Translation, Anglophiles and Ancient Texts

From: The Rev. Dr. R. William Dickson (
Date: Mon Oct 13 1997 - 12:13:12 EDT

>From: Clayton Bartholomew <>
>Date: Sun, 12 Oct 1997 20:49:36 +0000
>Subject: Translation, Anglophiles and Ancient Texts
>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.
>Clay Bartholomew
>Three Tree Point

Clay has put the matter nicely. C. S. Lewis also put it nicely in his
recollections of his Greek tutorials:

"He then translated, with a few, a very few explanations, about a hundred
lines. I had never seen a classical author taken in such large gulps
before. When he had finished he handed me over Crusius' Lexicon and,
having told me to go through again as much as I could of what he had done,
left the room. It seems an odd method of teaching, but it worked. At
first I could travel only a very short way along the trail he had blazed,
but every day I could travel further. Presently I could travel the whole
way. Then I could go a line or two beyond his furthest North. Then it
became a kind of game to see how far beyond. He appeared at this stage to
value speed more than absolute accuracy. The great gain was that I very
soon became able to understand a great deal without (even mentally)
translating it; I was beginning to think in Greek. That is the great
Rubicon to cross in learning any language. Those in whom the Greek word
lives only while they are hunting for it in the lexicon, and who then
substitute the English word for it, are not reading the Greek at all; they
are only solving a puzzle. The very formula, Naus means a ship," is wrong.
Naus and ship both mean a thing, they do not mean one another. Behind
Naus, as behind navis or naca, we want to have a picture of a dark, slender
mass with sail or oars, climbing the ridges, with no officious English word
intruding." _Surprised by Joy_ pp. 114-115.

I believe, with Lewis, that preoccupation with getting the closest English
equivalent to a Greek word in a particular setting is an unfortunate
departure from the interesting possibility of thinking in Greek. But this
departure from the language into obsessive consideration of English
equivalents is part of a larger preoccupation in certain circles with
exegetical minutia at the expense of Greek fluency. I have always been
unimpressed with the school of thought which teaches its students to do
exegetical gymnastics with every conceivable linguistic tool while said
students remain unable to read the language fluently. Knowledge of the
language is evidenced by the capacity to sight-read and ultimately think in
the language. The means toward that end is reading thousands, even tens of
thousands of pages. Many theological programs encourage their students to
do extensive, microscopic exegetical analysis while not requiring that the
students translate a significant sampling of the language. While there is
the appearance of linguistic scholarship, it is but appearance.

An extremely fine account of the theological and classical culture which
created such giants as Westcott and Lightfoot, _Godliness and Good
Learning_ by David Newsome (Cassell History, 1961) points out the special
place the memorization of vast stretches of classical texts held in that
unique educational culture:

(of James Prince Lee)

"In the first place, Lee encouraged repition of classical texts. He had
himself a phenomenal memory, seldom used a book in class and was capable of
repeating page after page of Thucydides without a mistake. 'The
consequence of this was that all his scholars who resolved to be not only
like but exactly like him, learnt immense portions of the classics by
heart'. Benson, even in later life, could still repeat continuously five
or six books of Virgil. Westcott's feats were even more amazing. His
dearest schooolboy friend, T. M. Whithard, recalled how Lee gave permission
to his form to do voluntary repetition in the holidays and how Westcott
chose to recite by heart, 2,600 lines of Virgil and 500 of Homer. On
another occasion he recited faultlessly the whole of Cicero's second
Catiline oration, which he had chosen himself to learn during the school
holidays." (p. 106)

While I can't claim to model Lee's approach to teaching Greek, I do insist
that those under my tutelage read widely (and rapidly) before turning their
attention to microscopic exegetical matters. What is gained in sympathy
for the language and inductive appreciation for semantics and syntax is
adequate compensation for lessor experience in matters technically


The Rev. Dr. R. William Dickson

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