The Greek source text literally says that her beloved ‘is white and red.’ What does this mean?
While ‘white and red’ could be literal, meaning something like ‘fair-skinned with rosy cheeks,’ for all we know it could also be poetic. After all, it would be rather striking to have such a literal description among such poetry.
The word for ‘white’ can also mean ‘bright,’ so rather than describing his skin color, it may mean that he’s bright in the sense of noticeable or impressive. After all, same word is used elsewhere in the Bible to describe things that appear bright – not just things with a white color.
And we really don’t know what the ancient Israelites looked like anyway... and even if they were ‘white’ like Europeans (which seems like a pretty laughable idea), the poem describes the man as an ordinary outdoor laborer, living in an agricultural society, in the Middle East – so how could he have pale skin and avoided gaining a deep tan? Unless it just means he was paler than on average?
Of course, calling someone or something ‘white’ or ‘bright’ could certainly have had some (long-forgotten) poetic meaning. After all, today, if you call someone ‘bright’ it usually means ‘intelligent,’ but this wasn’t always the case. While, in ancient Latin, their word for both white and bright had several figurative meanings, including ‘fortunate’ and ‘favorable.’ So who knows what the poetic meaning actually was back then in Ancient Hebrew and Ancient Greek...
As for ‘red,’ the Greek word really means the color of fire – fiery red. Meanwhile, the ancient Aramaic translation uses a word meaning a very deep red, or ‘blood red.’ These would be odd ways to describe rosy cheeks... And we know he didn’t have red hair, because the next verse describes his hair as black... So perhaps it’s a poetic way of describing strength or virility, like the English word ‘ruddy.’ Indeed, at least one other translation says ‘strong’ here. But again, this is just guesswork.
So while we may be wrong, the 2001 has dumped the former (very literal) translation (‘white skin and rosy cheeks’) to instead be poetic, saying ‘impressive and virile.’ However, it’s impossible to really know what sort of poetic meaning these words had – they were, after all, written about 3,500 years ago in another language, with very little material from the time other than the Bible itself.
Unfortunately, sometimes you can only guess – but ‘impressive and virile’ certainly makes more sense than a literal translation, and it both fits the context extremely well and sounds great to boot!