relevant to my thesis, but I was also attracted to working with the male speaker, whose voice dominates the fourth chapter. The start of Song V also deals with an especially striking image; namely, the female speaker hearing her beloved at the door, but failing to find him in time.
The tension between these voices also provoked me: his luxurious reverie met with her very vivid, enamored desperation. The lovers’ discourse is a strange discourse, as anyone knows. It’s a subject of scholarly controversy if the Song’s lovers ever actually consummate their affection; I generally defer to the more prudish side of this debate, and would exacerbate the problem by claiming that the task of communication in itself seems largely to elude the couple. They’re constantly just-missing each other, misreading each other, failing in their correspondence. The female voice, especially, obscures the reality of her beloved’s proximity (as in Song 5:2), leaving the reader to wonder whether or not he’s ever really there with her. Her anxiety and abuse (Song 5:7, not included in this selection) seems linked to the beloved’s ambiguous presence.
The male speaker is, indeed, a difficult man to pin down. We learn the most about him in the present chapter, which largely features indulgent descriptions of his bride’s body. He favors simile, and takes pride in comparing his beloved to luxurious items—a precedent set early by the female speaker (Song 1:2). He enjoys geographic motifs and his poetry, though a bit intoxicated, succeeds in grounding the Song in a defined spatial setting. His vocabulary, likewise, is deeply agricultural; we get the sense immediately that this is someone whose mind is with his harvest (the Song is set in spring), and he himself famously makes a reference to “my garden” (5:1). His love of the beauty of fruit trees seems coterminous with his love for his bride; like Apollo and Daphne, he at times even succeeds in turning her arms into branches (4:13). As in Ruth, themes of eros are communicated by the male speaker chiefly through the idiom of a fertile earth. As we will see, he also doesn’t hesitate to draw from nature’s violence.
Taken a whole, the following verses are an exemplary representation of the Song’s vivid poetic energy. Song IV offers among the most lasting and astounding images in the Hebrew canon—descriptions rich enough to spend a life with. This translation exercise, along with its accompanying commentary, invited me (as a fanatic) the chance to slow down, to dwell in each image and parse its beauty with deliberate care. I hope to offer a similar experience to you as its reader.
4.1: Behold: you are beautiful, my friend. רַעְיָתִי is typically rendered in English along the lines of “my darling” (NIV) or “my love” (KJV, Douay-Rheims). The latter is too similar to “beloved,” which I reserved exclusively for the word דוֹדִי and its variations. “Darling” in my estimation strays too far from the literal meaning of רַעְיָתִי, which is used most often Biblical literature in reference to one’s companions or attendants, often of the same sex. “Friend” is thus uncompromisingly faithful to the Hebrew while also communicating, like the word “sister” later in this chapter, the strange and often understated nature of the lovers’ intimacy.
4.1: Your hair is as a herd of goats / gliding down Gilead. I’ve tried here to preserve the alliteration of שֶׁגָּלְשׁוּ מֵהַר גִּלְעָד (she-galshu mehar gilad) by dropping Gilead’s הַר (“mount”) qualifier.
4.2: Your teeth are as a herd of shorn ones. הַקְּצוּבוֹת, from the verb root קָצַב (“to cut”), is typically read as an allusion to sheep or ewes. By maintaining this roundabout poetic description I have attempted to preserve the motif of violence in this set of verses, as continued in the following verse’s reference to a “torn open” pomegranate.
4.3: (your words are lovely). וּמִדְבָּרֵךְ is an interesting case. From the noun דָּבָר (“word,” “thing”), מִדְבָּרֵךְ with its -מִ prefix can be faithfully rendered as “your speech” or more generously as “your mouth.” What I have gained with the brutal literalism of “words,” then, I have lost in sensuality. But it’s nice to say something about her words, which are in fact lovely.
- Note: This is one of the charming instances where the male beloved offers a poetic simile and then immediately interprets it with a direct statement of affection. I tried to highlight the auto-exegetical nature of וּמִדְבָּרֵךְ נָאוֶה by putting it in parentheses.
4.4: An armory. בָּנוּי לְתַלְפִּיּוֹת, rendered typically as some variation of “built to house arms” (JPS), is thought to be an allusion to the jewelry on the female lover’s neck; perhaps the necklaces referenced in verse 9. Glittering jewelry is poeticized as weaponry. In my literalism have here again sought to emphasize the proximity to violence in this chapter’s poetry.
4.5: Twin gazelles. ְּאוֹמֵי צְבִיָּה is sometimes read as a reference to the twin children of a female gazelle rather than two twin gazelles. I have sacrificed this meaning and the singular nature of צְבִיָּה in order to preserve what I understand as the most important formal aspect of this verse, namely the repeated ִים (“im”) and ֵי (“eh”) plural suffixes.
4.6: breath of the day: Note that his narrative takes place at high noon, whereas the female speaker’s non-encounter with him will be set at night. His description שֶׁיָּפוּחַ הַיּוֹם, “the breath of the day” or “the blowing of the day” parallels the female speaker’s description of wind in Song 2:17 exactly; this seems to be a time when he typically visits his spice hills. The description also anticipates its inversion in Song 5:2, where the male speaker will complain of a head “soaked with dew” and the “damp of the night.”
4.9: With one coil of your necklace. עֲנָק מִצַּוְּרֹנָיִךְ literally means something approximating the “neck of your necklace.” Given that necklaces worn by the women of the ancient Near East typically featured many dangling ornaments and stacked coils it is likely that מִצַּוְּרֹנָיִךְ refers to an aspect of her necklace. Compare with the image below.
4.10: How much better your love than wine…more fragrant. Mimicking the female speaker in Song 1:2–3.
4.11: the scent of your shawl. שַׂלְמָה usually refers to a woman’s enwrapping, outer-most garment. A shawl seemed to me the most likely item to be perfumed.
4.12: A locked garden. Note that she would appear beyond containment in 4:15, where the woman is called “a garden spring…a stream from Lebanon.” The movement from seclusion to natural freedom is a quick one.
4.13: Your limbs. שְׁלָחַיִךְ, literally “sprouts” or “branches,” is apparently a poetic or idiomatic way of referring to the woman’s limbs in correspondence with the agricultural similes used in this verse. I have sacrificed this literal meaning in deference to clarity.
4.16: Exquisite fruits. A strange twist at the end of the sequence—as if in dialogue with her beloved, the female lover’s voice now appears for the only time in this chapter. She here revives the wind motif from 4:6 to encourage her beloved to move with speed toward his “garden” of fruit trees, a symbolic space that he has equated with her body.
5.4: Sent his hand. A characteristically ambiguous verse: שָׁלַח יָדוֹ can either mean that he reached for the lock or moved his hand away from it.