God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Children, Oxen, Asses, and Cribs

Isaiah 1:2-3 reads (NRSV):

[2] Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the LORD has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. [3] The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.

When I read “children…cribs,” I naturally think of, well, children and cribs, that is, children and where they are kept.

But it turns out that a “crib” is also what I would call a feed trough and what the Oxford English Dictionary (unhelpfully for me) defines as a “cratch.”

Verse 3, using classic ancient parallelism to reinforce a point, sets the stage with two animals (ox and donkey) and two things upon which the animals depend (owner and, metonymically, food). Then the second half of the verse, again using classic parallelism, contrasts the animals with Israel/my people, which does not know/understand.

Verse 2 similarly employs parallelism, with hear/listen, heavens/earth and then reared/brought up.

The Message offers this for Verse 3: “The ox knows who’s boss,//the mule knows the hand that feeds him.”

At least I know what that means, and, in this case, the English matches the original. (This is unusual for The Message. The “translation” of Isaiah 1:2 reads, “Heaven and earth, you’re the jury.//Listen to God’s case.”)

The NLT paraphrases as, “Even the animals — the donkey and the ox — know their owner and appreciate his care, but not my people Israel. No matter what I do for them, they still do not understand.” That’s what the poetry means, but it’s no longer poetry.

What’s more important, retaining the technical word eivus — variously “crib” or “manger” — or conveying the point? What’s more important, the point or the poetry?

And if we want to reach the modern reader, maybe we should do away with “ox” and “donkey” (“ass” is surely wrong these days) — animals that most readers no longer own — and translate “dog” and “cat.”

What do you think?

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September 20, 2009 - Posted by | translation practice | , , , , ,

7 Comments »

  1. Dog and cat :ROF’L

    The point or the poetry – you can guess what I will say – the poetry of course. God will have no trouble delivering the point if the translator keeps the poetry.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | September 20, 2009 | Reply

    • Do you think that “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib” captures the poetry?

      Comment by Joel | September 20, 2009 | Reply

  2. It’s fine a far as it goes
    but the rest of the verse is needed with the ellipses unstated

    Israel does not know
    my people do not consider/understand

    So know is elided in the first half of the verse and the objects of the verbs are elided from verse 3a to 3b

    v1 s1a o1a
    (v) s1b o-o1b
    s2a v1 (o2a?)
    s2b v2 (o2b?)

    the poem must leave the elisions in place

    I wonder if you might say more on the word order. In English poetry we do reverse s-v-o sometimes – but in this case it is awkward. I suspect we are losing something in the emphasis.

    Knows ox his owner and donkey his master’s crib
    Israel knows not, my people does not consider

    The but is also not required (as in various languages)
    I prefer his to its for animals. In this case I think there may be specific words for the female animals.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | September 20, 2009 | Reply

  3. […] I complained that the combination of “children … crib” in Isaiah makes me think of children […]

    Pingback by Top Translation Traps: Dependence on the Dictionary « God Didn't Say That | June 14, 2010 | Reply

  4. […] few days ago, I was reading Joel Hoffman’s post on Isaiah 1:3 at God Didn’t Say That and something he wrote called my […]

    Pingback by What Was the Donkey Doing in Its Master’s Crib? | Dr. Claude Mariottini – Professor of Old Testament | April 18, 2011 | Reply

  5. […] In the present post, I want to discuss Joel Hoffman’s post on Isaiah 1:3 at God Didn’t Say That. […]

    Pingback by Cats and Dogs in the Old Testament | Dr. Claude Mariottini – Professor of Old Testament | May 28, 2011 | Reply

  6. […] few days ago, I was reading Joel Hoffman’s post on Isaiah 1:3 at God Didn’t Say That and something he wrote called my […]

    Pingback by What Was the Donkey Doing in Its Master’s Crib? | Claude Mariottini - Professor of Old Testament | December 13, 2011 | Reply


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