Re: Untranslatable Texts

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Thu May 22 1997 - 20:32:20 EDT

At 7:26 PM -0400 5/22/97, kdlitwak wrote:
>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

The Thucydides passages I'm pointing at are not the ones you were looking
at, Ken. I'm talking about the speeches, particularly the series of
speeches at Sparta leading up to the declaration of war, the Periclean
Funeral speech, the last speech of Pericles, the speeches of Cleon and
Diodotus in Book 3, and the Melian Debate in Book 5. These are pieces of
high rhetoric, by contrast with which that preface to Book 1 is clear and

>was pointed 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 I needed 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
>says the very thing I've been upbraided for. Did I miss somethihg?

Yes, I think you did. The problem you raise regarding Thucydides 1.22 is
NOT a matter of ambiguity in the Greek, which is itself quite clear--there
are no words which could be interpreted differently. The problem, as often
is the case in Paul where Paul writes clearly enough, is that we know what
Thucydides said and what Paul said and we can put what they wrote into
intelligible English--but we still aren't sure what they MEANT by what they
SAID. And here's where this budding thread links up with the
paraphrase/translation thread. A paraphrase (such as I think we'll agree
{?} is what The Living Bible is will take one of these passages where a
translation retains the possibility of ambiguous interpretation or will at
least indicate the alternative(s) in footnotes and give us what the
paraphraser is quite confident Paul actually did mean.

The "creatively strained syntax" I was talking about is in poetry
especially, but also in that prose which is most akin to poetry, high
rhetoric. An example of this in the NT is the final section of Paul's AGAPH
hymn, 1 Cor 13:8-13, where there's considerable dispute over the meaning of
vs. 10, for instance: hOTAN DE ELQHi TO TELEION, TO EK MEROUS

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

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