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'To make a good one better': translating the Bible

Oesterley's Song of Songs

Engraving of a female figure wearing a crown and veil and surrounded by flowers. With text printed in red and black.Oesterley's Song of Songs, published by the Golden Cockerel Press. Copyright © Estate of Lettice SandfordCalcutta-born clergyman William Oscar Emil Oesterley was appointed professor of Hebrew and the exegesis of the Old Testament at King’s College London in 1926. Influenced by the American Biblical scholar and translator Theophile Meek and the folklorist James Frazer, he read the Song of Solomon as an allegorical retelling of the passage of the seasons – the darkness and decay of winter and the new life and fertility of spring.

This is an archetypal motif of myth (embodied, for example, in the Greek legend of Persephone’s descent to Hades) and Oesterley saw the Song of Solomon as drawing on the manifestation of this theme in Babylonian myth through the story of Tammuz and Ishtar. Tammuz and Ishtar are lovers; Tammuz dies and Ishtar descends to the underworld in search of him.

Oesterley, who had a deep understanding of the poetic quality of the Hebrew language, made a fresh translation of the Song of Solomon, which was published by the Golden Cockerel Press in a parallel edition with the text of the King James version. Oesterley’s translation is printed in the left-hand column, the King James version on the right.

The delicateen gravings were the work of Lettice Sandford (1902–93), whose husband Christopher Sandford was then joint owner, with Owen Rutter and Francis J Newbery, of the Golden Cockerel Press. Founded in 1920 by Harold Midgley Taylor, the Golden Cockerel Press was dedicated to the printing of handmade editions, often beautifully illustrated, and engaged artists such as Eric Gill, David Jones and Eric Ravilious.

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