mixing apples with apples

My wife and I smile about an anecdote of an elderly lady concerned for the souls of Indians in Mexico. She wrote to a missionary there and asked him to send her a dictionary of one of the languages so that she could translate the Bible into that language. I hope that you smile at this story also. The lady was well-intentioned but did not realize that it takes much more knowledge of a language than access to a dictionary to translate anything into that language, let alone an ancient, complex document such as the Bible.

Before we can translate anything into any language, someone on our translation team must be a fluent speaker of that language. Translation professionals say that it is best that the translator be a native speaker of that language. And, ideally, it should be a native speaker who is considered by their peers to be a good speaker of the language, known to follow the the language patterns (rules) which speakers of that language have developed and used over a long period of time. And it should be someone who has a good sense for composing in the various genres of that language, and able to use the rich storehouse of figurative expressions in the language.

Translation is truly an awesome responsibility for anyone, more so when translating a text so important as that of the Bible. A good translator must be able to resist the pressure of importing syntax and word combinations which are not part of their own language. A good translator need not necessarily have a formal knowledge of the syntactic and lexical rules of their own language, but they need to sense intuitively when those rules are being broken. They must know how to revise improper wordings until they become proper. A good translator recognizes that there is often more than one proper way to word something. A good translator knows the difference between high-level oratorical language and colloquial, slangy language.

Unfortunately, sometimes those who translate the Bible to English lack some of these qualities. They may speak and write English well, but they may not have a good enough intuitive grasp of the language to detect translation wordings which are not part of the grammar of their language. (Here I am using the term grammar in the linguistic sense to refer to all patterns of a language which are followed by its speakers, including sound patterns, syntax, word combinations, and discourse patterns such as proper ways to introduce new characters in a story.)

There are exercises which any of us can do which can help us discover and state explicitly what we already know implicitly about our own language. Let’s try one of these exercises, the search to discover some of the syntax of one of the shortest but most important words in English, the conjunction “and.” Following are a number of sentences which have the word “and.” A sentence may or may not be grammatical. You should be able to discover facts about the grammar of English “and” if you can intuitively sense which sentences are properly worded and which are not. You may never have had this particular exercise in any of your English grammar classes in the past, but you may be able to discover something about the grammar of “and” from these sentence. Try to express what you sense are some rules that you follow for the proper usage of English “and”, as you examine these sentences. You don’t have to use any special terminology to express your grammatical observations. Just tell what you have observed in your own words.

  1. I saw Jeff and Marie at the store yesterday.
  2. I saw my wife and my spouse at the store yesterday.
  3. I like my car and my automobile.
  4. Our son and daughter each have a significant other.
  5. We are students and pupils in Professor Rhodes’ Semantics 451 class.
  6. My wife helps and assists me with the housework.
  7. Pastor Hobbins delivered the homily and sermon at our church this morning.
  8. I like the trousers you have on and the slacks you are wearing.
  9. This morning I washed my car and changed the spark plugs.
  10. My elderly parents are living with us and residing with us.

OK, what observations can you make about what can and cannot be properly joined together with the word “and”?

In our next post we’ll followup with implications for use of the word “and” when translating the Bible to English.

14 thoughts on “mixing apples with apples

  1. Dru says:

    This is something I’ve never noticed, but I think linguistically I’m going to give the wrong answer. ‘And’ usually joins things or actions that are different, as in 1, 4 and 9, If you want to use it to join two words or phrases that are describing the same thing or action, you’ve got to be careful. Usually you’ll have to add or remove a word somewhere, and even then you might find yourself saying something pointless.

    5, for example, can be made to sound sensible by adding ‘are’, ‘we are students and are ….’. 2 can just about be made to sound sensible by replacing the ‘and’ with a ‘,’ – though it still sounds a bit odd. The same applies to 3.

    I don’t think 7 or 10 can be made to sound sensible at all, but that is not for a grammatical reason but because the two words are too similar in meaning to ad anything. If one really wants to repeat oneself this way, one has to use ‘or’. If so, one cannot repeat the possessive.

    Under the version of English I speak, 8 is nonsense for a quite different reason, which is that if a person is wearing slacks, their pants will be invisible. To use English as a world language, ‘pants’ is a word to avoid since in some places it means trousers and others underpants.

    ‘Spark plug’ incidentally is another one where usage varies, but the meaning is all right. So it is not misleading in the same way.

  2. EricW says:

    10. is an interesting example. If “living” means “alive,” then the sentence is okay. If “living” means “dwelling [at someplace/with someone],” then either “living and” or “and residing” is redundant.

  3. Wayne Leman says:

    Dru noted:

    To use English as a world language, ‘pants’ is a word to avoid since in some places it means trousers and others underpants.

    Thanks, Dru. I have revised “pants” to “trousers”.

  4. Wayne Leman says:

    EricW wrote:

    10. is an interesting example. If “living” means “alive,” then the sentence is okay. If “living” means “dwelling [at someplace/with someone],” then either “living and” or “and residing” is redundant.

    Nice catch of the ambiguity, Eric. I didn’t want ambiguity in this exercise, so I have revised 10 so it has my intended second meaning that you noted in your comment.

  5. ElShaddai Edwards says:

    I’m still a little unclear as to your purposes, Wayne.

    You’re asking about the grammatical use of the conjunction “and”, but the real point seems to be that “normal” English does not use semantic synonyms to describe action or things, e.g. wife/spouse (2), car/automobile (3), students/pupils (5), helps/assists (6), homily/sermon (7), trousers/slacks (8), and living with/residing with (10). Those sentences may be grammatically correct in having the proper form of nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, etc., but they make no sense (to me) in trying to determine the meaning.

    I certainly can see the implication in translation with respect to “he opened his mouth and began to speak”, for example. But is that a question about “and” or about the repetitive phrases?

  6. David Frank says:

    ElShaddai Edwards — You’ve probably studied some linguistics and are familiar with Chomsky’s classic example, that the sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” while nonsensical, is perfectly grammatical. That is an early Transformational Grammar model that tried to make a strict boundary between syntax and semantics. I say let’s forget that model, which is not so popular any more anyway. The point is that a sentence like “I saw my wife and my spouse at the store yesterday” is not appropriate for English unless “my wife” and “my spouse,” conjoined by “and,” refer to two different things.

  7. Dru says:

    What about ‘All that messuage or tenement’, or ‘my wife, my spouse, the light of my life’? I agree the first one is a bit of a joke, but the second is using three nouns in parallel, even though they aren’t linked by ‘and’. Sparse factual English these days discourages verbose and redundant repetition. I do not think one can go from there to saying that rhetorical duplication of synonyms or near synonyms is (or is no longer) proper English. I would not normally say “he opened his mouth and began to speak”, but I would not say that is wrong. There are situations where it may be a much more expressive way of saying what happened and drawing attention to it, that just ‘he started speaking’.

    I think this is probably what I meant when I said I thought I was probably giving the wrong answer. I’m grateful, though that I’ve never noticed before that English does not usually use ‘and’ to link things that are too similar in meaning, without altering the rest of the grammar as well. Are there other languages where this is more prevalent?

    Hebrew often contains repetition or near repetition, but I’d regard that as being done for rhetorical effect – which means that IMHO one should try where possible to replicate it in translation in a way that fits the grammatical patterns of the target language.

  8. David Frank says:

    Dru — It is indeed possible to say basically the same thing two slightly different ways in English. The example you gave is of an appositive, and it is perfectly fine. But the whole point of this exercise had to do with, as the post author (Wayne Leman) put it, “what can and cannot be properly joined together with the word ‘and.'” It’s a translation issue. In Greek, the conjunction kai can join synonyms, and generally in English the conjunction ‘and’ is taken to be the English equivalent of Greek kai. But unlike Greek kai, English ‘and’ cannot be used to join synonyms. [I think I’m stealing Wayne’s thunder, so I’ll leave it up to him to explain the translation implications, as he said he would do.] Still, as you noted, synonyms can be put together as appositives, as long as you don’t join them with ‘and.’ In the following examples, an asterisk denotes that this is not an appropriate English construction:

    She is my wife, my spouse.
    *She is my wife and my spouse.

    In the case of an appositive in English, one interprets the synonym (in this case, ‘my spouse’) as a restatement (of ‘my wife’ in this example). But when ‘and’ is used, one tries to interpret the synonym as meaning something different, so it would lead one to think that ‘my wife’ and ‘my spouse’ refer to two different things. Not to two different people, necessarily, because the context in this case shows that ‘my wife’ and ‘my spouse’ both refer to ‘She.’ But it lead one to think that there must be some difference in meaning between ‘my wife’ and ‘my spouse.’ Other languages might not necessarily work the same way, with how they use their coordinating conjunctions.

    The following are fine:

    She is my friend and my lover.
    Sir, you are a gentleman and a scholar.

    The reason these work is that, even though ‘friend’ and ‘lover’ refer to the same person, and ‘gentleman’ and ‘scholar’ refer to the same person, they don’t mean the same thing. They are two different descriptions of the same person.

  9. ElShaddai Edwards says:

    David Frank: You’ve probably studied some linguistics and are familiar with Chomsky’s classic example, that the sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” while nonsensical, is perfectly grammatical.

    Actually, I haven’t studied any linguistics, so I appreciate the references to Chomsky and Transformational Grammar for further study.

  10. David Frank says:

    ElShaddai Edwards — I’ll have to warn you that this way of thinking about grammar is located in the 1960s and early 1970s and is outdated now. This is a famous example, and Chomsky was tremendously influential in the field of linguistics, but the sharp distinction he tried to make between syntax and semantics got eroded, and as far as I am concerned, this is an outdated and unhelpful way of looking at language. This is unhelpful when it comes to Bible translation, because even if you could make a distinction between syntax and semantics, whereby a sentence could be grammatically well-formed but nonsensical, you don’t want your translation to be nonsensical.

  11. Wayne Leman says:

    David wrote:

    [I think I’m stealing Wayne’s thunder, so I’ll leave it up to him to explain the translation implications, as he said he would do.]

    David, don’t worry and don’t be concerned about that! 🙂

    The more that is discussed in the comments, the less work there will be for my followup post. (I strongly believe in conservation of energy!)

    So, steal away, steal away home …


  12. Dru says:

    This is getting yet more interesting. I assume one thing that emerges from this is that neither the semantic nor syntactical boundaries of ‘and’ and ‘kai’ exactly coincide. So in translating, one has to be careful not to produce nonsense in the target language, nor to make a big issue or found teaching on distinctions that exist in ones own language but not in Greek or Hebrew.

    I wouldn’t though go on from that to saying that one ignores the rhetoric of either language. In the town where I live is a place called “the Black and White Cafe”. Grammatically that is quite possible. Semantically one could say that is as nonsensical as “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”. Black and white are opposites. They are inconsistent with each other. A chess square is one or the other. It cannot be both. So a cafe cannot be both either. But the cafe exists, and there is a reason why it has that name.

    If one were trying to translate C21 English into C40 Greek, one might say, ‘This does not make sense outside its original English idiom. This has to be translated in some other way’. We none of us know whether C40 Greek will even exist. The day of the Lord may have arrived long before then. Even if C40 Greek does exist, though, I suspect that a straight translation with the apparent inconsistency is more likely to be the right one.

  13. Peter Kirk says:

    Surely something can be called “black and white” if it is partly black, partly white, no other colours. This is a special but quite common usage with colour terms and perhaps some other similar adjectives. But it doesn’t tell us much about noun phrases conjoined with “and”.

  14. David Frank says:

    Dru — Like Peter Kirk, I don’t have any problem with something being described as black and white. It reminds me of all the jokes about “What is black and white and red all over?” To me, the phrase means that it is partly black and partly white, like a checkers board. Where I used to live overseas, there was a Black and White Bar. I found out it was called that because there is a brand of Scotch called Black and White, whose symbol was a pair of Scottie dogs, one black and one white. Anyway, “Black and White Cafe” isn’t a problem to me in the way that “colorless green ideas” is. I concede that we also have to keep in mind the creative component of language and its users, such that something that seems to be oxymoronic can make a kind of sense.

    I’m looking forward to seeing what more Wayne Leman has to say about the implications for translation with regard to things that can or cannot be properly conjoined by “and.” But yes, one way of looking at it is that Gk. kai and Eng. and mean pretty much the same thing, but they have somewhat different ranges of meaning and use. The problem could come when a literal translation or a thoughtless translation (note that I am saying “or”) wants to consistently translate kai as and. This can lead to misinterpretation, because the two don’t completely overlap in meaning and use. I haven’t collected a set of examples to illustrate this, but I bet Wayne has.

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