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.

Mondays with Moisés: International Moisés Silva Day 2017

This is a great and wondrous day. Rejoice, my gentle snowflakes! For our Infallible Hero, the great Moisés Silva, was born on September 4, 1945, and so we mark on this day his 72nd birthday—a number which is most appropriately Septuagintal.

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As is well known, the Chief Burden of this blog during the past decade has been to spread the knowledge of the infallibility of Moisés Silva throughout the land. Therefore it occurred to me back in 2010 that his dies natalis should be one of the preeminent observances in this blog’s yearly calendar. As a result, I duly proclaimed September 4 as International Moisés Silva Day, to be celebrated thereon in perpetuity.

That solemn and universal proclamation in 2010 attracted some attention from a number of denizens of Litchfield, Michigan, nearly all of whom were, apparently, Our Infallible Hero’s fellow congregants. One teaches Sunday School with him. Another has, I assume, tea and biscuits with him. Yet another tells of his penchant for sampling the fair dining evidently to be had in the area. And still another is his grandniece! Every one of these individuals is blessed beyond measure, and I am delighted that I was able to open their eyes to this glorious truth. I regret to note, however, that the civil authorities in Litchfield have been slower in embracing International Moisés Silva Day, as witnesses the fact that nothing is said about it in the city’s Community Calendar. I realize, of course, that governments are often slow to embrace new holidays, yet one would certainly expect an exception in this case. But I digress.

I myself have never met our Infallible Hero, though a couple of years ago I found myself a mere 10 minutes down the road from Litchfield while visiting some friends in nearby Hillsdale, the closest geographic proximity to which I have yet attained (assuming he was home that day). However, I did once have a small Silvophany, 20 years ago this past spring.

At the time I was a college freshman and had only been introduced to the writings of our Infallible Hero a few months earlier. I did not yet know that he was infallible, but even then I could tell that he was one of the greats. Thanks to the wonders of the internet (also new to me that academic year), I quickly discovered that he had just moved from Westminster Theological Seminary to become the Mary French Rockefeller Professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. I promptly sent for an academic catalog, hoping, perhaps, to study with him one day. While browsing the seminary webpage, however, I stumbled upon a precious and irresistible piece of information: his institutional email address.

Being young and not yet knowing that I shouldn’t waste the time of my betters, I dashed off to him a note in Spanish telling him about the things I was learning, and thanking him for the books of his that I was then reading. Within a few hours,  as I recall, I received a short reply from the eminent scholar, likewise in Spanish, saying that he appreciated my enthusiasm and expressing his best wishes for my studies. Sadly I cannot produce the text of the note, as it perished together with other important artifacts of my electronic past in one of those tragic server outages for which Hotmail became justly (in)famous, but 20 years later I remain grateful to him for taking the time to write a warm and encouraging reply to what was, I am quite sure, a piece of incoherent fan mail.

I regret that I never got the chance to study formally with Professor Silva, but I have sought to make him my teacher in other ways over the years: by reading his books and articles, by listening to his lectures and sermons, and above all, by striving to allow his exceptional scholarship to form my learning. To him I say, then, together with all those fortunate enough to have sat under his instruction in various places:

Ad multos annos, Magister!

Mondays with Moisés: On the NIV

Welcome to “Mondays with Moisés” at The Voice of Stefan! Of course, there simply aren’t enough days in the week to praise the excellencies of our Infallible Hero, but this occasional feature will grace your computer screens, well, whenever I wish to post a “Sundays with Silva” but can’t manage to do it by the end of the Lord’s Day. This installment, in which Silva introduces an article for the OPC’s magazine New Horizons addressing criticisms to the NIV from various quarters, seemed appropriate to me in light of the recent news regarding that translation.

silva“When the editor of New Horizons asked me if I would be interested in writing a response to criticism of the NIV, I hesitated briefly. After all, I was not involved in the translating of the NIV. Moreover, I think the NIV is far from perfect. During the past few years, I have been involved in the production of an ‘NIV-like’ translation of the Bible into Spanish. This work, which involves very close comparison of the NIV with the original, has alerted me to numerous renderings that appear unsatisfying, problematic, or even plain wrong. In other words, my own list of objections is probably much longer than that of the most outspoken critics of the NIV. So why then would I agree to write this article? Simply because my list of objections to other versions would be even longer. This is not to say that all available English translations are bad. Quite the contrary! We are richly blessed by a wide variety of versions, almost all of whichwhen compared with good translations of other literaturehave to be regarded as clear and accurate, but never perfect.”

(Moisés Silva, “Reflections on the NIV,” New Horizons [June 1995]; quoted in Kenneth Barker, “Hearing God’s Word Through a Good Translation,” in Arie C. Leder [ed.], Reading and Hearing the Word: From Text to Sermon. Essays in Honor of John H. Stek [Grand Rapids: Calvin Theological Seminary and CRC Publications, 1997], pages 30-31.)

When I first read these comments by Silva about a decade ago, I couldn’t help but to nod in agreement. At that point, I had been preaching regularly in English for a couple of years, and since the Bible in my congregation’s pews was the NIV, I had finally resigned myself to using it in all my preaching and teaching. As you might guess from the tone of my comments, this was a difficult decision to make: I had never been a fan of the translation, and in fact had gone out of my way to avoid it until I it was (in a sense) forced upon me. But by the time I finally laid down my preaching Bible to enter the communion of the Orthodox Church shortly thereafter, I had developed a very deep appreciation for the NIV born from struggling to preach and teach its words week in and week out. Oh, there still were plenty of exegetical decisions made by the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) that seemed less than fortunate to me, and a few that appeared to be so thoroughly mistaken as to be shocking; however, as I became more intimately familiar with the way the NIV works as a translation, I learned to trust it as a basically reliable (though far from perfect!) text for preaching and teaching. To borrow the words of our good friend Kevin Edgecomb,

“There’s nothing dirty, little, or secret in my love for the NIV. From start to finish, most particularly in the savvy yet vanishingly rare instance of having hired a style consultant, the NIV project was exemplary. I’m often in awe of their skill at paraphrase. The quality of the English is a perfect middle, not too elevated, not too, er, plebian. It’s a great translation, and probably the most successful yet.”

Although I haven’t used the NIV as my primary Bible for several years, I was enthusiastic about the release of the TNIV in 2005, and as early readers of this blog might recall, I spent several months trying to obtain a copy of it (which, alas, proved impossible to find in Puerto Rico). Once I finally got hold of one, I was impressed by the quality of the translation: many exegetical mistakes and other infelicities of the 1984 edition that had previously troubled me had now been corrected, and it was on the whole a superior text to its older counterpart. The story of the regrettable and unedifying campaign of disinformation to which the TNIV was subjected has been told many times, and I need not repeat it here. Now that it had been announced that the TNIV will be retired from the market, I can only repeat what Rick Mansfield so poignantly said in his eulogy for that translation: “[A]s for me, I’ll always remember the TNIV with great fondness. It was surely the best translation that nobody ever read” (emphasis his).

All that said, I look forward to the NIV 2011 project, which will replace both the 1984 NIV and the 2005 TNIV. Of course, it will not be a perfect translation. There will doubtless be many problems with itat least as many as there are with any other translation out there in the market. But we have seen already in the TNIV what the CBT can accomplish when it sets itself to the task of revision, and on those grounds, there is no reason to be anything but hopeful.