Re: Style - how much can we know?

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Mon Mar 24 1997 - 21:43:29 EST

At 10:15 AM -0600 3/24/97, Jonathan Robie wrote:
>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.

This is not so simple a matter, in my opinion. I think that the
translations DO reflect this range of style, insofar as that range is
evident in a given work, but the extent to which they reflect it is a
measure of the quality of the translation and of the perceptiveness of the
translators. Certainly there's a good deal of subjectivity here, but we've
often cited the old Italian motto, "Traddutori Traditori"--"Translators
betray their trust" or more simply, "Translators are traitors." While it is
true that a translation will not be a precise and exact conveyance of the
sense of the original into a new tongue except insofar as the sense of the
original was rather trivial in its concreteness, it is also true that a
really good translation can in some ways transcend the original, at least
in its art. The English translation by Gilbert Highet of Werner Jaeger's
_Paideia_ is far better reading than Jaeger's German original.

Nor is it true that a committee can not do a translation that is sensitive
and powerful. Witness the King James Version, which is as much a monument
to one of the greatest eras of English prose and verse as the works of
Shakespeare. I venture to say that a reader of 1 Corinthians in the KJV can
readily discern the transitions of style. I don't really think that the
NRSV begins to approach the quality of the KJV, although it's more
accurate, but the New English Bible is quite good, and I think these
magnificent transitions can be felt by one reading it.

But when I spoke of the range of expression in Koine Greek running from the
crude and rough to the sublime, I certainly didn't have in mind that this
whole range is to be found in the NT. There is some rather rough material
in Mark, probably not Mark's own composition (so I now believe) but in
traditions he employs, but there is also some rather powerful but simple
narrative there. Luke is more elegant for the most part. Revelation is so
fascinating that one tends not to note its sometimes grotesque expressions.
I won't go into another tirade about the opening of Ephesians here. Hebrews
is rather grand in its own very unique way. But Paul, who is, after all,
responsible for a major portion of our most significant NT texts, is
remarkable in his abrupt transitions in level of style. Can anyone read Gal
1:1-5 and then move into 1:6-9 and not sense the intense irony of 1:6, the
vehemence of 1:7, and the indignation of the following verses? There is the
pathos of Romans 7:7-24 and the triumphal shout of vs. 25. Or another
transition that is absolutely fascinating is that from 1 Cor 12 into
chapter 13--to me it is not a whit less thrilling than the shift in
Beethoven's 9th from the tortuous slow opening of the last movement into
the Hymn to Joy. I think these are readily discernible to anyone who has
reached a certain level of competence in Greek, and I also think that they
are evident in the better translations.

>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?

How objective do they have to be? To be sure we have some sharp
disagreements among our list members over the style of the opening of
Ephesians, but I think there'd be more agreement about some of the others
I've mentioned above. One could read about it; Edgar Krentz has referred
more than once to the classic work of Eduard Norden, _Die Antike
Kunstprosa_, but such works won't be so meaningful to one who hasn't read a
good deal of Greek prose. Ultimately one has to read quite a bit of Greek
(just as one has to read quite a bit of English or German or any other
literature) to achieve a feel for its style. Objectivity is perhaps the
wrong word here; it is a matter of taste. Tastes differ, which is why we
say, De gustibus non disputandum, but there is such a thing as educated
taste, even where there can be some disagreement, and I think that there'll
be much more agreement over what passages in the NT are powerful and
expressive than there will be disagreement.

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

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