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Jeremiah 31:18

One of the reference librarians at the establishment that employs YHB was recently asked about a possible English translation of Jeremiah 31:18. I looked it up, and it’s a very interesting and tricky verse. Let’s start with the KJV:

I have surely heard Ephraim bemoaning himself [thus]; Thou hast chastised me, and I was chastised, as a bullock unaccustomed [to the yoke]: turn thou me, and I shall be turned; for thou [art] the LORD my God.

From the Hermeneia series, I believe this lovely poetic translation is by William L. Holliday:

(A sound) I have heard,
  Ephraim rocking with grief:
“You punished me, and I took the punishment”
  like a calf untrained.
Bring me back, and let me come back,
  for you are Yahweh my God.

The JPS:

I can hear Ephraim lamenting:
You have chastised me, and I am chastised
Like a calf that has not been broken.
Receive me back, let me return,
For You, O Lord, are my God

That’s enough to go on with, right?

And perhaps some context: Jeremiah (or Yirmiyahu) is talking about the destruction of the Temple, the end of the Kingdom of Israel, and the beginning of the Babylonian Exile. The entire book is a book of desolation and loss. The Divine speaks to Jeremiah to pass along to the bereft People of Israel an explanation, at least, for their loss: they had sinned. Whether you believe that the prophecies written in the book were declaimed before the events (and predicted them) or after (and explained them), they were clearly for those of us who live after the events, and must live with a world in which they make sense.

Within the fifty-odd chapters of Jeremiah, just over halfway through, there is what has been called Jeremiah’s Book of Consolation, 30:1-31:40, which says that Israel will be restored, the humbled will be honored, etcetera etcetera etcetera. Not only will the southern kingdom (Judah) be restored, but the northern kingdom, which had been conquered a hundred and fifty years before, will be brought together with them, restoring the Ten Tribes. There’s an image of Rachel weeping for her children (the Sages say that she was buried along the roadside so that the Israelites would pass by under her protection on the way to the rivers of Babylon), and the Divine says to her Your children shall return to their country. And then we move from a weeping Rachel to the lamenting Ephraim, and our verse.

Shamo’a shamati
Ephraim mitnodayd
yisartani va’ivasair
k’aygel lo lumad
hashivaynu v’ashuvah
ci atah adonai elohai

The first thing here are the pairs, keeping in mind that in Hebrew duplication indicates emphasis: Shamo’a shamati from sh’ma, to hear; hashivaynu v’ashuvah, from shuv, to turn; the more hidden one yisartani va’ivasair both from the root ysr, meaning… well, meaning to chastise or castigate, either by the whip or by the word. To correct, to reprove, to teach. In 1Ki 12:11, my father hath chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions. On the other hand, Pro 29:19, A servant will not be corrected by words: for though he understand he will not answer. At any rate, those three pairs are there for emphasis, for double emphasis as it were, and in any translation we need to keep it in mind. KJV uses surely heard to keep the emphasis without the un-English double; Mr. Holliday adds the noun sound to flesh it out, while the JPS simply elides it. The Vulgate, bye-the-bye, begins audiens audivi, presumably from the Septuagint ἀκοὴν ἤκουσα; I gots no Latin or Greek, so I’m no good, there. Probably worth keeping in mind, though, that the Greek was possibly redacted earlier than the version of the Hebrew we’re looking at now; our Jeremiah-text has passed through many hands.

Anyway. There are these three pairs, lovely pairs, in the first, third and fifth lines of the poem. I’m treating it like a poem, by the way, because it so clearly is one. Then we have the other lines, backing them up. The Divine heard (or heard heard) Ephraim mitnodayd, Ephraim is the personification of the northern kingdom, not unlike Uncle Sam or the Russian Bear. And he is doing something with the root nud, to be moved or agitated, either physically or mentally. I don’t know anything more than that—Mr. Holliday is poetic and drawing back to the image of Rachel weeping by the side of the road, and I think it’s lovely—but is he translating too much into the text? I think part of the beauty of the passage is its strange mutability, the way that it remains open to a variety of moods and emphases, and I am reluctant to cut any of them off by making others too concrete. On the other hand, some choice must eventually be made.

The fourth line: k’aygel lo lumad, like an calf without teaching. The root lmd means both to teach and to learn (the same root as Talmud), but is connected with beating just as ysr is; Rashi makes the connection to malmad, the ox goad in Judges 3:31: Shamgar the son of Anath, which slew of the Philistines six hundred men with an ox goad. So, an untrained calf or an unbeaten calf, a calf that had not previously known the rod.

The last bit is a formula, here using my rather than our to keep the idea of the personification (singular) representing the scattered northerners (plural). Nothing really interesting there, as once a translator has decided on how to translate the formula for the rest of the text, it gets plugged in here with the singular version.

So. Where are we?

The divine hears (or rather hears hears) Ephraim, rocking and/or lamenting. And Ephraim says that he has been chastised chastised, or rather than he has been both actively and passively chastised, lashed like a calf that had never felt the rod, and was turned turned, or both actively and passively turned. Now, shuv has, to my ears, the connotation of repentance, of restoration, of return. And of course the entire thing is a metaphor of return—the southern kingdom from the Babylonian Exile and the Lost Tribes from their earlier dispersal—so emphasizing restoration makes a lot of sense.

On the other hand, I think that runs the risk of losing—I think all three of the above translations do lose—the power of the image of breaking an ox to the plow. Ephraim is a calf still young, and the Divine is subjecting him to the whip and the rod, and Ephraim is at the end of the field at the edge of the weeds and is turning, turning—turning away from blundering into the untamed wilderness and turning back (under duress) to plow another furrow so that the farm can grow. I like that image, the lumbering dumb animal, and how difficult it is to turn.

So what do you think, Gentle Readers? How would you translate all that?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Hear, O hear
Lamenting Ephraim
Scourge, O scourge
The calf uncorrected
Turn, O turn
For you are the Lord, my god

Matt, I like your translation a lot and am a sucker for the beautiful words. It has a lot of the poetic repetition of the original. I do miss some of the sense of pairing God's action/reaction and Ephraim's action/reaction but I tend to think part of the reason poetry works to express the Divine is because it is flexible. If we point too hard to the theology of the lines, I think it's easy to end up with a text that speaks to Jeremiah's age and not to our own as well.

Thanks, Fran. One nice thing about this weird English of ours is that it can be almost as ambiguously evocative in its multiple meanings and variable intentions as ancient Hebrew.

Matt, I am going back and forth on your translation. On the plus side, it's beautiful. On the minus side, having the whole thing in the imperative bothers me--both because it loses the action/reaction thing that Fran talks about and because it seems more one-sided, somehow, than the original. On the plus side, again, though, it's got great rhythm. Also the mouthfeel, if you will, evokes the original, with its sparse syllables holding a lot of weight. Also also I love scourge, which is a much better choice than chastise or punish.

May I (with attribution, of course) share your verse?

Still looking for more, of course…


Of course.

Thanks for the kind words. I've tried translating poetry before (from medieval German and from middle English), and the decision tree is amazingly complex, especially when the original poem is complex, as this one is. The question becomes whether you (the translator) want to create a powerful poem or a literal sense of what the original poet is doing. Both at the same time is virtually impossible, so I opted for poetry.

As for the poem being in the imperative, I deliberately left the subject of each verb ambiguous, so there are a ton (well, okay - maybe only four) of possible readings of the grammatical structure, only one of which is imperative. Even if it's imperative, who is being addressed?

I see what you're saying about the imperative, but that's the most common English situation where the subject of the verb is left out. Perhaps that's why I like scourge so much, as it's both a verb and a noun—as is, now that I think about it, turn—so that the speaker may be addressing the Divine Scourge as well as saying that scourging is occurring, or may occur… Of course, the issue of the speaker is as complicated as everything else, here, as this bit is within a ‘sayeth the Lord’ bit, and is, more or less, Jeremiah's scribe writing down Jeremiah's vision of the Lord quoting Ephraim, all without the curly marks.

Now I'm wondering--what if instead of hear in the first line, it was sound? Sound has the verb/noun thing going on, which I am liking. Although I'm not sure about sound and scourge seeming to need a third sibilant. Hmph.


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