Re: Porter on the present

From: Philip L. Graber (
Date: Thu Oct 19 1995 - 09:00:37 EDT

On Wed, 18 Oct 1995, Mari Olsen wrote:

> I guess that's my point--also, apparently, not too clear--there IS no
> difference in meaning that may be reflected in an English translation,

At least not one that has been worked out and systematically adopted yet.

> since the two forms (in the case you mentioned) are equivalent. THe
> theory is just cleaned up, so that what we THOUGHT was English and
> Greek 'tense' is not. The longer answer is that the Greek present is
> marked for imperfective aspect (not tense), and the English present is
> unmarked for both tense and aspect. The English form may therefore,
> by pragmatic implicature (e.g. in the context you mentioned) take on
> the imperfective meaning, namely focus on a situation as it is
> unfolding in time (rather than the perfective focus on a complete(d)
> situation). In other words, to understand what the Greek present means, you
> need to look at what imperfective aspect is, rather than what the
> English translation is in a particular case.

Since Greek present has imperfective aspect, I wonder if a legitimate
option for translating it in narrative (i.e. when it is "historical
present") is the way the imperfect is often translated in a very literal
translation: i.e. LEGEI = "he was saying," rather than "he said." I
believe that Levinsohn wants to say that the historical present
(especially with verbs of saying where it is mostly used in the
synoptics) has a backgrounding effect rather than a highlighting one. One
of the questions I have had since reading Mari's dissertation is what the
difference is between present and imperfect tense when used in narrative.
(Now I have switched to talking about what it means, no longer how to
translate it.) I had suspected that present was a device for making
prominent, but I am not so sure, especially in light of Levinsohn's
discussion in his Coursebook.

Philip Graber Graduate Division of Religion
Graduate Student in New Testament 211 Bishops Hall, Emory University Atlanta, GA 30322 USA

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