God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Unicorns, Dragons, and Other Animals You Meet in the Bible

The KJV translation of the OT mentions unicorns nine times and dragons over 30 times — translations that go back to the LXX, which features the monokeros (“one-horn”) and the drakon. The Hebrew words behind these animals — r’em and tanin, respectively — are more obscure. But the real question, in seems to me, is whether we are talking about actual animals or not.

In his entertaining and informative book Sacred Monsters, Natan Slifkin suggests that the monokeros may have been a rhinoceros, which, apparently, was not unknown to the translators who gave us the LXX. King Ptolomy, who commissioned that translation, apparently had one on display (p. 46 of Sacred Monsters, citing older sources.) And it seems that the Greek physician Ctesias described the rhinoceros as a “wild ass” with “a horn,” in the 5th century BC, so there’s precedent for the mistake; Marco Polo offered a similar description.

However, Slifkin doesn’t think that the r’em was a unicorn or a rhinoceros, and, in fact, he doesn’t think that it had only one horn, because of the reference in Deuteronomy 33:17 to “the horns of the r’em.” (The LXX doesn’t have this problem because it refers to “the horns of the monokeroses. Similarly, the KJV fudges with “the horns of unicorns,” noting with delightfully quaint grammar that the original Hebrew reads, “an unicorn.”)

The Greek drakon and the Hebrew tanin have popped up recently on Dr. Claude Mariottini’s blog (here) and, a while back, on my own (here). It’s complicated to compare the Hebrew tanin, the Greek drakon, and the KJV “dragon” and other translations (including “whale”) because there is some disagreement about the original text, as I describe here.

Furthermore, sometimes the Greek drakon and KJV “dragon” are translations of a different Hebrew word altogether: livyathan, commonly “leviathan” in English.

Dr. Mariottini notes in a response to a question to his post that, “The use of ‘dragon’ by the KJV [for tanin, rendered in the LXX as drakon] is not correct. There were no dragons in ancient Israel.”

His statement is interesting because there are no dragons at all: not in ancient Israel, but also not in ancient Greece, King James’ England, or 21st century America. I think his point, though, may be that ancient Israel didn’t even have the myth of dragons, in stark contrast to some other cultures, including our modern one.

The myth of mermaids and mermen may be older. Some people think the description of Dagon in I Samuel 5:4 refers to an idol of a fish-person. The Hebrew word dag means fish, and -on is a suffix in Hebrew that can mean “like.” The text reports that Dagon’s “head” and “two hands were cut off,” with “only the dagon” left. Perhaps the point was, “of that fish-person … only the fish-part was left.” (Other scholars connect dagon to dagan, “grain.”)

The prophet Ezekiel had no name for the creatures he saw. According to his description, they looked like a person, but with four faces (human, lion-like, ox-like, and eagle-like, each pointing in a different direction), four wings, straight legs, calf-like feet, and human hands. But I don’t think these were real in the same sense that, say, horses are.

There are dragons in Revelation, too, including the one that ends Chapter 12. Chapter 13 begins with a ten-horned, seven-headed beast. Like Ezekiel’s creatures, I don’t believe that the animal in Chapter 13 is supposed to be something that exists in this world. But what about the dragon in Chapter 12?

More generally, I think the real translation question with all of these creatures is whether they were intended to be mythic or — for want of a better word — real.

Even if they were intended to be real, “dragon” and “unicorn” may have been right once. It seems that people thought that both existed. (As late as the 17th century, scholars in Europe argued that griffins were real, and the only reason we didn’t see them was that, quite naturally, these magnificent creatures tended to stay away from people who would steal their gold). But now those translation wrongly take the real and turn them into fantasy.

On the other hand, if they were not meant to be real, then attempts to identify the exact species may be misguided, and maybe we should stick with “dragon” and “unicorn” and so forth.

If they were mythic, though, who’s to say that “dragon” back then had the same impact as “dragon” now (something I address briefly here)? For that matter, even if they were real, maybe “serpent” or what-not represents something today that it didn’t in the past.

But — and there’s nothing you can do but sit back and wait for the word-play to assault you — that a different kettle of fish.


March 23, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , | 8 Comments

Q&A: Jackals and Sea Monsters in Lamentations 4:3

From the About page comes this question about jackals and sea monsters:

I was wondering about Lamentations 4:3. All modern translations seem to agree that it mentions jackals, but the KJV translated it as “sea monster,” which commentaries then took to mean “pelican” (on the basis that pelicans were thought to feed their young with their own blood, a myth of good parenting that’s relevant to the context).

How could the KJV have got it so wrong? It’s not as though they’re similar animals. And is the modern translation certain?

It’s a great question, for three reasons.

First, it demonstrates the sort of translation problem that arises when there are divergent opinions about what the text is.

Secondly, it’s an example of the problems we have in translating animals and other technical terms. Even in English, “jackal” is ambiguous, inasmuch as people use the term differently. (I alluded briefly to a similar issue regarding “sparrows” here.)

Thirdly, the question highlights the metaphoric use of animals, and why that can be a translation challenge.

Which Text?

To understand Lamentations 4:3, and texts like it, we need a bit of background about where the text of the Hebrew Bible as we now know it comes from.

The exact text of the Hebrew Bible as it appears in today’s printed editions was redacted by a group of people (really, more than one group) called the Masoretes some 1,100 years ago. The Masoretes put in the vowel marks to augment the older consonantal text. They also made notes where they thought the consonantal text was wrong. But because they respected the traditional text so much, they didn’t actually change the printed text that they thought was wrong, relying instead on extra-textual notes to guide the reader.

The official text as it’s printed is called the “written” text and the official correction is called the “read” text.

Jackals and Sea Monsters

Hebrew has two words, tan, usually translated “jackal,” and tanin, usually translated “sea monster” in English and drakon in Greek. The plural suffix -im in Hebrew turns tan (“jackal”) into tanim (“jackals”), a word that sounds a lot like tanin. That is, “jackals” and “sea monster” sound very similar.

In the case of Lamentations 4:3, the “written” text is tanin, “sea monster” with a note that the “read” text should be tanim, “jackals.” (This is not the only “read”/”written” conflict in Lamentations 4:3. The “like ostriches” part is the “read” text for the “written” text that has, apparently, as extra space.)

Though Jewish religious communities assume that the “written” text is the right one, translators shouldn’t always make that assumption. Here, though, the plural verbs in the Hebrew make the singular tanin impossible; unless the verb is wrong, the subject cannot be the written tanin.

On the other hand, the Greek LXX translates drakontes here, as though the Hebrew were taninim.

The KJV seems to have translated the LXX (or maybe the “written” text, but probably the LXX) here.

What are Jackals and Sea Monsters?

The second issue is more difficult. How do we know what tan or tanin means?

The answer is that we don’t.

“Jackal” is a fine guess for tan, based on Isaiah 43:20, where the tanim are “field animals,” probably “wild animals”; and based on Malachi 1:3, where tanot (female tanim) live in the desert. But these could also be “hyenas” or “coyotes” etc.

Also indicative of the confusion, we see “jackals” in most translations of Psalm 63:10, but the Hebrew word there is different.

(We have a bit more information about what tanin means. Genesis 1:21 connects the anim to water; so do Psalm 74(73):13 and Psalm 148:7. Exodus 7:12 connects it to a magic trick with rods. So “water snake” looks like a good guess.)

What, Really, are Jackals?

More importantly, though, we see two additional facts about tanim. They frequently occur metaphorically with ostriches (Job 30:29, Isaiah 43,20, Micah 1:8, etc.); and they are a symbol of destruction (Psalm 44:19, Psalm 63:11, Isaiah 13:22, Jeremiah 9:11, etc.)

To get a sense of how the metaphor might have worked, we can compare “hawk” and “vulture” in English. Most people can’t tell them apart. But even so, to call someone a “vulture” is an insult, while the same is not true for “hawk.”

So even if tanim are jackals, and even if y’einim (in the second half of Lamentations 4:3) are ostriches, “jackals” and “ostriches” still might not be the right translation.

The poetry of Lamentations 4:3-4 seems to rely on taking the image of “jackal,” normally a sign of destruction, and suggesting that even the jackal is better than what Zion has become: the tongue of the nursing infant goes thirsty (Lamentations 4:4) whereas even the jackal (4:3) nurses its young.

I don’t think that “jackal”/”ostrich” conveys that progression. I wonder if “rat” would be a better translation here, because to me when a city is overrun it’s overrun with rats: “Even the rat nurses its young…” is the point.

February 12, 2010 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , | 6 Comments

Are You a Good Dragon or a Bad Dragon?

In response to Scot McKnight’s third post on Translation Tribalism, MatthewS says:

A prof told me once that some missionaries in China feel that translators might have made a mistake by translating the word “dragon” in Revelation literally. It is supposed to convey negative affect but the dragon in Chinese culture is a positive thing. This is a literal word-for-word translation that tends to immediately convey the opposite intended impression.

He’s talking about Revelation 12 and 13, for example (12:3), “Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads” (NRSV).

Is “dragon” the right translation into Chinese even if the original was a bad omen and the Chinese a good one? Or to put the question differently, do drakon and whatever the Chinese is really mean the same thing if they have such different connotations?

September 15, 2009 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , | 8 Comments