Posted by: mattcolvin | January 11, 2012

The what kind of locust??!




Thursday of the first week after Epiphany: Joel 1.

4 What the chewing locust left, the swarming locust has eaten;
What the swarming locust left, the crawling locust has eaten;
And what the crawling locust left, the consuming locust has eaten.

I have nothing terribly deep to say about Joel. I probably should, since I’m teaching on the plagues of Revelation 9 soon, and it bears some comparison with the similar vengeance described in Joel. But I haven’t thought enough about it.

Rather, what struck me is what a bear this sort of passage is to translate. The NKJV has a footnote after the name of the first sort of locust: “Exact identity of these locusts is unknown.” I should say so! We get similar opaqueness about birds in Leviticus 11:16-17: “the owl…the little owl…the great owl.” Three totally different words in Hebrew, and we have no clue what they really are. (See this page for discussion.)

One of the hardest things I had to translate in grad school was Aristophanes’ Birds. There are some frightful lists where even a very well-read classicist would have to look up every word: “hoopoo, owl, stork, egret, ostrich, mockingbird, nightingale, lark…” You just don’t have a chance without a pretty comprehensive bestiary in the original language! We can manage OK for Aristophanes because many of his bird names have come down to us in modern Greek unchanged. Still others are explained by scholiasts. But if you ever have to read the Birds in Greek, you’ll still want to get Nan Dunbar’s huge commentary to help you out with the ornithology.

I’m sure Bible translators feel the same way about entomology in Joel!



  1. […] 2:2 – the lowering clouds threaten, but the symbolic threat turns out to be a literal threat: clouds turn out to be locusts. I have discussed the lexicography here.  […]

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