Translating Perfect participles

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Sun Feb 16 1997 - 15:53:26 EST

I was asked off the list how I went about explaining perfect participles to
my students and if I could suggest a few guidelines about translating
perfect participles. I ended up with a longer note than I had intended and
thought I might as well share it with the list, for what it's worth. It
doesn't claim to be a thorough treatment of the topic, but I hope it might
be helpful.

I'm not sure that there is any single hard-and-fast rule on translating of
Perfect Participles; one really doesn't see them often enough to think a
lot about them either in Classical Attic or in Koine--just often enough
that one had better be able to recognize them. Here's something off of the
top of my head:

What I'm going to suggest is what I think would, in each case, be a
satisfactory and nearly literal version, although some are transformations
into more idiomatic English. See what you think.

I think that a good number of the perfect participles you see are going to
be in periphrastic verb formations together with a form of "to be." This is
especially the case with perfect passive participles because the old 3d
plural pluperfect ending (-NTO/ATO as in EGEGRAFATO) became obsolete very
early and was replaced by the periphrastic form.


        HN hESTHKWS = hEISTHKEI (pluperfect) "He was standing" (Take note
of this one especially, because it is fairly common: you can't say "is
standing "without using the perfect (hESTHKE) because the present tense
(hISTATAI) means either "is getting up (from a seated or reclining
position) or "is coming to a halt" (from a moving state). This is a major
verb that you see very frequently.
        HN GEGRAMMENON = EGEGRAPTO (pluperfect) "It had been written"
equivalent to an imperfect: "John [had been clothed in] was wearing camel's
hair ...

        EGENETO ANQRWPOS APESTALMENOS PARA QEOU (Jn 1:6):This is not quite
the same, but it is close to to a pluperfect; you COULD translate it as a
pluperfect, "a man had been sent from God" but more idiomatic would surely
be, "There was a man (OR "a man appeared") (who had been) sent from God ...

        Note in the above that you can ALWAYS turn a perfect participle
into a relative clause in the perfect or pluperfect as the case may be.
Very often this is the easiest and best expedient. Examples:

... "a sequential narrative concerning the matters (PRAGMATWN) that have
come to fulfillment (TWN PEPLHROFORHMENWN) among us ..."
good to me also, who have observed closely (followed along) from the outset
... to put in writing ..."

You are likely to see quite a few genitive absolutes with perfect tenses,
especially in Luke and Acts, but elsewhere too. Every one of these can be
translated as you would any circumstantial participle; most of them are
simply indicating the temporal circumstances, but sometimes it's a matter
of a reason ("since ...") or sometimes even concessive ("although"). I
would not try to translate any of them into an English nominative absolute
construction but always try to put them into idiomatic English adverbial

TWN QURWN KEKLEISMENWN ... Note that here the first participle (OUSHS) is
present tense and the second (KEKLEISMENWN) is perfect. Accordingly, since
the main clause is going to narrate a past event, translate OUSHS like an
imperfect and KEKLEISMENWN like a pluperfect, thus: "So when it was late
evening on that first day of the week, and (when) the doors had been locked

I don't claim that the above is exhaustive. My own preferred way of
teaching is not so much to lay down a lot of rules (except in the first
year), but to let students translate very slowly orally, and comment on
items in their versions that were particularly felicitous, items that were
accurate enough but could have been rendered more idiomatically or more
vividly, and of course, items that were misunderstood and need to be
explained so that similar errors might be avoided hereafter. I've used the
image of learning the topographical features of a sizable terrain for
learning Greek on the list before, and I think it is really appropriate.
You can only do so much with a precise geological survey map of a piece of
land; what you really have to do is get on the ground and start walking it.
I think that's what teachers spend a lot of time doing: trekking over land
that is familiar to the teacher but new to the student and helping the
student to become familiar with its idiosyncracies. At any rate, I
reiterate that this is not exhaustive, but I hope you may find it helpful
to some extent.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018 OR

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