Re: Untranslatable Texts

From: kdlitwak (
Date: Thu May 22 1997 - 19:26:40 EDT

Carl W. Conrad wrote:
> My colleague at Washington U, Merritt Sale, insists that Epicurus (we have
> relatively little--three letters and some aphorisms) is untranslatable
> because it is impossible to be clear at several points on exactly what he
> is saying in the Greek or what it means. My own favorite untranslatables
> are Thucydides (the speeches rather than the expository prose or narrative)
> and Aeschylus (esp.the Agamemnon). I think these are also the most
> difficult prose and poetry, respectively (add Pindar's epinician odes to
> the poetry) extant. What makes them especially difficult is syntax strained
> creatively to achieve fascinating ambiguities that one dare not (or so it
> seems to me) resolve the issue by deciding for a single one of multiple
> possible interpretations. The more I think about it, I believe there are
> some passages of Paul in the NT like this too, a couple of them recently
> under discussion, like Rom 8:1-4 or 7:1-6--and others will have their
> "favorites" too, no doubt.
    Now I find this very interesting. Within the last couple of weeks I
have posted that I found some passages in classical Greek which seemed
to me to strain Greek syntax. I also said that I found ambiguities. It
was ponted out by more than one poster that if only I had read more
Greek I would realize that no such grammatical straining nor ambiguities
existed. What Ineeded was to read more, period. I was going to post in
response that I quite realize that greater exposure to classical Greek
would in some cases clear these up.

   I did, however, want to point out that there are places which, if
grammatically proper, are certainly ambiguous and no amount of Greek
study will fix it. In the NT, we have things like PISTEWS IHSOU
CRISTOU. As for classical, we have THucydides' statement in War 1.22 I
think about speeches, a statement which classicists, whom I readily
grant know classical Greek better than I, can't begin to agree on the
meaning of. Did Thucydides say he invented speeches out of whole cloth
or that he faithfully reproted them as best he could? That's a pretty
big ambiguity I'd say.

   Now Carl Conrad comes along and with more "ammo" than I can muster
syas the very thing I've been upbraided for. Did I miss somethihg?

Ken Litwak

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