Style - how much can we know?

From: Jonathan Robie (
Date: Mon Mar 24 1997 - 11:15:19 EST

Carl Conrad wrote:

>Certainly it would be worth while to learn the Greek language used in the
>New Testament, but don't romanticize its character: it runs the same range
>from crude and rough to altogether sublime expression as any sophisticated
>language can and does, and it takes at least as much time and effort to
>learn as does any other sophisticated language.

Translations, of course, don't really reflect this range of style. The
reason is simple: translations are written either by individuals or by
committees, and in either case, they will tend to write with a fairly
consistent writing style - either the individual translator's style or the
guidelines used by the committee.

There is another reason, too: it is almost impossible to accurately echo
style in a translation. I once had to endure a German translation of the
movie "The Color Purple" in which the translators tried to convey the
southern black dialects by choosing equivalently rural southern German
dialects; it was a disaster. Style is subtle, and doesn't survive
translation. It doesn't survive explanation particularly well, either. After
seeing "The Color Purple", people asked me what I thought, and when I
explained that a lot was lost, they asked me for a few examples. I explained
until I was blue in the face, but unless you have a good ear for southern
black dialects, the explanation doesn't really help - it is a bit like
explaining a joke that nobody understood when you suspect they won't
understand the explanation either.

That said, I *know* that I don't have a feel for style in the Greek New
Testament, and I suspect that it will take me a long time to develop a feel
for style. Some things are obvious: John's style is simpler than anybody
else's, with limited vocabulary which he uses very skilfully; Paul and Peter
use lots more participles than John does; Luke has a wide range of styles.
But I sincerely doubt that I "hear" the distinctions in style the way that
the original recipients do, and I suspect that even the Really Big Greeks
hear them only in part, and often disagree about what they do hear.

How much can we know about style? I suppose that we can compare forms to
those found in other writings whose purpose and audience is clear. How else
can we make objective statements about style?


Jonathan Robie
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Ph: 919.598.5728 Fax: 919.598.6728
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