8 Jan 2011

Ancestry of the King James Version #5: More Greek Thoughts & "Literal" Translation

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Church History, Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, King James Version

Previous contributions on this thread are linked here: Ancestry of the KJV #1; Ancestry of the KJV #2; Ancestry of the KJV #3; Ancestry of the KJV #4

Just a few thoughts on Greek and translation. In order to show in the clearest manner of the difficulty in this I will point out a few differences between English and Greek. Translation is not simply looking up a definition in the back of Strong’s Concordance and then thinking we can “translate.”

Sentence Structure

The beginning point may well be the difference in structure of the unit of language . . . a sentence. At nearly all stages Greek tended toward long and involved sentences, called by stylists “periods.” Short sentences with connectives were avoided by the use of participial constructions, and dependent clauses introduced by conjunctions with verbs in dependent moods, or infinitives. For example, the first paragraph after the salutation of the book of Ephesians runs eleven verses, twenty-eight lines, in Nestle’s text. The literalistic ASV attempts to reproduce this entire paragraph in one sentence in English. It does so by the unnatural (to English) use of colons and dashes. Earlier in the 20th century E. J. Goodspeed rendered better by casting the participles, relative clauses and infinitives into six English sentences. The TEV does an even better job (in my opinion). The NIV is quite natural in English as well. There are other areas in structure but this is a basic example.

The Greek Definite Article

Few things illustrate the disparity between English and Greek better than the use of the Greek article. First, the absence of an indefinite article in Greek forces the translator to become an interpreter in nearly all cases as to whether the anarthrous Greek noun is indefinite ( “a” or “an”) or qualitative. In many cases where Greek has no article the noun is still definite and must be translated with an article in English. These include such constructions as the Hebrew construct state, Colwell’s rule where the definite noun usually omits the article if it precedes the copulative verb, the omission of the article in the rule of regimen, and after prepositions. On the other hand, the tendency to use the article in Greek with well-known items at first mention, with class nouns, with the second mention of a noun which is indefinite at first mention (anaphora) especially with proper names and abstract nouns illustrate the opposite tendency. Thus the tendency to translate the Greek and to omit it where it is not present in Greek is a rule of thumb with many pitfalls.

Constructions Lacking in either English or Greek

A list of constructions which exist either in English or Greek but not the other is revealing. The following examples are suggestive rather than exhaustive. Greek has no gerund. It cannot use the participle in naming or speaking of an action such as “walking is a good exercise.” This lack is usually supplied by a nominal use of an infinitive in Greek, though nearly all versions use the participle in translating. The Greek participle used with the definite article as a substantive does not occur in English; the translators usually resort to a relative clause: “the one who sows.” Greek has a third person imperative, which we can only paraphrase in English. An Optative mood exists in Greek and though it was disappearing in NT times it still occurs 65 times in the NT. Greek has a middle voice expressing what the subject does “for him/herself” . . . this is interpreted into English with a reflexive pronoun. Greek has five case forms for substantives; English retains case form only in pronouns and even then only three. The differences be compensated for in many ways . . . usually with prepositional phrases such as “of” for the genitive of possession or “in” with the locative of place. This list could be much extended . . . but the effect on so called “literal” translation is obvious.

Ambiguous Constructions in Greek

Greek has many constructions where only the context, and the interpretation of the translator, can decide which of two meanings was intended. Many times, for example, the translation turns on whether the participle is to be taken as middle or passive. The genitive with the noun of action may be either subjective or objective, and even the faithful ASV does not hesitate to decide which (as in 2 Tim 1.12 and Acts 4.9). A Greek adverbial participle may have any one of a number of meanings according to the context: condition, concession, time, cause, purpose. Nearly always the English translator (even in the ASV) must decide which. A standard beginning grammar of NT Greek will list numerous uses of the genitive case (“of”) or the accusative (English objective), each with a difference in translation. In each case the translator must decide (i.e. interpret) by the context which use is intended.

Let me illustrate the actual impossibility of a literal “word for word” translation by showing that a student who looked up every word in a typical Greek sentence and set one word in English over the Greek . . . it would look like this:

And it became in one of the days teaching of him the people in the temple and evangelizing they stood up the high priests and the scribes with the presbyters and they said saying against him, they tell us in such authority these things you do.” (Luke 20.1-2 . . . as literal as you can get).

This is not translation!!!

Or how about one single Greek word . . . “angareuo” used in Matthew 5.41.

There is an awful lot of information in this one little verb and it is “literally” impossible to render this one Greek verb with one English verb. It combines at least the following basic semantic components of meaning: 1) burdensome activity; 2) which is compelled; 3) by officers or soldiers of an occupation force; and 4) on non-citizens or persons without status. A so called “literal” rendering of this verb misses the meaning in English (and the NIV is quite “literal” at this point). A good rendering of this might be the TEVs rendering of the text “if one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack . . . ”

One final illustration from part of p46 which is pictured above. This portion has our 2 Cor 11.33 to the beginning of 12.2. The numbers correspond to the line numbers on p46. For this papyrus and other early NT mss with transcriptions and photographs see Philip W. Comfort & David Barrett The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts.

1 εν σαργανη εχαλασθην δια του τειχους
in a basket I was lowered through the wall
2 και εξεφυγον τας χειρας αυτου καυχασ
and escaped his hand. To boast
3 θαι δει ου συμφερον μεν ελευσομαι δε
it is necessary (although not expedient indeed), and I will come
4 εις οπτασιας και αποκαλυψεις κυ οιδα
to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know

Our Stoned-Campbell forefathers understood translation principles and practice better than some of their descendants. Moses E. Lard’s comments on H. T. Anderson’s translation marks a fitting conclusion to our discussion to this point …

The sense of the sacred text should be expressed in the fewest English words that adequately convey it to mind. These words, let me add, should be arranged with no reference to the order of the words of the original. The usages of the English and modes of English thought alone should determine the form the English sentence should take … We should always prefer two or three or even more simple easy words to one learned or unfamiliar one in making a translation” (Moses Lard, “H. T. Anderson’s Translation” Lard’s Quarterly 2 [January 1865], 190, 191)

Lard understood both Greek and English.

6 Responses to “Ancestry of the King James Version #5: More Greek Thoughts & "Literal" Translation”

  1. pilgrimdan Says:

    good stuff Bobby…

  2. Frank Bellizzi Says:

    Bobby,

    Another good post. I wonder: How many of the translation wars in the U.S. have been possible mainly because the opponents never knew any other language besides English? A good argument for required language study in our schools. I wish I’d been forced to learn a little Latin in high school. Starting Hebrew at age 36 was hard on my feeble pea brain.

  3. Marcom Herren Says:

    Very inforative post, especially for us non-Biblical studies in college guys. I’ve enjoyed your work on the KJV, the version I was taught as a child, but I have long ago abandoned for daily reading purposes in favor of the NIV and in recent years, the NTL (with some use of the Amplified version at times as well).

    With this post, I see what a great and holy responsibility it is to actually undertake a translation from Greek/Hebrew into useable English. What forsight of God to author His Word in what is now a dead language, thus freezing it in time for use through the ages. To run my fingers over the words on the page with only a glimpse of the enormous work and preservation that went into the painstaking copying techniques of old and the incredible job of translating, and yet know that these are holy words, well… it is awe-inspiring. Thanks for the education.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Yes, good post Bobby. So sorry for the tragedy in your town.

    Gene

  5. Anonymous Says:

    MY THOUGHTS BOB ARE THE MORE I READ THEOLOGY AND DIG INTO TRANSLATION VARIANT’S AND THE STRUCTURAL COMPOSITIONS OF THE USE OF SYNTAX, OF SAY FAITH.
    THE MORE IMPORTANT THAT IT BECOMES TO BE A NARRATIVE THEOLOGIAN.
    COMPLEX ISSUES OF A PREDISPOSED CONCEPT OF CONTEXT SEEM AT TIMES THE ROOT OF MISSING THE TRUE LENS OF THE FAITHFULNESS OF THE TRINITY IN THE REESTABLISHMENT OF THEIR GOOD CREATION AS BROUGHT FORWARD IN,BY,AND THROUGH SCRIPTURE…WHICH IS TRULY THE POWER OF GOD FOR THE PURPOSE OF SALVATION TO ALL THAT believe…
    blessings
    rich constant

  6. Profile photo of Matt Dabbs Matt Dabbs Says:

    Do you have “Questions You’ve Asked About Bible Translations” By Jack Lewis? He has some really fun information in there including a list of several hundred KJV words that no one knows anymore or now means exactly the opposite like “let”.

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