Posted by: mattcolvin | November 20, 2011

Ecclesiastes 1: Vanity-Vapor

Monday of the Week Before Advent: Ecclesiastes 1.

I’ve decided to do my Ecclesiastes readings in Robert Alter’s translation, and I’ll post gleanings from his commentary. Already things are interesting:

1:1 “Merest breath,” said Qohelet, “Merest breath. All is mere breath.”

Alter adds that the Hebrew hevel probably means the “the flimsy vapor that is exhaled in breathing, invisible except on a cold winter day, and in any case dissipating immediately in the air.” Our English translations do us a disservice by reducing this vivid metaphor to a mere abstraction.

Alter likewise corrects the KJV’s mistranslation, which has nonetheless enough poetic sound about it to have become proverbial: “Vanity and vexation of spirit” is not very accurate for hevel were’ut ruach, which is rather “breath and herding the wind.”

Verse 17 is also mistake in most English translations, which have “I set my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly.” The word holelut is not madness, but unrestrained “revelry” (Alter), the pursuit of earthly pleasures to excess.

(It is little wonder that Ecclesiastes is one of the least well understood books of the Bible by English-speakers when many of its most common phrases have been inaccurately rendered by English translators.)

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