Re: Translation, Anglophiles and Ancient Texts

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Mon Oct 13 1997 - 06:37:47 EDT

At 3:49 PM -0500 10/12/97, Clayton Bartholomew wrote:
>There seems to be an endless preoccupation on this list
>with questions of how to render this or that Greek word or
>phrase into English. Does this type of question really merit
>the kind of attention it receives? Do we really get any
>closer to the meaning of the ancient text by constantly
>fussing about which is the preferable English gloss for a
>particular Greek word?
>Is translation into ones mother tongue an essential part of
>exegesis? I am beginning to have strong doubts about this.
>I have a growing suspicion that translation into English
>teaches you more about English than it does about the
>ancient text.

There is unquestionably a lot of truth in this; nevertheless, I think that
translation into one's mother tongue IS probably an inescapable part of

(1) The truth, I rather think, is that that the endeavor to grasp as
exhaustively as possible the meaning of a phrase or proposition formulated
in a language alien to that of the reader, to the extent that it is
executed competently and faithfully, will focus considerably on the matter
of HOW the phrase "means" in the original language and HOW it "means" in
the exegete's native language. Speaking only for myself but having found
agreement from other teachers of language on this point, I have to say that
I've never taught ANY language (and I've taught French, German, Greek and
Latin, but mostly Greek and Latin) without spending a great deal of time
talking about the different structures of both languages, in my case the
alien language and English. I also think that the more advanced and
competent one becomes in the alien language, the more one comes to THINK in
the structural patterns of that language; since the growing intimacy with
the alien language also involves an ever increasing sense of the range and
focus of the alien language's lexical store, the psychological need which
the beginner has to find native words that have a one-to-one correspondence
with the alien word diminishes gradually, so that even the need to
reformulate the alien phrase or proposition into one's own language wanes
and one simply reads (or hears, if we're not talking about a dead and
ancient language) the text and understands it without really going through
the full intermediate process.

(2) But if Clayton is seriously talking about EXEGESIS, then it seems to me
an essential part of exegesis as a methodology for unpacking the full
meaning of the alien text must involve (a) careful consideration of all the
key words in the texts in the range of meanings suitable to the context in
which they are here found, and (b) competent syntactical analysis of the
text to the point at which its structure is exposed and even the deeper
implications of the grammatical analysis are brought to light. And while
there may be yet other phases or steps in any particular style of exegesis,
these two, it seems to me, must necessarily involve a re-formulation of the
text in a comprehensive paraphrase conveying in different words all the
content of the original text. Ideally this re-formulation or paraphrase
could and perhaps should be in the language of the original text, so that,
say, a Greek text would be reformulated in an expanded Greek text wherein
all that is implicit in the original would be made fully explicit to the
extent that is possible. BUT I don't know whether any of us is really fully
competent to conduct this entire process of exegesis of a Biblical Greek
text thus understood USING Biblical Greek--some might do it better than
others, but I am rather dubious whether any of us could do it adequately.
And unless that re-formulation is executed in Biblical Greek, what is left
but the exegete's native language? And this is why, so far as I know,
practical exegesis usually DOES call for a translation of the original text
into one's own native tongue.

Inasmuch as my proper area is Classics rather than Bible, it is not
exegesis as done in the seminaries that I try to teach, but I do use a
model that is not so very far removed from the exegetical process (I should
add that I've used this most of all in classes dealing with Greek or Latin
poetry): I ask first for a gracelessly literal (what Will would call a
"hyperliteral") version of the target text in English, a version that
conveys in intelligible English the structure and word-order of the
original as nearly and clearly as possible; this enables the student to
grasp the fundamental lexicology and syntax of the text in its essence and
allows me to test the student's perception of the way the original text
functions [The flaw in this method, of course, is that I may myself fail to
grasp those elements properly in the original text]. I then ask the student
to go through several stages of analysis of the text's diction, meter,
word-order, sound-effects, possible allusions to other texts or information
that we can assume the original author expected the reader to be sensitive
to, assessment of the author's intention in expressing this content in this
particular way, and finally, a re-formulation, in the best and most
idiomatic English that the student can muster, of the substance both in its
essential content and in all the devices exploited in the original to
reveal, conceal, or slant the understanding of what was being said in the
original. Now this is a method that doesn't seem to me to be utterly alien
to sound exegetical methodology, and I have to say that, unless one really
does have the competence in the original language and cultural background
to do a Biblical Greek exegesis using the Biblical Greek language (which is
to say, unless one is an ancient speaker/writer of Biblical Greek!), then
the use of one's native tongue is hardly escapable.

Of course, it is also true that Peter Phillips has said all this without
resorting to my wordiness: most Christians don't know Biblical Greek, and
even those of us who might be thought to know it best don't know it well
enough to have that out-of-body experience of entering an ancient Greek
reader's or listener's mind and read or hear the text as s/he read or heard

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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