Solomon’s litter

September 14, 2010 by 2 Comments

Was King Solomon a litter lout? Tongue in cheek, let me draw your attention to a somewhat unfortunate combination of expressions used by the English Standard Version (ESV) in translating Song of Solomon (Song of Songs) in Chapter 3 verses 2 & 3:

What is that coming up from the wilderness like columns of smoke … ?

Behold, it is the litter of Solomon!

At least he was burning his rubbish as he went along.

There are some lessons to learn here about unseen pitfalls for the translator. You, as translator,  may have a very clear idea of what the translated text is communicating, but a reader approaching it with a quite different mindset or worldview may manage to draw out of it a totally unintended meaning.

ESV use of the word ‘litter’ is quite justified, but the predominant use of the term in English nowadays as meaning ‘rubbish’ may push the reader to try and interpret the passage in the light of this more common usage. Anything else in the immediate context which can be taken to collocate with that sense of the word will only strengthen the incorrect hypothesis being formed in the reader’s mind.

Revised English Bible (REB) also uses the word ‘litter’ but forces the correct choice of sense by the wording:

Look! It is Solomon carried in his state litter …

Other versions use different terms, not always very poetical in nature:
‘portable couch’ (NET),  ‘throne’ (several versions), ‘carriage’ (several versions). I haven’t found one that uses ‘palanquin’.

How does the word ‘litter’ in English come to have such diverse senses? Possibly:  (1) couch carried as a comfortable seat or bed; → (2) material used to provide comfortable bedding for animals (straw, bits & pieces); → (3) bits & pieces left lying around which make a mess.

2 Replies to “Solomon’s litter”

  1. Geoff Wood says:

    Is this not the joy of language? it is always evolving ,devolving, or just changing and not even dictionarys can stop that . Dictionaries need to keep up with usage and so must the bible translators!

    1. Philip Hewer says:

      Absolutely! I think that’s why I find the ESV translation so frustrating. A translation which uses expressions like “Therefore my loins are filled with anguish” (Isaiah 21:3) is hardly up to date in its use of language. When were you last in touch with your loins and how they felt?

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