God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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