Wadi you do? Elijah, the Drought, and Problems in Translation

“And it shall be that you will drink from the intermittent water course/wadi/torrent/creek, and I will command the ravens to nourish you there.” – 1 Kings 17.4


Not a nachal

As the rain has steadily fallen over the past few days, I have been translating 1 Kings 17, the story of Elijah and the drought in Israel. As I’ve worked through the Hebrew, I’ve run into a problem both linguistic and cultural: How do you translate a uniquely desert vocabulary into understandable terms for the land of 10,000 lakes.

At the heart of the problem lies the Hebrew word nachal. A nachal is body of water that flows in the rainy season and dries up during times of drought. Like most Germanic languages, English doesn’t have a word for intermittent water courses. In his German Bible, Luther translated nachal as Bach, literally “stream” or “creek.” Stream or creek gets the flowing part across, but not the intermittent part. We do have several loan words in English that get both parts across: From Arabic, we’ve borrowed the word wadi, and from Spanish, we’ve borrowed arroyo. But, neither wadi or arroyo is common parlance in the upper Midwest; I’m doubtful that either one would provide greater clarity than simply leaving nachal untranslated (although a reader would have an easier time looking up wadi and arroyo).

In short, there is always a tension between elegance and explanation. “Intermittent water course” lack elegance, but explains the idea. “Stream” or “creek” immediately conjure up images for English speakers, but don’t convey the dynamic of the Hebrew word. “Arroyo” and “wadi” get the idea across and are sort of English words, but will be lost on segments of readers. In other words, there’s no slick solution for translating nachal for the Minnesota mind, but it’s a good example of why learning the biblical languages can be a fruitful endeavor.