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Are Ants People? (Mondays with Mounce Archive)

Categories Mondays with Mounce

Poetry can be exceptionally difficult to translate. It often conveys meaning more with pictures than with individual words, the words working together to create images more powerful than words.

Metaphors are only slightly easier, but here there is even less context and so the meaning of the metaphor is easily loss.

Case in point: Proverbs 30:26. Mark Strauss lists this in his “Oops” category. The ESV translates the passage from vv 24-28 as follows:

Four things on earth are small

but they are exceedingly wise:

the ants are a people not strong,

yet they provide their food in the summer;

the rock badgers are a people not mighty,

yet they make their homes in the cliffs;

the locusts have no king,

yet all of them march in rank;

the lizard you can take in your hands,

yet it is in kings’ palaces.

Mark objects to the use of “people” for ants and rock badgers. But look at the bigger picture. What image is the author trying to convey? He is attempting to create a comparison between people (who may be wise or who may not be wise) and animals (who are small but often show wisdom). Right?

  1. Ants are smart enough to find food in the summer.
  2. Rock badgers know how to live in the cliffs.
  3. Locusts don’t have a king (of course they don’t; they aren’t people) but they still march in rank (which of course they do not; have you ever seen a locust march? Fly perhaps, but march?)
  4. Lizards, if they are smart enough, can find a way into a palace and feast on the trash there.

Here is Allen P. Ross’ discussion in his commentary:

These verses focus on four things that are small but “extremely wise” (hakamim mehukkamim): ants, rock badgers, locusts, and lizards. The wisdom exhibited in the ants concerns their forethought and organization to make provision for food; the wisdom of the rock badgers (NIV, “coneys”) is found in their ingenuity to find a place of security; the wisdom of the locust consists in its cooperation and order, which when massed in military division becomes a force for man to reckon with (see D.W. Thomas, “Notes on Some Passages in the Book of Proverbs,” VetTest 15, p. 271-79); and the wisdom of the lizard is in its elusiveness and boldness (for a survey of lessons from nature, see S.P. Toperoff, “The Ant in the Bible and Midrash,” Dor le Dor 13 [1985]: 179-83). In God’s creation wisdom manifests itself in a variety of ways, and humans can learn the value of wisdom over size and numerical strength.

So what do we have? We have poetic language meant to help people make a connection between the wisdom of small animals and how they themselves should behave.

In this context, is it an "oops" to use anthropomorphical language to help make the connection?

Of course not. And this illustrates one of the dangers of a more dynamic view of translation. While all translations are interpretive, dynamic are more interpretive than formal equivalent translations, and that increased danger can miss the point being made by the text, especially poetry.

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William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics on the ZA Blog. He is the author of numerous works including the recent Basics of Biblical Greek Video Lectures and the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek. He is the general editor of Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV.

Learn more about Bill’s Greek resources at BillMounce.com.

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