Rachel Cantor is the author of the novel A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World. With the publication of her second novel, Good on Paper, she is blogging here all week as a Visiting Scribe on The ProsenPeople.
My second novel, Good on Paper, is about Shira Greene, an underachieving translator. Distrusting translation on principle, she flits from one temp job to another—a not-very-satisfying outcome for a woman with nearly a whole graduate degree who once aspired to be the world’s first singing, dancing architect! She gets a call out of the blue, however, from a Nobel Prize-winning poet who wants her to translate his latest work, a story about the love he bears for his wife. Seeing stars, Shira agrees—and then her story becomes interesting. Romei says he chose her because of a translation she’d done long ago of La Vita Nuova (“The New Life”), an early work of Dante, but when he begins faxing her sections of his work, we begin to suspect—as she does, too, eventually—that he has another agenda altogether, one that involves her personally.
To write the book, I used my intermediate-level Italian to translate bits of Vita Nuova and to convey something of her translation process and philosophy. Of course, Shira does a whole lot in the book besides stare at Italian poetry—she falls in love, for one thing, and her family, not unrelatedly, threatens to fall apart—but I had to make sure that we believe that Shira is good at what she does.
What I did not imagine was that I might also find myself translating words from Hebrew. I don’t speak Hebrew; I certainly don’t read Hebrew, much less Biblical Hebrew. What few words I know, I know from shul. But in one scene, two characters, dissatisfied with the King James version of the Song of Songs, translate parts of 8:6-7 together.
The King James version of those lines reads: … for love is as strong as death; jealousy is as cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire which hath a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love …
Working with several English translations of the Song—notably that of Ariel and Chana Bloch, with its glorious and extensive annotations, as well as that of poet Marcia Falk, and the translation and commentary of Marvin H. Pope, I created for my characters Benny and Esther—rabbi and Midrash enthusiast, respectively—a new translation of these verses.
For the pale “strong” of King James, the Blochs suggest “fierce,” recalling that the word elsewhere modifies “lion.” My characters think “ferocious”: love is ferocious like death.
Both Falk and the Blochs also use “grave” for the Hebrew sheol, but my characters disagree: they retain sheol, for its sense of the underworld, of suffering beyond death, a sense not available in what they call the “dead-end translation of Sheol as grave.”
Benny (unwittingly) follows the Blochs in preferring the literal “sparks” to “coals” (“its sparks,” then, “sparks of fire”). In his rabbinically trained mind, sparksbring to mind the holy sparks of sixteenth-century Kabbalist Isaac Luria, who famously wrote of the holy sparks that infuse all spheres of existence and which must be separated from the kelippot (husks) and lifted up.
Then, crucially, the pair considers shalhevetyah, the “most vehement flame” of King James. The Blochs discuss a longstanding debate: does shalhevetyah (literally, they say, “enormous flame”) contain within it the name of God (otherwise absent in Song of Songs); they decide no, because more usually Yah appears as a separate word. Their solution: “a devouring flame.” Falk apparently disagrees, referring instead to a “holy blaze.” My characters, being fictional, care nothing for raging disputes. “A great God-flame!” they decide.
Thus, they now have, Love is ferocious like death, its jealousy cruel as Sheol, its sparks, sparks of fire: a great God-flame! Already a departure from the King James!
Further, King James decided that “many waters cannot quench love.” The Blochs write, “great seas cannot extinguish love,” but Marvin H. Pope’s translation notes clarifies that these “great waters” are nothing less than the great primordial waters of creation, the mayim rabbim first mentioned in the opening of Genesis. Almost giddy, enjoying their translation work almost as much as I did, I have Benny and Esther exclaim, “Not even the great waters of creation can extinguish the great God-flame which is love.”
Alas, their translation is interrupted by a message that comes across the great waters of the Atlantic, a message that changes everything. To learn what that is, you’ll have to read the book!
Rachel Cantor's stories have appeared in magazines such as the Paris Review, One Story, Ninth Letter, Kenyon Review, and the New England Review. Rachel lives in New York, in the writerly borough of Brooklyn. She is, always, at work on another book.
- Aviya Kushner's 7 Surprises of Reading the Torah in English Translation
- Shani Boianjiu: Writing in a Foreign Language
- Michael Idov: The Act of Self-Translation
- Sarah Wildman: Translating My Grandfather's Yiddish Letters