The Mind’s I

14 05 2007

When in doubt: translate.

Such is the essence of my thinking now that my commitments at the moment preclude me from working on a more substantial post. One may question the value of offering a new translation of an old text when so many superior translations of the same abound, but I consider the following passage to be one of the most beautiful in the entire Hebrew Bible. The passage in question is Ecclesiastes 12:1-7 and it has been on my mind from time to time, encouraged by a post that I wrote concerning a fascinating medical treatise from the 18th century. That post was originally inspired by the interest of an online friend, a certain Conrad H. Roth, who brought the treatise to my attention and expounded upon it himself. In Conrad’s exposition he made reference to the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes in regards to another possible example of the human body being utilised in a microcosmic sense. I disagreed with Conrad and, as I would like to qualify my rejection of his sentiments, I feel that a fresh translation of the passage in question would be a suitable way to begin.

וזכר את־בוראיך בימי בחורתיך עד אשר לא־יבאו ימי הרעה והגיעו שנים אשר תאמר אין־לי בהם חפץ
עד אשר לא־תחשך השמש והאור והירח והכוכבים ושבו העבים אחר הגשם
ביום שיזעו שמרי הבית והתעותו אנשי החיל ובטלו הטחנות כי מעטו וחשכו הראות בארבות
וסגרו דלתים בשוק בשפל קול הטחנה ויקום לקול הצפור וישחו כל־בנות השיר
גם מגבה יראו וחתחתים בדרך וינאץ השקד ויסתבל החגב ותפר האביונה כי־הלך האדם אל־בית עולמו וסבבו בשוק הספדים
עד אשר לא־ירתק חבל הכסף ותרץ גלת הזהב ותשבר כד על־המבוע ונרץ הגלגל אל־הבור
וישב העפר על־הארץ כשהיה והרוח תשוב אל־האלהים אשר נתנה

In order to maintain the rhythm of the Hebrew, I translate it below in accordance with the masoretic accents, unrepresented in my non-vocalised presentation of the actual Hebrew characters. There are some instances within which the translation is difficult and I have relied upon BDB and HALOT in order to elucidate such sections. I have also attempted to maintain the sense of the Hebrew in sections which, to my mind, are clearly idiomatic – rather than slavishly present a hyper-literal reading of a poetic text. My intention overall is to demonstrate that, despite the more popular readings of this text that have arisen over time, the passage does not necessarily have a direct correspondence to the human anatomy.

*

So remember your creator while you are yet young;
When the days of evil have not yet come,
And the years not arrived of which you declare,
“I have no use for those”.

While neither the sun nor the light has yet grown dark,
Nor the moon, nor the stars;
Nor have the clouds returned after the rain.

On the day when the guards of the house tremble,
And the warriors are bent;
And the grinders loll for they are few,
And those who peek through windows darken.

When the doors of the market are closed,
With the sound of grinding growing faint;
When he awakens to the sound of birds,
But the singing girls grow silent.

When he is afraid of heights and terrors in the street,
When the almond blooms but the grasshopper struggles,
When the caper bush grows blossoms;
When the man marches towards his grave
With the mourners turning in the street.

While the silver cord has not yet snapped,
Nor the golden jug been dashed;
Nor the pitcher shattered at the spring,
When the bucket plummets in the well.

When the dust returns to the ground as it was;
And the breath goes back,
To the god who gave it.

*

It is almost worthwhile to add the following line, considered an addition by many scholars: “Vanity of vanities, said the Qohelet; it is all vanity”. The Hebrew word for the oft-translated “vanity” is הבל – literally, “vapour” or “exhalation”. Some have argued that this word has a semantic range in Ecclesiastes which is peculiar to this particular text but its placement in this instance after a stanza that speaks of breath is no coincidence. The breath that returns to God at the end of life is, according to the editor of this text if no-one else, the human breath par excellence.

One might argue that there are other elements of this passage that also glorify the body and its functions. The guards of the house may be the hands, the warriors may be the legs, the grinders could represent the teeth, and the windows may be the eyes. Such metaphors are not uncommon, as the medical treatise demonstrated in its own right and as can be seen in other examples of microcosmic literature. Furthermore, one might go so far as to suggest a physiological analogue to the description of shattering vessels and snapping cords. Such attempts have been made on the part of exegetes but, to my mind at least, they have all been reasonably forced. I recognise the possibility of such interpretations but nonetheless would stress the primacy of the literal meaning in this particular passage, based upon the context of the sections in question and the disjointed nature of the overall piece that such a semantic division engenders.

To my mind, in other words, the third stanza is merely representative of decay and infirmity (those who were once strong or numerous are now made weak and few), while the sixth is simply metaphorical of destruction in general. There may be something in the suggestion that the third stanza also alludes to the human body but, even if so, it is nothing more than allusion and does not constitute the primary meaning of that paragraph.

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2 responses

17 05 2007
Daniel

I like “When the almond blooms but the grasshopper struggles”. Sometimes you’re the almond, sometimes you’re the grasshopper.

20 05 2007
Conrad

Thanks for the retranslation. I have to admit I’m still not convinced though. It’s more beautiful my way, so it it so. For you apparently it is more beautiful with no allegory, and so it is not. We can agree on the aesthetic criterion, I think.

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