1 Kings 18:27

Posted: 20th April 2007 by ElShaddai Edwards in Translation

In the middle of the narrative of the contest between the prophets of Baal and Elijah on Mount Carmel is one of my favorite “idiom checks” for different translations. Since the idiom suggests a personal bodily function (“#2” as my three-year old son says), it’s not uncommon to see translations choose a different road. Without further ado, the texts:

HCSB: At noon Elijah mocked them. He said, “Shout loudly, for he’s a god! Maybe he’s thinking it over; maybe he has wandered away; or maybe he’s on the road. Perhaps he’s sleeping and will wake up!”

NLTse: About noontime Elijah began mocking them. “You’ll have to shout louder,” he scoffed, “for surely he is a god! Perhaps he is daydreaming, or is relieving himself. Or maybe he is away on a trip, or is asleep and needs to be wakened!”

REB: At midday Elijah mocked them: “Call louder, for he is a god. It may be he is deep in thought, or engaged, or on a journey; or he may have gone to sleep and must be woken up.”

TNIV: At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.”

The first difference between versions is the time of day. The NLTse uses the awkward “noontime”; this word choice is certainly outside of my speech pattern. Likewise the REB’s “midday”. I like that both the TNIV and NLTse include an element of time in their verb translations, “began to taunt/began mocking”.

Second, the choice between “mock” and “taunt” (in the case of the TNIV): Webster defines “mock (v)” as “to treat with contempt or ridicule”; “taunt (v)” is defined as “to reproach or challenge in a mocking or insulting manner”. The TNIV’s choice seems most descriptive and appropriate here. However, the NLTse then adds “scoffed” to the mix, stressing Elijah’s insolence, disrespect or sarcastic incredulity. The TNIV appeared to have achieved the same meaning with just one word, but then blows it with the bland “he said” in the middle of the first insult. The NLTse’s combination of “mocking/scoffed” with the sarcastic “You’ll have to shout louder, for surely he is a god!” emerges the choice for me.

“Perhaps” and “Maybe” are to be preferred to the REB’s “It may be…”

The sarcasm in the NLTse continues with the choice of “daydreaming” vs. “thinking it over” (HCSB) or “deep in thought” (REB, TNIV). Daydreaming is quite the frivolous activity for a god to be involved in when his prophets are trying to get his attention…

Coming to the idiom mentioned at the top of this post, only the NLTse explicitly translates “relieving himself”; the HCSB includes it as a possible alternative in a footnote. The other translations all choose some variant of “he is busy” for this particular phrase. Ironically, given its position as an “essentially literal” translation, the ESV is the only other version I’ve seen that translates this specific phrase:

ESV: And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”

Have you ever suffered through a speech that was obviously written with little or no regard to how it would sound when spoken? Most people write much more formally than they actually speak, which can be painful for the casual listener. The HCSB, REB and TNIV cluster the first three Baal activities into one phrase structure, then put the “sleeping” possibility in a separate structure. They all feel written to me and not what an insolent prophet of Yahweh would be bellowing on top of a hilltop. In contrast, the NLTse separates them into two pairs of activities, “daydreaming/relieving himself” and “away on a trip/sleeping”, and uses both “perhaps…” and “or maybe…” to create a natural ebb and flow in the speaking pattern of the text. I can read the NLTse with a mocking voice and not get tripped up by semicolons or repeating conjunctions.

Conclusion: I’m going to go with the NLTse again for this passage. Despite the unfortunate choice of “noontime”, I applaud the choice of the translators to translate the “bathroom” idiom, as well as for the sarcasm that they’ve infused into this verse, both in verb choice (mocked/scoffed) and a natural speaking flow.

  1. elshaddai says:

    [comments originally posted at http://eedwards.blogspot.com/%5D

    Kevin said…
    I like NLT’s “You’ll have to shout louder,” he scoffed, “for surely he is a god!” The TNIV’s expression is short and not so powerful as NLT2’s vivid imagery where I can actually see it. The HCSB’s “Maybe he’s thinking it over” is mocking him.

    NLT2’s “daydreaming” does sound frivolous but actually helps Elijah mock the sleeping god; whereas TNIV/NEB’s “deep in thought” sounds like the god is caught up in serious thought.

    You are absolutely right about ESV and NLT uses “relieving himself” which conjures up an image of someone doing one’s personal business in the toilet. E.g., similar to the scene where Ehud killed King Eglon in the toilet (latrine) (Judges 3:15-25). “Relieving himself” is also another strong expression used to mock. The NLTse does use expressions to mock.

    March 25, 2007 12:56:00 AM CST

    R. Mansfield said…
    This is also in line with the “Living tradition.” I don’t have my copy handy, but I believe the original Living Bible was a bit more blunt saying, “Maybe he’s on the toilet!”

    March 26, 2007 11:30:00 AM CST

    ElShaddai Edwards said…
    Thanks, Rick. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen a Living Bible!

    March 26, 2007 1:53:00 PM CST