The Preacher's Air

On translating Kohelet
“Death Be Not Proud”: Vanitas Still Life Harmen Steenwyck, 1640.
“Death Be Not Proud”: Vanitas Still Life Harmen Steenwyck, 1640.
Atar Hadari
Observation
Sept. 16 2013
About the author

Atar Hadari’s Songs from Bialik: Selected Poems of H. N. Bialik (Syracuse University Press) was a finalist for the American Literary Translators’ Association Award. Lives of the Dead: Poems of Hanoch Levin was recently awarded a PEN Translates 2016 grant and is forthcoming from Arc Publications.


A sigh of air, says the Preacher, a sigh of air, all is air.

What does it profit a man, all his labor that he labors under the sun?

Generation goes and generation comes, and the earth forever stands.

I first looked at Kohelet—the Hebrew name of the biblical book known in English as Ecclesiastes—the year before my father died. My rabbi in London had given a series of talks on the poem during the run-up to the holiday of Sukkot, when it is read aloud in the synagogue. As I followed along with him, certain passages so intrigued me that I thought I might try my hand at a translation. After my father’s death, my wife and I moved to a religious kibbutz in Israel, where I would be within five minutes’ walk of a quorum for the three daily prayers at which the mourner’s kaddish is recited. In my spare time, I started looking seriously at the text, trying hard to avoid what I could recall of previous translations of it.

The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon

“The gardens and palaces of all Jerusalem”: The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon Edward Poynter, 1890.

My father’s name was Solomon, just like the “son of David, king in Jerusalem” to whom the poem is usually ascribed. And in revisiting Kohelet, it was my father’s sly, cynical voice that I heard: the voice of a man whose wisdom has not come easily to him, but by way of bitter experience. My mother once said, “Everybody comes to Shlomo for business advice,” at which he smiled and answered, ruefully: “Because there isn’t a single stupid thing they could do that Shlomo hasn’t done already.”

My critical edition of the Hebrew text cites the legend that King Solomon wrote the book of Kohelet after a demon stole him away from his throne and sent him roaming the streets as a beggar. For his own part, my father made enough mistakes that having acquired several million pounds’ worth of property, he lost them and went bankrupt. This legend was something I could get hold of—a back story, if you will, for my effort to “perform” the role of someone who had the gardens and palaces of all Jerusalem at his feet and then lost them:

I gathered to me silver and gold and the rarest treasures and remotest exotica,

made me singers and chanteuses, and toys for men in crates and cupboards;

and I grew and added from all that was before me in Jerusalem,

for my wisdom stood me in good stead.

And nothing my eyes sought did I spare, or deny my heart any delight,

for my heart was glad of all my work, and this was my part in all I’d wrought;

and I turned to all that my hands had wrought to see what I’d worked and worked

to do—

and see: all is air and chasing after the wind, and there is no profit under the sun.

I don’t know if biblical translations are themselves sacred texts, or if translation is an act of worship. But for me, poring over Kohelet served as an offering to speed my father’s soul to heaven. Every time I sat down to my task, I washed my hands and pronounced the blessing of one about to pray.

 

Part of the challenge was technical. The very first line of the text ends with variations on a word—hevel—that has a range of meanings: mist, vapor, the insubstantial. The King James Version of the Hebrew Bible (KJV, 1611) renders it as “vanity”—which has a fine moral ring but is not what the original means. I opted for the more physical “air” and then rendered the trickiest phrase of all, havley havalim (KJV’s “vanity of vanities”), as “a sigh of air.”

Why “air”? I have always thought that translating a poem into another language means finding its echoes in that language. And this line of Kohelet brought to mind the speech that Shakespeare, contemporary with the King James translators, puts into the mouth of his own fat truth-teller who comes to a bad end. Here is Falstaff, the very embodiment of physical appetite and mortality, on the much-vaunted quality of honor:

Can honor set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honor hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honor? A word. What is in that word “honor”? What is that “honor”? Air. A trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that died a-Wednesday. (Henry IV, Part 1)

This “air” of Falstaff’s mock sermon on the insubstantiality of honor seemed to me entirely appropriate to the Preacher’s voice.

As for the sigh: my mother told me that just before he died, my father had spoken his pet name for her, “Pupaleh,” and sighed. And that was the last of him. Thus did the opening phrase of my translation become a secret monument to my father:

A sigh of air, says the Preacher, a sigh of air, all is air….

Which brings us to the Preacher himself. The title Kohelet is also the name of the poem’s speaker; by taking it as deriving from the word kahal or crowd, I identified the speaker as a preacher, and I asked myself what sort of preacher this was. On our kibbutz there was a Bible scholar, Rachel Reich, and when I showed her my translation she assumed that I’d relied on the King James Version, which uses the same term for the speaker. “No,” I told her, “I just followed the Hebrew and a critical edition.” “That takes a lot of nerve,” she said, and then, when she looked at my version of the following lines, she added: “That’s a terrible accusation to cast at the Holy One”:

I, the Preacher, was king of Israel in Jerusalem.

I set my heart to seek and comb in the wisdom of all that’s done under the sun.

This is a bad business, given man by God to torture him.

It seemed a harshness in keeping with the speaker’s general view of things. The Preacher castigates every form of human endeavor, shredding one by one all the things a man might run to in the hope of finding meaning:

Everything goes to one place,

all came from dust and to dust will return.

Who knows that the spirit of man aspires upward,

while the spirit of the beast descends?

And I saw there is no good but that a man be glad

in his work, for that is his lot.

For who will let him see what will be, after he’s shuffled off?

Basically, Kohelet is less like a soothing Sabbath-morning sermon and more like a series of nails banged into the coffin of the listener’s sense of well-being:

A good name is better than perfume,

and the day of dying better than the day you’re born.

Better to go to the mourner’s house than into a saloon,

for that’s each man’s end, and the living should hold it in their heart.

Better a rebuke than a joke, for along with a stern face can go a good heart.

The heart of a wise man mourns, while a fool’s heart sits in a house of mirth.

Better hear the rebuke of the wise than the song of fools,

for like the firing peat under a pot is the bray of fools;

and that, too, is air.

Of course, when it comes to tone and voice, no translator can altogether shake off the King James Version. It dogs you like a guest who will not leave; wherever you turn, you find him hovering and whispering in your ear. So you have to outsmart the old ghost by making your tone more modern. Not too modern, lest it age before it even sees print, but not too antiquated, less it smell of moth balls and old dresses, like a child playing in his mother’s clothes. So: somewhere in the past, not King James and not quite 19th century, something a little more contemporary than, say, Longfellow and Whitman with their long, long lines, but not as instantly perishable as the newspaper. I found that while avoiding the KJV was a must, Shakespeare, whom I’ve already mentioned, was an unfailingly serviceable companion and, no less important, a guide through the swamp. This next passage, for instance, reminded me of Henry V walking through the camp in disguise and comparing his own estate to that of the laborer who rises from his bed “to help Hyperion to his horse,” unburdened by worry about an uneasy crown on his head:

Better a clever poor boy than an old and foolish king who never learned caution.

From the prison house one came out to be king;

even in his majesty, one was born a bankrupt.

Sweet is the laborer’s sleep, whether he eats a lot or a little,

while the rich man’s satisfaction will not let him sleep.

 

Few poems are more virulent than Kohelet in their condemnation of greed, or more graphic in their description of it. My father’s financial downfall came about in part because a rich associate, who might have bailed him out, had died. On an earlier occasion my father had borrowed money from this man at interest, leaving as security several cases of jewels. After repaying the loan and recovering the cases, he found a number of rings missing; obviously, the lender just couldn’t resist. For him, my father told me, as to all the really wealthy men he’d known, money was a physical appetite:

The advantage of land over all things is that he who works a field is king,

while he who loves silver will not with silver be filled,

and he who loves hoards will not see them from a field.

That too is air.

In the end, though, what’s beating underneath the whole poem is not our appetites—Kohelet repeatedly advises us to enjoy life’s good things—it’s the fact of death. That is the gentleman waiting in the taxi outside the door with the meter running, even if it takes a while for him to make his entrance:

This is the worst of all that’s done under the sun,

for one fate comes to us all.

And so the hearts of men are full of ill,

and tomfoolery in their hearts all their lives long;

and after that they go to dying.

For he who has ties to the land of the living knows

a living dog is better than a dead lion.

For the living know that they will die,

and the dead do not know anything,

and have no more coming to them, for their trace is forgotten.

Even their love and their hate and their jealousy is lost,

and they have no part anymore in the world or in all that’s done under the sun.

Go, eat in joy your bread and drink with a good heart your wine

after you have satisfied your God with what you’ve done.

At any moment your clothes could be white and oil on your brow not lacking.

See life with a woman you love all the airy days of your life

that you were given under the sun: all your few days of air.

For that’s your lot in life and your work that you work under the sun.

All that your hand finds to do: within your power, do it—

for there is no doing and reckoning and knowing and wisdom

in the place below, where you are going.

I saw again under the sun that not to the nimble the race is;

nor to the heroes, war; nor to the wise, bread;

nor to the experienced, wealth; nor to the learned, grace.

For time and chance befall every one.

For a man will not know his time:

like fish lured in a web of trouble,

and like birds caught in lime,

so are men snared by the evil tide that falls on them all of a sudden.

That line about a live dog being better than a dead lion is one my father used to quote often. He also liked saying, “It’s better to be young, healthy, and rich than old, sick, and poor.” I don’t know that I actually remember him saying this, but when I reached the line “for the dead do not know anything,” it was like pepper under my nose. I felt my lips recoiling and tears plugging up my eyes. I wasn’t in town when my father died, and I only took in the fact of it, very sharply, when I saw him after traveling to London overnight and being ushered into the room where he was lying with his chest bared next to a burning candle. Seeing it with your eyes is entirely different from hearing about it, and coming upon this line had the same force of experience, a punch in the stomach. It had the smell of death about it. The dead do not know anything. This is a poem about acquiring knowledge, and you know what happens to that knowledge?

Vanitas-Still-Life

“Death Be Not Proud”: Vanitas Still Life Harmen Steenwyck, 1640.

The lines that soon follow, about what befalls each and every kind of man, always remind me of a line from John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud”: “thou art subject to time, chance, kings, and desperate men.” Donne’s “thou” is death itself, and he’s writing a poem about salvation. Not so Kohelet, who recognizes no deliverance:

And remember your Maker in the days of your youth

even while the bad days don’t come;

for there will come years of which you’ll say

I do not have in them a single desire

as long as the sun doesn’t darken

and light comes of the moon and stars

and the clouds don’t come back even after rain.

On the day the palace guards shake, and foot soldiers are bending,

and the millstones are idle because they’re grown so solitary,

and the peepers in windows are dim,

and the doors to the marketplace are shut for the fading tones of the grinding,

he wakes at the sound of a lark, and all the girls of song are stilled;

when a man shakes even at molehills, and flaws in the road,

and the almond blossoms withers, and the grasshopper strains under a load,

and the red rose droops:

for a man goes to his final home, and mourners surround him in the marketplace.

 

We lived on the kibbutz for a year and a half. After I’d finished my translation, the festival of Sukkot came around again, and we decided to decorate our sukkah. My wife, who studied calligraphy and had brought her pens with her to Israel, purchased some long sheets of paper on which she inscribed various lines of my translation, hanging them on the walls of our hut along with the usual fruit and pictures. Of the people who came to our sukkah for tea, most didn’t so much as look at the text or recognize it. To them, it was just so many strange English words. They certainly didn’t associate it with Kohelet, a Hebrew poem they had heard read in the synagogue and would never consider displaying in their own homes.

The festivals of the Jewish year form a chain. Rosh Hashanah is a wake-up call: ten days later, on Yom Kippur, you will be required to account for yourself. And at the end of the long Yom Kippur fast, you are required not to rush off and stuff your face but rather to go and sink the first post of your sukkah into the ground.

And what is the sukkah? Are you not coming down from the celestial heights of repentance to the mundane grassy blades of your garden? Not at all.

To every thing there is a time and an occasion for each desire under heaven:

a time to be born and a time to die.

And a time to think about dying. The famous graveyard scene in Hamlet starts with a discussion worthy of the Talmud between two gravediggers as to who is the better builder of houses. Is it the gallows-maker, “for the house he builds outlives a thousand tenants”? No, it is the gravedigger, “for the house he builds lasts till doomsday.” What, then, is the sukkah? The house you build for yourself on Sukkot is not just a temporary dwelling to last for a week. It is a house to put you in mind of the house that will last you till doomsday.

It is very easy, while fasting and praying in synagogue on Yom Kippur, listening to the wonderful liturgy and, if you’re lucky, the wonderful voice of the cantor, to feel uplifted and leave behind your sins and swear to do better and turn over a new leaf. Building a house is different, even if it’s this temporary house. This house, this sukkah, is one in which you are to sit and contemplate your mortality and the transitory quality of all you hold dear. Not everyone writes the words of Ecclesiastes on pieces of paper and puts them up on the wall, but everyone should take it in. It is a poem about letting things go. And in harvest season, at the point of the year in an agrarian society when you are richest and most blessed, that is the very time you are required to leave your house, leave your overflowing grain silos, and sit in a temporary structure and consider what’s important to you.

Oscar Ennui

Faye Dunaway the morning after the Oscars. Terry O’Neill/Getty Images, 1976. Reproduced by permission.

A famous picture comes to mind of the actress Faye Dunaway on the morning after winning her Oscar, with the statuette on the table and the newspapers scattered on the floor. On Sukkot, it is always the morning after the Oscars and you are always wondering if that is all there is.

And what do you do next, on the last day of Sukkot, when you leave that house? You beat the ground with willow leaves to call down the rain and celebrate the receiving of the Torah at Sinai. And the two are related. He doesn’t have to bring the rain down; we have to ask Him to, and He may not. And He didn’t have to give the Torah. You build a sukkah, just as the Israelites once built a golden box to carry the Torah. Only, instead of a golden box, the sukkah prepares a more lasting vessel for the Torah:

At the end of the day it comes down to this:

fear God and keep His laws, for that is all man is.

This final couplet in Kohelet, the rabbis tell us, is the only reason why so deeply disturbing a book made it into the biblical canon. Life is utterly meaningless, the Preacher suggests, so you had best make yourself into a resting place for God’s words—because, really, what else is there?

___________________________

Atar Hadari was born in Israel, raised in England, and educated there and in the U.S. His translations include Songs from Bialik: Selected Poems of H. N. Bialik (Syracuse), a finalist for the American Literary Translators’ Association Award, and Lives of the Dead: Poems of Hanoch Levin forthcoming from Arc. A volume of his poems, Rembrandt’s Bible, was recently published by Indigo Dream.

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More about: Biblical commentary, Biblical criticism, King Solomon, Kohelet