Thank you to each one who commented on the preceding post in this series. Information from the comments is critical to what we need to discuss next, which is how do we translate instances of semantic possession to English translation equivalents.
As always, to review, a translation equivalent is how speakers of a target (translation) language actually express the meaning of a form in a source language. By “meaning” we are referring to “rich” meaning, that is meaning which is referential, connotational, rhetorical, figurative, etc. In both the source and target languages, the forms used to express rich meaning are essential. It is the forms themselves, plus inferences we draw from them (a la Relevance Theory), that are the vehicles by which we communicate meaning to one another.
In our preceding post we introduced English possessive syntax which is the usual grammatical form to communicate the semantics of simple possession. English possessive syntax for nouns consists of an apostrophe plus the letter “s” added to the end of a word which refers to a person who is the possessor, that is, the person who is considered to “own” some object as in:
Blog reader correctly noted that English speakers sometimes use an “of” prepositional phrase to express possession and gave these examples:
-“Son of Sam” killer
-“children of a lesser god”
-“son of a preacher-man”
We could add a couple of others such as:
daughters of the American Revolution
son of the South
When a language has more than one syntactic form to express a meaning (in this case, possession), we always need to ask: When do we use each form? What is the difference between them?
Rich Rhodes noted in a comment that the “of” prepositional phrases are “marked”. “Marked” is a technical linguistic term referring to a form which is somehow unique, special, out of the ordinary.
By far, possession in English is most commonly encoded with possessive (apostrophe-s) syntax. Whenever we come across an “of” phrase encoding possession, we sense that there is something special about it. It stands out as unusual from the “unmarked” (normal, default) possessive syntax with apostrophe-s. It could easily take an entire Ph.D dissertation (as Rich noted in his comment on the preceding post) to describe English possessives. Including in that research should be study of the contexts in which “of” possessives are preferred over apostrophe-s possessives. My beginning hypothesis is that phrases such as “son of Sam” and “daughters of the American Revolution” have some greater literary or cognitive salience than do possessives expressed with apostrophe-s.
Notice how bland “Sam’s son” sounds compared to “son of Sam”. “Sam’s son” could refer to any son of any man named Sam and we would not think that anything of special consequence is going to be said about this Sam’s son. But saying “son of Sam” catches our attention, since it is the less common way of expressing English possessive. And, indeed, the Sam of “son of Sam” had a very unique “father” relationship to psychologically tortured serial killer, David Berkowitz.
If I spot some blood on our floor after our grandchildren have been playing (our grandsons like to wrestle), I can ask my wife, “Whose blood is that?” If she saw what caused the blood to get on the floor, she would answer with something like:
Oh, it’s Jonah’s blood.
She would never say, and I suggest most other English speakers would never say, either:
Oh, it’s the blood of Jonah.
The appropriate response uses the normal, unmarked apostrophe-s syntax, not an “of” prepositional phrase.
Similarly, if I wonder which of our grandchildren left their mitten on our living room floor, I can ask: “Whose mitten is that?” Appropriate responses could be:
It’s Talea’s mitten.
But it would not be appropriate to use the marked “of” phrase:
It’s the mitten of Talea.
Someone *could* use the “of” phrase. But it would not be good English. It would not be the proper syntax for this situation.
And that gets us back to Bible translation. As I’ve noted before, when trying to find a translation equivalent for a source text expression, we should not ask: “Could we say it this way in English?” but, rather, “How would it be said in this context in English?” This requires very careful attention to how the various kinds of English syntax are used in different contexts. There is just as much English scholarship needed for Bible translation as there is biblical language scholarship.
Well, it looks like I’ve filled up the message buffer of the blog editor and still have not gotten to discussion of translation of biblical examples of translation equivalence for possession. And that’s OK. We need to establish the background information necessary for being able to properly discuss translation of the biblical forms. It is so important when doing Bible translation that we not only pay full attention to the language forms of a source text, but that we also are aware of all of the forms of a target language and when each is properly used. Too often Bible translators have paid insufficient attention to the linguistics of English when translating to English from the biblical languages. The result has been Bibles which are technically inaccurate since they communicate wrong or distorted meanings, such as wrong meanings communicated by using the marked “of” possessive syntax when the unmarked apostrophe-s syntax should have been used.
Oh, as I awakened too early this morning with thoughts about this post running through my brain, I realized that all translation (whether biblical or not) is an incarnational act. In translation to any language the meanings of the forms of a source text (such as the written Word of scripture) take on the human flesh (form) of yet another language.
This process requires great humility, partly because we need to be patient to search for appropriate translation equivalents, which communicate full, rich meaning of the forms of the original written Word. And when we discover those forms, we need to humbly submit to them in kenotic (Philippians 2) fashion. We must resist the temptation of linguistic colonialism that forces source text syntax on to the target language where it doesn’t belong. None of us would be so foolish as to try to change a rose into a carnation. We recognize that both are beautiful. All linguistic forms of every language are, in some sense, beautiful. Our job as Bible translators, women and men alike, is to let their unique beauty shine forth, without being forced into some other linguistic mold.
(to be continued)