inclusive vs. exclusive pronoun (Songs 1:4)

Many languages distinguish between inclusive and exclusive first-person plural pronouns (“we”). (Click or tap here to see more details)

The inclusive “we” specifically includes the addressee (“you and I and possibly others”), while the exclusive “we” specifically excludes the addressee (“he/she/they and I, but not you”). This grammatical distinction is called “clusivity.” While Semitic languages such as Hebrew or most Indo-European languages such as Greek or English do not make that distinction, translators of languages with that distinction have to make a choice every time they encounter “we” or a form thereof (in English: “we,” “our,” or “us”).

For this verse (“our God”), the Jarai translation and the Adamawa Fulfulde translation use the inclusive form.

Translation commentary on Song of Songs 1:4

Because of changes in the personal pronouns used, this verse again causes problems for both interpreters and translators. Following on from verse 3, however, it is clear that the young woman is still speaking.

Draw me after you: the young woman speaks of her longing for her lover. The imperative Draw me shows how eager she is for him to take her away with him. Draw speaks of a power that can be for good (as in Hos 11.4) or for evil (Psa 10.9); it may also portray being in bondage to another person, being carried away forcibly. In this context we note the woman’s longing for her lover to carry her off to where they can be alone. We can say “Take me [away] with you” as in Revised English Bible and Good News Translation.

Let us make haste expresses the same feeling as the opening imperative. It is the first of four first person emphatic verb forms in this verse. There is urgency in the woman’s voice, which we can convey by “Let’s run [away],” or more generally, “Let’s hurry.” The plural “us” in this clause certainly must refer to the two young lovers. In languages that make a distinction between different first person plural pronouns, an inclusive “us” should be used. Or a dual form may be appropriate, meaning “you-and-I [we-two].”

The next lines again bring us to the problem of change of person. The first lines have an imperative sense, addressed to the lover: Draw me after you, let us make haste. But the rest of the verse includes several references that are difficult to deal with in translation. First, there is a third person comment, The king has brought me into his chambers. Next, there is another emphatic “we,” one that seems to exclude the lover, because he is in fact addressed: We will exult and rejoice in you; we will extol your love more than wine. Finally another group is introduced: rightly do they love you. These problems will be addressed as we examine each clause.

With the clause The king has brought me into his chambers, it is clear that the young woman is still speaking, but she no longer seems to be addressing her lover. Is this then a statement of fact, as Revised Standard Version suggests? Or is this something imagined by the young woman? Some have proposed a slight change in the Hebrew text and have translated an imperative “take me to your room.” Contemporary English Version says “Take me to your home” (compare Good News Translation). However, the verb form in the Hebrew describes a completed action. Therefore Revised Standard Version seems more correct. Another possibility is to translate the verb as a wish, “Oh, that he would take me to his room.” One French version (Pléiade) emphasizes her happy expectancy: “When he will bring me into his room…!”

In Egyptian love lyrics king or “prince” is a term of endearment for a lover. Following this tradition we understand king here not as a reference to Solomon or to a real king, nor as evidence for a royal wedding ritual; it is simply a term of endearment that the young woman uses when speaking of her lover. In some languages this metaphor will probably not have the same meaning, so we may need to render king as “my lover.” Good News Translation suggests “Be my king and…,” which actually means that the lover is “like a king” to her. Another possibility is to use “my ‘king’ ” within inverted commas to show that it was not a literal reference to a royal person. FRCL says “You are my king!” which clearly expresses the figurative meaning. Otherwise we can add a footnote to explain the meaning of the term, and retain the word “king” or an equivalent such as “chief” or “ruler” in the text.

His chambers is also a plural form in the Hebrew, though this is certainly not crucial to the translation. Perhaps because of the reference to a king, some English versions keep the word “chamber,” and some French versions use a term appropriate for a king’s palace. However, the real meaning is an inner, private room, thus referring to “his [bed]room.” In some cultures a direct reference like this may be inappropriate, so “his room” or “his home” may be more acceptable.

Translation of this clause can be:

• My lover took me to his room.

• My “king” took me to his room.

• My lover took me [to his] home.

We will exult and rejoice in you: this again leaves us with a problem about who is being spoken of. You is clearly the king, so who is we? There are at least three possibilities.
(1) We may be the couple. This is the meaning adopted by Bible en français courant and Good News Translation: “We will be happy together,” where we is the inclusive and dual pronoun form. This same understanding is reflected in New Jerusalem Bible “Let us delight and rejoice in your love,” and Traduction œcuménique de la Bible “Let’s be joyous and happy, thanks to you.”
(2) Others have seen the we as referring to the group of women who admire the young man. In this case the pronoun form will be an exclusive plural form.
(3) Another solution is to see the young woman as talking or referring to herself in the first person plural, a feature that is known to occur in Sumerian sacred marriage songs (Pope).

This last solution seems promising, so we can say “Let me rejoice and take pleasure in you.” Alternatively we can use New Jerusalem Bible and Traduction œcuménique de la Bible as models, where “we” refers to the couple.

Exult and rejoice: the two verbal phrases occur together and have the same meaning, “rejoice.” If necessary we can use one combined or intensive term in the translation, “greatly rejoice.” Otherwise two terms of similar meaning may be used: “Let us rejoice and take pleasure in your love.”

In you is a masculine singular form. It refers to the young man, or to his love. Good News Translation translates in more general terms, “We will … lose ourselves in love.”

We will extol your love more than wine: we have already noted the association between love and wine in verse 2. Wine is figurative for all that is pleasurable (see comments above in verse 2). The young woman remarks that the young man’s love makes her happier than any wine could. We will extol is another example of the plural with singular meaning; the young woman speaks of her strong feelings toward the young man. Revised Standard Version extol is one possible meaning of the Hebrew verb, whose root meaning is “remember.” In the particular verb form used here, it can mean “recall,” “mention,” or “celebrate.” Hence Jerusalem Bible and New English Bible suggest “praise.” Other possibilities are “boast” as in Psa 20.8 (“Some boast of…”), or “inhale” in the sense of savoring something. Gordis cites examples of the latter meaning in Lev 24.7; Isa 66.3; Hos 14.7.

Various possibilities for translation exist:

• Let me celebrate your love [for me].

• I will recall your love [for me].

• I will praise your love.

Revised Standard Version more than wine indicates the extent of her affection. However, as the phrase stands, it is unclear what it qualifies in the sentence, whether the verb “extol” or the noun phrase “your love.” Will she praise his love for her more than she will praise the pleasures of wine? Or will she celebrate his love, which itself is better than the pleasures of wine? This may seem a fine distinction to make, but the Hebrew text allows both possibilities. If it is necessary to choose one, then probably she intends to say that the pleasure he gives her is greater than the pleasure wine offers.

Two possibilities for rendering this line are:

• I will praise your love, which is more delightful than wine.

• Let me taste your love; it is more enjoyable than wine.

Good News Translation “drink deep and lose ourselves in love” seems to miss the thrust of the comparison. Where reference to wine is a problem (see comments on verse 2), we may say “Let me enjoy your love; it is more enjoyable than anything on earth.”

Rightly do they love you: the initial Hebrew term comes from the root meaning “upright, straight.” Early versions and modern commentators reflect a variety of interpretations. The majority, however, view it as an adverb, “rightly” or “correctly.” This suggests that it is natural to fall in love with a young man like this. Fox and Gordis both follow the ancient Jewish scholar Ibn Ezra and divide the sentence differently, bringing wine together with the word for “right” and explaining the meaning as “smooth,” “good,” or “strong wine.” This interpretation results in a translation, “more than smooth wine do they love you.” They will of course refer to the “maidens” or “other women” mentioned in verse 3. In many translations the pronoun they will have to be expressed as a noun, if it is not immediately clear who is being talked about. Another acceptable solution may be to use the general expression “every woman.” Following this statement the young woman confesses that her lover is irresistible, and even other women find him so.

In translating the last line of the verse, we may follow Good News Translation “No wonder all women love you,” which captures the spirit of the saying well. Other possibilities are “It is natural that any woman would love you”; “It is not surprising that every woman loves you.”

With the variety of possible interpretations, many translation models for the verse as a whole can be considered. Two possibilities are:

• “Take me away with you! Let’s hurry.”
My king took me to his room.
“Let me rejoice and be glad in your love!
I will praise your love more than wine!
No wonder all the women love you!”

• Take me away with you! Let’s hurry!
Oh, [or, I wish] that my king would take me to his room.
Let’s rejoice and enjoy our love!
Your caresses are smoother than wine.
It’s not surprising every woman adores you!

Quoted with permission from Ogden, Graham S. and Zogbo, Lynell. A Handbook on the Book of Song of Songs. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1998. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .

Translation commentary on Song of Songs 3:3

Numerous questions come to mind in this verse regarding the role the guards play. What is significant about their finding the young woman? Did they know her lover? Why is her question to the guards unanswered? In a later passage (5.7) the guards are hostile, beating and stripping her. Some see in the guards a symbol of society’s opposition to the relationship, but there is no evidence in the text one way or the other to confirm this interpretation. Translators will simply have to render the text as it is, presenting these characters as secondary participants in the story.

The watchmen, those who guard the city, were normally watching from the city walls. The word “guard” comes from the root meaning “keep” or “protect.” Here they are spoken of as “going about” or patrolling the city, which means they were inside the city walls or walking around the top of them. Note that the author of the poem assumes the guards’ presence in the town. It will be best if translators do the same. Some languages may need a scene-setting clause to begin this part of the episode, such as “There were guards in the city, and….”

Found me means they “discovered” or “came across” her. It suggests a chance meeting, so “saw” or “met” are good choices for translation.

As they went about in the city: see comments on verse 2 above. We can say “as they patrolled the city.”

A delightful play on words is used; the verbs “found” and “going about,” which describe the young woman’s search, are used here of the watchmen. Ironically the one who “seeks” is “found.” A chiastic structure highlights this feature and ties verses 2 and 3 closely together.

There may be several ways to preserve the literary features of this verse. Goulder uses a passive in the second clause, to highlight the verb “find”:

• I sought but found not; I was found
By watchmen on the city’s round.

We can also use focus constructions, conjunctions, or particles (for example, “Instead I was found…”) to show the irony of the situation:

• I looked for him,
But could not find him.
Rather it was me the watchmen found
As they made their way through the streets.

Using similar expressions in both verses will highlight the way these two verses are bound together:

• I said, “I will get up now,
and search the streets,
looking for the one I love.”
I looked for him,
but I could not find him.
Instead the city guards found me,
as they combed the streets, on their night watch.

Have you seen him whom my soul loves?: this sentence is unusual. In Hebrew it lacks an interrogative particle, and the entire expression is very brief, literally “the one my soul loves you have seen.” We therefore have to assume that the young woman asked the guards a question when she met them. Virtually all versions interpret the phrase this way, so we follow the majority view. Good News Translation expresses the idea in an indirect quote: “I asked them whether they had seen my lover.” King James Version does the same. Alternatively we can add a quote formula: “I asked them, ‘Have you seen….’ ”

Have you seen can also be given as “Do you know where…?”

Him whom my soul loves: refer to comments earlier on verse 1. In Hebrew this phrase occurs at the beginning of the sentence and thus shows where the focus of attention lies. It expresses the young woman’s sense of urgency and shows it is her lover who is uppermost in her mind. Many languages will be able to copy this style by translating:

• “The one my heart loves, have you seen him?”

• “My lover, have you seen him?”

Alternatively we can translate as:

• “Have you seen my lover?”

or possibly

• “Do you know where my lover is?”

Quoted with permission from Ogden, Graham S. and Zogbo, Lynell. A Handbook on the Book of Song of Songs. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1998. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .

Translation commentary on Song of Songs 5:8

Here we come to another refrain addressed to the daughters of Jerusalem. This one differs from the others, however, both in content and context. In previous passages (2.7; 3.5; 5.1) refrains have occurred when the lovers are locked in embrace. In the first two refrains the daughters are asked not to disturb the love scene. The third refrain encourages the lovers to enjoy their love. Here the scene is completely different; the young woman is alone, and she requests the women of Jerusalem to help find her lover.

The role the refrain plays here is also slightly different from what we have seen before. Previously refrains have been used to end poems. While this present refrain does end the “dream sequence” (5.2-7), it does not end a poem; rather it serves as a link between two subunits. The young woman requests the help of the daughters (5.8), and the daughters respond (5.9). Their response draws out the feelings of the young woman, who goes on to describe her lover (5.10-16). The dialog between the two parties continues in 6.1-3.

Once again we note the literary role of the daughters. They are not actually at the scene of the events described in 5.2-7, nor do they really participate in the story line. Their function in the poem is to move the story along by drawing out the feelings of the main characters.

O daughters of Jerusalem is a vocative form. It may be placed at the beginning of the sentence, if this is the more natural place to introduce the persons addressed: “O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my lover….”

If you find my beloved: a conditional clause introducing the young woman’s request. In some languages a word meaning “when” may be used in such instances to express a condition that will probably occur. Note that the keyword find, occurring in verses 6 and 7, occurs here as well.

That you tell him I am sick with love: the phrase that you tell him is literally “what should you tell him?” The interrogative “What?” may be for emphasis. But many translations, going back to Septuagint times, ignore the fact that the clause begins with “What?” They translate it as a statement rather than as a question.

Fox takes the Hebrew mah (“What?”) to be a negative particle and translates “I ask you to promise … not to tell him that I am sick with love.” He argues that in the refrains in 2.7 and 3.5 there is a negative element present, and so one is required here. Furthermore, in 8.4 and in two other Old Testament passages (1 Kgs 12.16 and Job 16.6), this same word is clearly negative in meaning.

Although there is some justification for Fox’s view, the wider question is whether the young woman is likely to want her lover to know how she feels. Is she really embarrassed about what she feels and has done? Throughout the Song she speaks freely and openly about her longing for him (see 2.5). So we suggest following the traditional interpretation, which can then be translated “If you find my beloved, what should you tell him? Tell him I am sick with love [or, longing] for him.” If this kind of question is not natural in the translator’s language, then it can be replaced with a request formula, such as “If you find my lover, please tell him how deeply I long for him.”

In translating sick we may need to be careful not to give the impression that she is physically unwell or has some disease. Here I am sick is an idiomatic way of saying she longs for his love. We may say “I am dying for his love.” Good News Translation “I am weak from passion” is slightly unnatural in English and does not really convey the meaning here. It should not be used as a model.

With the conclusion of this verse we have reached the end of the dream narrative. It summarizes the young woman’s deep disappointment at not being able to be with her lover.

Quoted with permission from Ogden, Graham S. and Zogbo, Lynell. A Handbook on the Book of Song of Songs. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1998. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .

Translation commentary on Song of Songs 7:11

In 4.16 the young woman called on her lover to come into the garden with her. The theme here is similar, though different vocabulary is used.

Let us go forth into the fields: owing to the secret nature of their relationship, the young woman suggests that they meet somewhere away from the town, in the countryside where they can be alone. The Hebrew gives singular “field,” but of course we can use plural fields, “to the country,” or “to the countryside.” New Jerusalem Bible “in the open” is ambiguous, meaning either out-of-doors or in a public place. Because of this it should not serve as a model.

Lodge in the villages: if the two lovers’ intention is to find privacy, then this Revised Standard Version translation may not be adequate. Lodge means they will spend the night somewhere (see notes on 1.13). Villages is the Revised Standard Version way of rendering the Hebrew word, which has a double meaning; it refers to villages out in the countryside, but the same word also refers to the henna bush (1.14). The latter seems the more reasonable sense in this context and is the one preferred by New English Bible, Die Bibel im heutigen Deutsch, and others. On “henna flower” and its fragrance, see comments in 1.14; 4.13. We suggest using “henna bush” in the text. Alternatively we can translate as “villages” and explain the play on words in a footnote.

For translation we suggest:

• Come, my lover, let us go into the countryside [or, away from the village]; let us spend the night among the henna blossoms [or, among the wild flowers].

• My lover, come, let’s go out into the country.
Let’s spend the night in the villages.*
Footnote: * The word here means either “villages” or “henna bushes” and seems to be a play on words.

Quoted with permission from Ogden, Graham S. and Zogbo, Lynell. A Handbook on the Book of Song of Songs. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1998. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .

Translation commentary on Song of Songs 1:15

The young man is now the speaker, so we may insert a marginal note or use some other means to alert the reader to the change of speaker.

Introducing this verse is the particle hinneh, which calls attention to what follows. English Behold is archaic. However, many languages have exclamatory expressions like “Oh!” or “Ah!” that can convey the meaning. We may say “Look at how beautiful…,” or “Look at you, how beautiful….”

You are beautiful: the adjective is the same as that found in verse 8, where Revised Standard Version has “fairest.” However, this word has nothing to do with light skin color; it is the ordinary term for beauty. Note that the first two lines are almost identical. The second line builds on the first by adding a term of endearment, my love. Many languages will appreciate the rhythmic repetition of the Hebrew. Bible en français courant, for example, follows the Hebrew pattern, thus maintaining the rhythm:

• How beautiful you are,
My friend!
How beautiful you are!
Your eyes are as charming as doves.

When translating poetry, translators are free to change word order and to add repetition as needed:

• You are so beautiful, my love,
… so beautiful!
Your eyes are so gentle—
As gentle as doves.

If repetition is not appreciated in the language of the translation, it can be eliminated, as Good News Translation has done.

My love: see verse 9.

Your eyes are doves is a metaphor that may need to be made clearer in many languages. We can use “like doves” as a first step in indicating that the woman’s eyes are not actual doves. However, even then it is possible that the simile may not carry sufficient meaning. We may need to indicate that the dove is a small bird symbolic of gentleness, or of softness. It can also express the ability to attract. If the dove is not known, or if it has a significance other than that of softness and gentleness, it is better to replace this figure with a simple adjective like “gentle” or “soft.” Good News Translation “your eyes shine with love” does not seem to convey the meaning of the text. It is better to say:

• You are beautiful, my love, so beautiful; your eyes are so gentle.


• … as gentle as those of a bird [dove].

The theme of this verse is echoed later in the book in 4.1.

Quoted with permission from Ogden, Graham S. and Zogbo, Lynell. A Handbook on the Book of Song of Songs. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1998. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .

Translation commentary on Song of Songs 4:3

Your lips are like a scarlet thread: in describing the young woman’s lips, we may ask where the emphasis lies. Is it on the redness of the lips? Or are they apparently thin like thread? In the previous examples it is the color that is the center of attention, not the objects themselves. Applying that principle here we conclude that it is the redness of her lips that is in focus, not how thin they are. Scarlet is a bright red color. Whether she has painted her lips or whether they are naturally red is not known. In some cultures red lips may not be a particular sign of beauty. If this is the case we can qualify the word to make the point: “Your lips are as lovely as a scarlet thread.” Thread can refer to a strip of cloth or ribbon, not only to fine thread. If the figure of thread or “ribbon” is not meaningful, then this image can be omitted: “Your lips are a lovely red.”

Your mouth is lovely: we move from a particular part of the mouth (lips) and a particular color (scarlet) to the more general terms mouth and lovely. The Hebrew phrase translated in Revised Standard Version as mouth (literally “from your words”) occurs only here but comes from a common root for “speak.” For this reason some versions emphasize the woman’s speech rather than her mouth (Good News Translation “when you speak,” King James Version “your speech,” New English Bible and Jerusalem Bible “your words”). In the context of the wasf, however, it is probably correct to treat the word as mouth rather than the more abstract “your speech,” because the focus throughout this passage is on the physical attributes of the young woman.

For lovely see comments on “comely” in 1.5, 10 There is a significant wordplay here. The Hebrew word for mouth can also mean “desert,” while the word for lovely can mean “an inhabited area.” Throughout the poem the woman’s lips are seen as a place of refreshment. Thus there is a possible double meaning, with the young man comparing his lover to an oasis in the middle of a desert. Again this kind of double meaning will be impossible to convey, unless it is included in a footnote.

For translation we suggest:

• Your lips are like a scarlet ribbon,
And your mouth, so beautiful.

It is possible that in some languages it would be too repetitive to speak of both the lips and the mouth. If this is the case another alternative will have to be found:

• Your mouth is red like scarlet thread
And, oh, so very beautiful!

Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate: scholars disagree about how to translate the Hebrew word rendered as cheeks. The term actually describes the thin part of the skull, the “temple” (see Judges 4.21; 5.26). King James Version follows this sense. New English Bible “your parted lips” is far from the original, we believe, and should not be followed. However, since most of the young woman’s temple would be hidden either by her hair or her veil, and in view of the comparison with the pomegranate, it seems that cheeks is a reasonable translation.

Like halves of a pomegranate: the pomegranate is a thick-skinned fruit that grows on a shrub-like tree. The comparison here raises the question as to which part of the fruit is in the young man’s mind as he describes his beloved. The exterior of the fruit is red, so he may be referring to her “red cheeks.” If it is the interior of the fruit, as some suggest, then it brings to mind an image of blotchy and unclear skin, which is quite unattractive. Thus we disagree with the translation “slice” for Revised Standard Version halves. The more likely point of comparison is with the rounded and rosy exterior of the fruit. In many cultures around the world, rosy or full cheeks are a sign of health and beauty. Where pomegranate is not known we may perhaps refer to a “red apple” or simply say “your full rosy cheeks.” This is better than Good News Translation “your cheeks glow.”

Behind your veil: see comments on verse 1. If the veil covered the lower half of the face, then the young woman’s cheeks were not fully exposed.

For translation we can say “Beneath your veil your cheeks are rosy like a pomegranate.” However, in view of preferences shown by other translations, it may be necessary to add a footnote drawing the readers’ attention to the problem in the interpretation.

Though it may not be so obvious in the Revised Standard Version translation, the Hebrew lines are well balanced and show grammatically parallel clauses:
Like a ribbon of scarlet,
your lips

• and from your mouth so lovely
Like a half pomegranate,
your cheeks

• and from behind your veil

The translator may be able to follow the Hebrew parallelism, thus preserving the literary flavor of the original.

Quoted with permission from Ogden, Graham S. and Zogbo, Lynell. A Handbook on the Book of Song of Songs. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1998. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .

Translation commentary on Song of Songs 6:3

I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine: for comments see 2.16, where an almost identical wording is used. We note, however, that there is a significant difference between the two verses. The ordering found in 2.16 (“My beloved is mine and I am his”) is here reversed. The final phrase, my beloved is mine, seems to emphasize the woman’s deep joy and satisfaction that now, at long last, the two lovers truly belong to one another. We also note that, while 2.16 uses pronouns in the second part of the statement, here there is a full chiastic structure.

Such structures often serve as climaxes at the end of sections of discourse. So here the statement signals the triumphant end of the fourth poem. Good News Translation repeats the order of 2.16, thus destroying the significant emphasis that the chiastic structure provides. We suggest translators preserve the Hebrew order.

He pastures his flock among the lilies completes the repetition of 2.16. As this is an exact repetition of 2.16b, it will be well to use exactly the same wording as is used there.

With this concluding refrain we have come to the end of Part Four of the book. We note once again that a major section ends with the couple making love.

Quoted with permission from Ogden, Graham S. and Zogbo, Lynell. A Handbook on the Book of Song of Songs. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1998. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .