In which I ask if there’s any value to conveying morphosyntax

There are many things people to use describe translations: literal, formal, functional, dynamic, idiomatic, figurative, literary, interpretative, accurate, thought-for-though, word-for-word, relevant, paraphrase.

Most of these suck. Most of them are almost entirely useless in my opinion. They get so misused and everyone uses them in their own subtly different way.

Instead I think it’s much better to ask what a translation is attempting to convey from its source. It might try to convey the meaning (semantics) of the source. It might try to convey the purpose of the author (pragmatics, broadly.)

When people talk about a literal, formal, non-interpretative or word-for-word translation, they usually mean that it attempts to convey the morphology and syntax of the source into the target language. So my question to BBB’s readers is: is there any value in conveying morphosyntax? If you believe there is, put your best case forward and convince me!

11 thoughts on “In which I ask if there’s any value to conveying morphosyntax

  1. Jessica Harmon says:

    For me, when I am doing my Greek homework (translating a chapter of Paul every night) and I just can’t get the syntax to make sense, I like to look at a translation that attempts to convey the syntax of Greek in (barely) grammatical English. When I look at the more idiomatic translation, sometimes I can’t see how they even got that from the Greek text (though they are much more meaningful). I use the more literal translations as a crutch in understanding the Greek syntax.

  2. Bob MacDonald says:

    Shape and syntax are both important. E.g. in Hebrew, there is often a dramatic tension in the postponement of a word in the sentence. The words are heard in a particular sequence and the ‘meaning’ of the first words is not made clear till the revelation of a key word later in the sequence. This kind of thing is often available in other languages and I think should be preserved (sometimes).

    Also important are shapes which unify a thought. Psalm 1:1 is a most obvious example. The Septuagint and the Vulgate both preserve the form, but many English translations do not – and they add nothing with their failure. It amazes me that The NETS fails to preserve the Greek word order that mimics the Hebrew.

    אַשְׁרֵי הָאִישׁ
    אֲשֶׁר לֹא הָלַךְ
    בַּעֲצַת רְשָׁעִים
    וּבְדֶרֶךְ חַטָּאִים
    לֹא עָמָד
    וּבְמוֹשַׁב לֵצִים
    לֹא יָשָׁב

    beatus vir
    qui non abiit
    in consilio impiorum
    et in via peccatorum
    non stetit
    et in cathedra pestilentiae
    non sedit

    μακάριος ἀνήρ
    ὃς οὐκ ἐπορεύθη
    ἐν βουλῇ ἀσεβῶν
    καὶ ἐν ὁδῷ ἁμαρτωλῶν
    οὐκ ἔστη
    καὶ ἐπὶ καθέδραν λοιμῶν
    οὐκ ἐκάθισεν

    Contrast NETS
    Happy the man
    who did not walk
    by the counsel of the impious
    or stand
    in the way of sinners
    or sit down
    in the sear of pestiferous people

    (cute – but misses the mark nonetheless)

    My rendering:
    Happy is the one
    who has not walked
    in the advice of the wicked
    and in the way of sinners
    has not stood
    and in the seat of the scornful
    has not sat

    That is the first thing I ever tried to translate – I think it took me two months as a starting exercise. I have not changed my opinion on the importance of structure and syntactic sequence.

  3. Dannii Willis says:

    Hi Jessica, thanks for your comment. Do you find a “literal” translation more useful than an interlinear for your purposes?

    Hi Bob, the first situation you mentioned sounds like information structure, a type of pragmatics. I think that information structure should be conveyed to the target language as much as is possible, but this does not mean that the morphosyntax used to mark information structure should be.

    As to Psalm 1:1, I’m sorry but I don’t understand what you’re getting at.

  4. Donna says:

    Bob’s example is interesting because it’s not clear to me whether that is dramatic tension, or simply a word order where the verb comes last.

    Can you clarify Bob?

    My own feelings are that normal morphosyntax should not be copied across into another language – which just makes the language sound unnatural when it wasn’t so in the source (that is, it’s a bad translation). But when the morphosyntax is unusual, the reason for it being unusual should be conveyed, in whatever way is natural for that language.

    In my experience, unusual morphosytax always hints at an emotion, like poetic tension in Bob’s example, or anger, or astonishment (like the English example I read recently on facebook: “That. Is. So. Awesome”).

  5. Bob MacDonald says:

    OK Dannii – I don’t know what you mean by morphosyntax. Obviously English will not be turned into an enclitic language to translate Hebrew. If that’s what you mean by the shape of the syntax then there is nothing to say. The task is impossible.

    All that can be preserved is the shape of the thought not the form of the language itself. My example is one of hundreds of cases I have come across. The point is verb-object object-verb object-verb. But maybe that is not what you mean in your question.

  6. Joel H. says:

    I think one of the big sources of confusion is the difference between translating the morphology/syntax and mimicking it.

    It’s certainly true that word order and word structure contribute to meaning, but they do so differently in different languages.

    So when you say:

    When people talk about a literal … translation, they usually mean that it attempts to convey the morphology and syntax of the source into the target language.

    I think what you mean is that such a (“literal”) translation tries to mimic the morphology and syntax

    Doing so is, in essence, no different than mimicking the sounds of the source in the target.

    We all know that the sounds dahg in Hebrew should not be translated as “dog” in English, even though they sound the same. (As it happens, dahg means “fish.”)

    Similarly, a verb at the beginning or end or whatnot in Greek/Hebrew should not necessarily be translated as the same word order in English.

    So I agree that “shape and syntax are both important,” but that doesn’t mean that the shape and syntax of the original should appear unchanged in translation.


  7. Jessica Harmon says:

    Hi Dannii,
    I do find a literal translation more useful than an interlinear, because I can look up the words in a lexicon (or on perseus if I’m feeling lazy), but if I can’t figure out the syntax, then I need something else. I’ve discovered that many of the passages I find difficult are usually not translated very literally. This makes it hard to follow along in Greek. The literal translations at least give me a sense of what the syntax says. Not that it will mean anything to me at first. That’s what I use the other translations for.

  8. Dannii says:

    Hi Jessica, yeah I understand. While an interlinear might help with vocab it won’t explain the relationships between words.

    Donna & Joel, thanks for your comments. I think I agree with you both 100%!

    Bob, morphosyntax simply means morphology+syntax (ie, the structures of words and sentences) because most linguists consider them to be very closely related, except for those who are strong lexicalists.

    Now it’s impossible to fully translated anything. What I’ve been asking if there’s any point to even attempt to even partially translate morphosyntax. I accept that the Hebrew is verb-object object-verb object-verb. But why does the best way of translating that passage into English need to have the same structure?

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