Sunday, January 1, 2012

That does not translate

Happy New Year, one and all.

As today is a Sunday, it is fitting that my first grump of 2012 comes from the Bible. I am tempted to go Old Testament on the translators of the New Revised Standard Version who gave us this: "Then Ahab said to Obadiah, 'Go through the land to all the springs of water and to all the wadis; perhaps we may find grass to keep the horses and mules alive, and not lose some of the animals.'"

Wadis? This passage is from 1 Kings, chapter 18, which, most likely, was written in the 6th century B.C. Why have the translators inserted an Arabic word that can be traced back no further than the 17th century? (The language did not coalesce into early Arabic until centuries after Christ's birth.) Did they think it would lend a little Middle Eastern flavor to Ahab's orders? Sorry, guys. Despite Ray Stevens' song (which I trust will now be going through your mind, as it is mine), Ahab was not an Arab.

Maybe a message I received in the course of business can shed light on the translators' motives. After an exchange of e-mails, my e-correspondent sent me this gem: "I hope you aren’t offended by my explanation marks, I am not being rude by any means, just think they look better than periods."

I had not previously heard exclamation points called "explanation marks," but I was dumbfounded with the explanation of the marks. She just likes the way they look! Isn't that how we all choose our punctuation?

Those translators just liked the sound of "wadis" ever so much better than "stream beds" or "valleys." Never mind if it's a weird anachronism that probably does not communicate to many English speakers. It rolls off the tongue so nicely! And looks so much better with explanation marks!

It's 2012. Do you know where your sanity is?


  1. "Wadi" appears many times in the NRSV for 1 Kings. The NAB, one of the alternatives I use, has Wadi in only a few places; it uses stream, brook, or valley instead. This seems more contextual and informative to me. The NIV appears to eschew wadi entirely.

    NRSV's use of wadi is perhaps a short-lived trend among selected academics.

  2. I hope it's short-lived. In most writing, a word that brings the reader out of the narrative is a word that should go. Alas, academics are so accustomed to the gelatinous writing of their colleagues that they are not always the best judges.

  3. I will remember from here on out to decorate my writing with aesthetic punctuation. More explanation marks!!!