Re: Translation of Jn 1:18

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Sat Sep 20 1997 - 08:54:25 EDT

At 12:53 AM -0500 9/20/97, wrote:
>Dear B-Greeks,
>I hope you will forgive my primitive attempts at translating the Prologue,
>and I would appreciate grammatical comments on this verse with which I
>am having several problems:
> 1:18 A god no one has ever seen before:
> the only-begotten [from one and the same Mother],
> a god, the one being unto the bosom of the Father--
> that is the one named [--Jesus Christ].
>I consider "being unto the bosom of the Father" to be an
>anthropomorphization (there must be a better word) of PROS TON QEON. And,
>the route from Mother to Father echoes the intermediary function of
>logos between Cosmos and God.

I've looked at Paul Dixon's comments on this, and while I don't disagree
with most of what he's said, I think I would rather deal with this as what
I take it to be, what Will has called a "hyperliteral" translation. I don't
really see any problem with the first clause and its word-order; while it's
not standard English, I think it's Shakespearean and Miltonic enough that
no one should have trouble grasping that "no one" is the subject and "a
god" is the object.

The version of the second clause seems problematic to me; if there's an
effort to reproduce the word-order without regard to the syntactical
linkage of MONOGENHS and QEOS, I don't understand it. A "hyperliteral"
version would seem to me to be "an only-begotten god, one being into the
bosom of the Father." I quite agree that hO WN EIS TON KOLPON TOU PATROS is
an "anthropomorphization" of PROS TON QEON, but I'm not sure that PROS TON
QEON isn't already "anthropomorphized," as it really seems to mean "in the
presence of" or "directly confronting" and resists attempts at purely
logical analysis in terms of a neatly-formulated doctrine of "persons" who
are supposed to be identical and different from each other at the same
time. For all its abstractness, the Johannine prologue remains as subject
to the constraints of a human and this-worldly imagination in formulating a
hint at the transcendant as are the gospels that offer full-scale nativity

As Paul has already noted the final clause (EKEINOS EXHGHSATO) is
mistranslated. Here again we have the problem of the antecedent of the
pronoun, in this instance EKEINOS. But it's not much of a problem, as it
must be the entire nominative group starting with MONOGENHS QEOS and
continuing through the articular participial phrase. But EXHGHSATO is a
middle/reflexive 3d sg. aorist and must have an object. That object is
clearly the same QEON that appeared at the very beginning of vs. 18 and
normally would be rendered in English with a pronoun, "him" or "Him" (or
"it" or "It," if one wants to argue that the gender of QEOS is as
irrelevant as is the gender of PNEUMA when it refers to "Holy
Spirit"--since in ordinary Greek QEOS may be either masculine or feminine,
just like ANQRWPOS). EXHGHSATO resists adequate translation; while
"exegete" sounds good to a student of NT Greek, it doesn't really quite
mean that. In Athens the EXHGHTAI were religious-judicial officials who
interpreted the equivalent of "canon law" in terms of what actions might
legitimately be taken or not taken in terms of the will of the gods. But
that doesn't quite apply here either. "Reveal" might be about as good as
one can do, but it simply puts a different metaphor in place of the
untranslatable term. In fact, this whole prologue challenges and defies
adequate translation. I suspect that long acquaintance with it and with
familiar versions of it has blunted our capacity to sense realistically the
enormity and sheer untranslatability of the most important portions of the
Johannine prologue. My own "hyperliteral" version endeavors to retain the
structure without "interpreting" or "exegeting" the imagistic language, and
it is an utter failure. Since it is an experiment that Will is promoting
here, I'll try to go still further into the experiment by eschewing all
effort to supply elements which ordinary English idiom calls for, including
the distinction between upper- and lower-case:

        "god nobody has seen ever; one-of-a-kind god, the one being into
the bosom of father--that one explained."

This reminds me of Vergil's phrase in one of the Eclogues, CUIUM PECUS? AN
MELIBOEI? where CUIUM is an otherwise unexampled interrogative pronominal
adjective for "whose" in a phrase generally understood to mean: "whose herd
is this? Is it Meliboeus's?" Some critic parodied the snippet of hexameter
as CUIUM PECUS? ANNE LATINUM? "CUIUM PECUS--is that Latin?" I think one
might ask of these "hypertranslations" whether they're really English. They
just won't do. And I think the Johannine prologue must be a supreme
challenge to any kind of computer translation.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics/Washington University
One Brookings Drive/St. Louis, MO, USA 63130/(314) 935-4018
Home: 7222 Colgate Ave./St. Louis, MO 63130/(314) 726-5649 OR

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