Mondays with Moisés: Learning Greek and Translating Greek

As we all know, there simply aren’t enough months, weeks, or days to praise the excellencies of our Infallible Hero. Because of this, and in spite of my desire to not overwhelm you, my gentle snowflakes, with feature posts, I have felt compelled on this week leading up to Bible Translation Day & International Translation Day to share with one and all the following selections from Moisés Silva’s contribution to the 2003 Festschrift for the late great biblical scholar and translator, Ronald F. Youngblood (d. 2014). While I trust that the combined selections below convey the main thrust of Silva’s argument in this spellbinding essay, please be advised that in the full version they frame multiple and fascinating examples that are worth your time and consideration. Please note the bibliographic information at the end of the post, and make a point of reading this essay—and this remarkable Festschrift—in its entirety.

silva“College and seminary courses in the biblical languages consist primarily of guiding the student in translating word-for-word. If the resulting rendering violates English syntax or makes no sense at all, changes may be introduced, but as a rule these translations are stilted (sometimes barely intelligible to a layperson) and rarely express the thought of the original in the most natural way that the rich resources of the English language make available. Most of us have thus been led to believe that if we manage to represent the Greek and Hebrew words in as close a one-to-one correspondence as possible, we have succeeded in the task of translation. But who would consider successful a Spanish-to-English translation that had such renderings as “I have cold in the feet” (instead of “My feet are cold”) or “He has ten years” (instead of “He is ten years old”)—even though these sentences conform to English syntax and their meaning can be figured out? […]

“All successful translations of literature (for example, contemporary German novels) sound natural, as though they had originally been written in English (while also preserving a feel for the original cultural setting). Therefore, they are more easily read and understood than if they reflected the foreign syntax and word usage. (Incidentally, since the message communicates more clearly, one can argue that they are more accurate than literal renderings would be.) […] Because most New Testament books (as well as Old Testament Hebrew narrative) are characterized by a fairly straightforward syntax, many of whose features can be paralleled in English syntax, we are lulled into thinking that literal renderings of the Greek text “work.” But just because a certain Greek syntactical pattern can be reproduced in English, that hardly means it should, as though such reproduction were the best or most faithful representation of the original. […]

“The first time I taught extrabiblical Hellenistic Greek, I had a small group of advanced college students who had shown strong competence in two years of New Testament Greek. One of them was an unusually gifted student who, nevertheless, felt quite frustrated and discouraged because of the difficulties she was experiencing. How was it possible that she could do so well understanding and translating the Greek of the New Testament and yet feel so lost working with Epictetus? Almost all students I’ve taught since then have had a comparable reaction, even though the language of Epictetus is in fact relatively simple. How does one explain this phenomenon?

“Part of the answer is that biblical students are dependent—to a much greater degree than they realize—on their familiarity with the contents of the New Testament. There is no shame in this. The main reason we understand Time magazine well is that we are very familiar with the historical context in which American English is spoken. The further removed we are from the context of a document (e.g., in time—say, Shakespeare—or in subject matter—legal documents), the greater our difficulties in making sense of it. A student’s basic familiarity with the biblical subject matter and form of expression, over against an unfamiliarity with the concerns and phraseology of Hellenistic philosophers, has much to do with the frustrations he or she will experience moving from one to the other.

“But that explanation does not get to the heart of the linguistic problem. As already suggested, an exclusive (or nearly exclusive) acquaintance with the simple narrative of the Gospels or with the unassuming discourse of the Pauline letters, combined with the instinctive tendency (confirmed and encouraged by the instructor) to represent the text by means of one-to-one English correspondences whenever possible, creates a conception of the workings of the Greek language that is derived from an alien structure. On the other hand, intensive training translating clauses and sentences that cannot be rendered word-for-word and thus require restructuring would give students an entrée into the genius (i.e., the authentic character) of the foreign tongue. It would also help them see much more clearly that such restructuring could be the preferable method of rendering even when it may not appear “necessary.” The point here is that a nonliteral translation, precisely because it may give expression to the genius of the target language (in this case English), can do greater justice to that of the source language (Greek).”

Moisés Silva, “Are Translators Traitors? Some Personal Reflections,” in Glen G. Scorgie et al. (eds.), The Challenge of Bible Translation: Communicating God’s Word to the World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 38, 39, 40, 42-43.


2 responses to “Mondays with Moisés: Learning Greek and Translating Greek

  1. Oh my, is this great. I’ve been reading God’s Word translation for at least 5 years now. Most Reformed and conservative people look down on it. I like to read the Bible in Koine English. I’m also grateful for all of the other translations we have at our disposal.


  2. Pingback: Around the Web | Scripture Zealot blog

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