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?


September 20, 2009 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , | 7 Comments