translation and English possessives

This is an exercise that attempts to discover our native English speaker intuitions about a semantic relationship that occurs in most, if not all, languages of the world. Let’s say we have a list such as the following where the first word is the name of someone who “owns” (broadly speaking) the second item. What sounds to you like the most natural phrase(s) in current English to express this possessive meaning for each of these word pairs?

  1. Sarah, son
  2. Abram, tent
  3. Solomon, temple
  4. God, son
  5. God, temple
  6. God, house
  7. John, house
  8. Peter, boat

27 thoughts on “translation and English possessives

  1. Paul D. says:

    If I understand what you’re getting at, it’s the fact that the syntactic relationships some languages express through a genitive case or function particle, English expresses through a few ways — the possessive case and a variety of prepositions. This forces English translations to be a little more specific than the source document, which in turn might require the translator to make some assumptions about meaning.

    Taking your example, and without further context provided, I would choose:

    Sarah’s son
    Abram’s tent
    the temple of Solomon
    a son of God
    a temple to God
    the house of God
    John’s house
    Peter’s boat

  2. CD-Host says:

    I’d go with simple possessive usage in each case unless you don’t want to imply possession. The possessive form has 9 main uses in English: possession (my car), agency (my idea), relational (my cousin), traits (my eyes), representation (my portrait), evaluation (my importance to the project), named after (Saint Paul’s cathedral), measurement (hour’s time), nominalized verb (the earth’s rotation).

    So even if the extreme cases: God’s son, God’s house…

    Using something formal like “The House of God” implies to my ear non-possession.

    Dave’s house is the house Dave owns or lives in or manages
    The House of Dave sounds like a formal title implying something else. A good example of that usage would be “The House of Pancakes” where Pancakes don’t own the house but are sold there. So “The House of God” would be a house where God is preached, or represented or … not one he owns.

  3. Theophrastus says:

    If you think that

    Son of Sarah = Sarah’s Son
    Temple of Solomon = Solomon’s Temple
    House of God = God’s House

    then would you say

    Son of a Gun = A Gun’s Son?
    Temple of Doom = Doom’s Temple?
    House of Pancakes = Pancakes’ House?

    English allows different forms of expressing possession, but they are not universally equivalent.

  4. Theophrastus says:

    CD-Host — we posted comments nearly simultaneously — I didn’t mean to copy your Pancakes’ House example.

  5. Wayne Leman says:

    CD-Host, nice explanations. Many people can’t get in touch with their native speaker intuitions like that. I’m not sure I could in this case. Thanks.

  6. Wayne Leman says:

    Theo, thanks to you, also. I think it’s fun that you and CD-Host both came up with House of Pancakes. It must be rather salient. I like it. Clearly, that “house” isn’t owned by pancakes. The English “of” phrase expresses a number of different *semantic* relationships. Semantic to syntactic mapping is not one-to-one in English.

    To answer your question, your second group of examples doesn’t work for me, as, I assume, it doesn’t work for you. These are the kinds of feedback that I was hoping for. They are very relevant for English translation of the Bible.

  7. CD-Host says:

    Theo —

    I know that happened, thanks for clarifying regardless

    ___

    Wayne —

    I agree its a clear example. So lets build on it.

    If you look at example of “The House of” in English they are all non possessive
    Pancakes we’ve discussed
    Rising Sun = Brothel, i.e. it signals a euphemism
    House of Representatives = where the representatives meet
    House of the seven gables = a property of the house in this case meant literally and symbolically
    House of mirth = deliberate bible reference (Ecc 7:4)

    I think X of Y pretty clearly implies non possession but a more complex relationship.

    ____

    Let me do the same thing with son. Here it gets worse since it seems to almost always be a symbol that requires a great deal of context:

    Son of Man = bible reference… tons of symbolism
    Son of Gutenberg = reference to the internet
    Son of Sam = Berkowitz is using “Sam” as a symbolic father, not a physical one
    Son of the Wolf = two men about to be martyred by “the wolf”
    Son of Boss = a specific type of tax shelter

  8. Peter Kirk says:

    My first instinct was like CD-Host’s, to use the possessive “‘s” suffix in every case. But when I saw Paul’s comment I realised that there was an issue with definiteness here. If we are talking about God possessing just one temple, then it is “God’s temple”. But if God has many temples, then one of them is “a temple of God” or “one of God’s temples”. Similarly with “son”. This is because the possessive suffix implies definiteness. But the original question did not specify this definiteness issue.

  9. CD-Host says:

    Peter I don’t agree.

    Bill, James and Michael are Al’s sons, and Corin and Doris are Al’s daughter. I can still say “Bill is Al’s son”. Al’s son is indeterminate and can refere to Bill, James or Michael from context. Absolutely if there is no context then I’d say something like “One of Al’s sons will be with him at the diner”. That’s still the possessive.

    I don’t think it sounds natural at all to say “Bill is a son of Al”. If I’m phrasing it that way I’m clearly implying that in some sense it is false that “Bill is Al’s son” i.e. my use of “son” is nonstandard.

  10. Peter Kirk says:

    CD-Host, I think “Bill is Al’s son” is something of an exception, especially to my British English. I recognise that it doesn’t always mean that Bill is Al’s only son, but it’s not something I would normally say unless he is the only son. I wouldn’t say “Bill is a son of Al” but “Bill is one of Al’s sons”. Of course “one of” regularly converts a definite into an indefinite.

    But this kind of possessive only works in very specific constructions, at least for me. In the sentence “I saw Al’s son” I would always understand the person seen as an only son, or at least as the only one relevant in the context e.g. not the one we all know is out of the country.

    Actually I think this is a general issue of how definiteness works in English – and there are subtle transatlantic differences. If I say for example “I saw the house”, I don’t mean to imply that there is only one house in the world, but that I saw the one relevant in the context. Similarly “I saw Al’s son” may be about the relevant son rather than implying that Al has no other son. In your original sentence “Bill is Al’s son” the subject “Bill” may be enough to establish the relevance of Bill and so avoid the need for an indefinite complement. But I’m sure there are experts who have studied these matters.

  11. J. K. Gayle says:

    I’m sure there are experts who have studied these matters.

    Peter,
    Thanks for pointing out the transatlantic differences. Experts haven’t much, until recently, begun to explore the differences of Englishes in the world. And, the older consensus among experts, who looked mainly for differences between UK and American Englishes, seemed to be that “grammatical differences are few [relatively speaking, while] … lexical examples [of difference] are far more numerous.” (I’m quoting from Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik’s pages 19 and 20 of their Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language of 1985.) It’s not been very long since experts started focusing on difference between grammar form and semantics when across register or when in spoken English and when in written English, if only within a single lect. (Marianne Celce-Murcia and Diane Larsen-Freeman’s pages 311-12 of their Grammar Book: An ESL / EFL Teacher’s Course, 2nd ed. of 1999, turn to up-published research of 1996, “The Meanings of Inflected Genitives in English: A Spoken Data-Based Analysis,” in order to parse out “The Meaning and Use of Possessive Forms” to “account for a majority of possessive forms occurring in spoken English discourse.”)

    The examples that Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman list, from the un-published study of spoken English, are exactly those that CD-Host offers in his first comment above. Wayne has asked, “What sounds to you like the most natural phrase(s) in current English?” Doesn’t it matter when English, whatever the lect, is sounded? And I wonder if CD-Host and Theophrastus were recalling “Pancakes’ House” spoken in that funny scene from the Coen brother’s movie Fargo? (Listener advisory: some “bad” language here. Not the varieties experts tend to study and publish.)

  12. J. K. Gayle says:

    Wayne,

    Why this list?

    1. Sarah, son
    2. Abram, tent
    3. Solomon, temple
    4. God, son
    5. God, temple
    6. God, house
    7. John, house
    8. Peter, boat

    Are you trying to see whether we native English speakers intuit the need for different forms when God is the “possessor” of a son vs. when Sarah is? When God “owns” a temple or a house vs. when, respectively, Solomon does or John does? When Abram as a tent vs. when Peter has a boat?

  13. CD-Host says:

    JK —

    The examples that Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman list, from the un-published study of spoken English, are exactly those that CD-Host offers in his first comment above.

    They are used in her book as well and yep that’s where I got the list from. Best English grammer book on the market IMHO. You have good taste.

  14. Wayne Leman says:

    Kurk asked “Why this list?”

    Hi Kurk,

    As stated in my post, the why for this list is: “What sounds to you like the most natural phrase(s) in current English to express this possessive meaning for each of these word pairs?” and in the first sentence, “This is an exercise that attempts to discover our native English speaker intuitions about a semantic relationship that occurs in most, if not all, languages of the world.”

    If the results demonstrate any answers relevant to the questions in the last paragraph of your comment, that will be empirically interesting. Any other results will be empirically interesting, as well.

    I love discovering how native speakers of languages actually speak and write, including when they speak or write in different registers or genres. It is all relevant to how English Bibles are translated. I believe in “democratic” Bible translation, translating according to how people actually speak and write. I believe that Bible translators should not impose their own ideas about the target language on the translation, but, rather, their translation should conform to how their target audience actually speaks and writes. And so empirical research is called for. This is such a small exercise and certainly flawed. But the results so far are still interesting. And they give us a hint of what the process for target-language-based Bible translation can be like.

    So, as a native speaker of English, how would you express each of the semantic relationships in whatever form of English you wish to use that is part of your native speaker intuition?

  15. Dru Brooke-Taylor says:

    I’d be entirely comfortable that an ‘s is good grammar and a non-jarring usage in all these instances.

    What’s perhaps more of a question is whether using an ‘s rather than one of the other optional constructions conveys what the person saying it is trying to say. Even though they are all grammatically fine, even ignoring choices of capitalisation, there are differences in timbre between ‘Jesus is God’s son’, ‘Jesus is the son of God’ and ‘Jesus is a son of God’.

    What is the difference, of course, is that the longer construction, which in many other contexts sounds unnecessarily cumbersome, gives one the opportunity to introduce a definite or indefinite article. That gives scope for extra precision should one want it. In ones own speech, rather than translating someone else’s, it depends what is the important thing one is trying to say in the sentence.

    I’ve deliberately chosen these as my example since they have a bearing on how one translates Matt 27:54 and Mk 15:39.

    In my own dialect of English, you wouldn’t have to say ‘temple of Solomon’. ‘Solomon’s temple’ can mean ‘the temple that pertains to Solomon’, and is used that way. It does not have to mean the one that he owns. Is that not so in some English dialects? If so, that’s quite interesting in itself.

    Both ‘God’s house’ and ‘the house of God’ I hear said. However I think I’d actually be less likely to say ‘a temple to God’, than ‘God’s temple’.

  16. wm tanksley says:

    Topically: I just had someone tell me that in the Revelation, the statement that John “was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” meant that John was carried (through time) so that he was physically present at the time of the Day of the Lord.

    I immediately went to Greek (and Septuagint), and found that English “Lord’s” is used to translate a Greek word which appears only there and in one other place to refer to “the Lord’s supper”. The idea of “the Day of the Lord” consistently uses “Lord” in the genitive, both in Old and New.

    Is my hunch right — did I do the right research? Does that demonstrate anything? It seems to me that it shows that it’s very unlikely to mean anything like “the day of the Lord”, unless the language changed in the meantime.

    -Wm

  17. J. K. Gayle says:

    CD-Host, The book by Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman really is quite good! Thanks for sharing from it.

    Wayne, Thanks for the response: You were clear in your blogpost and in your comment reply to me. I got it both times. But what I was asking you wasn’t very clear it seems. Please let me try again and ask this way:

    How did you decide on your particular list for us to respond to? You’ve included Sarah, Abram, Solomon, John, Peter, and God as agents and son, temple, house, tent, and boats as their “possessions.” Why did you have all personal agents? CD-Host’s and Theophrastus’s contrasting lists (i.e., with Pancakes, etc., list in some cases not personal agents of possession, at least in form). I was wondering if you were trying to get at some sort of underlying semantics that manifest in different surface forms.

  18. Theophrastus says:

    I’ve seen Fargo, but I don’t recall the Pancakes’ House reference (perhaps it is embedded in my unconscious.)

    However, if one thinks of possible endings to the construction “House of …” (hinted at by Wayne’s post) one is likely to complete the phrase with “… Pancakes.”

  19. Wayne Leman says:

    Kurk asked:

    How did you decide on your particular list for us to respond to? You’ve included Sarah, Abram, Solomon, John, Peter, and God as agents and son, temple, house, tent, and boats as their “possessions.” Why did you have all personal agents? CD-Host’s and Theophrastus’s contrasting lists (i.e., with Pancakes, etc., list in some cases not personal agents of possession, at least in form). I was wondering if you were trying to get at some sort of underlying semantics that manifest in different surface forms.

    Thanks for clarifying, Kurk. I only included personal “possessors” since I was trying to avoid problems with non-prototypical possessors (e.g. “door, hinge”, “faith, obedience”). I put Sarah first because women often are not put first and my wife and I have for years practiced varying order of names (being parents of two sets of twins has pushed us to be as equal in treatment as possible!). I used biblical names to see if they influence what sounds “natural” syntactically to the ears of biblically literate people. I tried to include only possessed “objects” which were common in the Bible. I didn’t include “pancake, house” since it didn’t cross my mind and because I was trying to keep to biblical items. I do think, though, that mention of “House of Pancakes” is brilliant within this discussion for the reasons mentioned. I don’t view “House of Pancake,” however, as having a possessive relationship in the way that we can view (broadly speaking, as I said in my post) the items in the list. So, again, this illustrates that semantic to syntactic mappings and vice versa are not one-to-one in English, nor in Greek, etc. (and the mappings aren’t the same between English and Greek and Hebrew).

    There are, I’m sure, many factors that can influence what syntactic forms people will consider most (more?) natural for expressing the *different* semantic relationships within my list. And, yes, there are different semantic relationships as CD-Host has correctly noted, although English tends to treat several of them the same syntactically. I think I was trying to include only items in the list which have semantic relationships which are treated similarly syntactically.

    I can’t think of anything else to say in answer to your good questions, Kurk. I often don’t think of everything others think of, which is just fine. As someone who is so keen on empirical data, I’m happy to deal with whatever comes up. And not thinking of everything others do is good for all of us. It helps us recognize our need for each other, for community, that no person is an island, no person stands alone 🙂

  20. Dru Brooke-Taylor says:

    Coming back on W M Tanksley’s comment, isn’t ‘the Lord’s Day’ generally assumed to be either ‘a Sunday’ or ‘Easter’? Or have I just ingested something from what ‘the Lord’s Day’ means in modern English.

    My Greek is minimal. It derives largely from Bible computer programmes. But it looks as though the Greek word in that sentence is an adjective deriving from kurios and not a genitive of it.

  21. Peter Kirk says:

    Kurk, on transatlantic grammatical differences, I know there is one related to definiteness when we say “she is in hospital”, but you say “she is in the hospital”, even when no one knows exactly which hospital. Similarly for “school” I think so not a lexical matter. Another is the way in which at least in colloquial British English we rarely use “have” with a direct object but more often say “have got”, never “have gotten”.

  22. wm tanksley says:

    Dru, that’s exactly what I thought, and seems to be what my wordsearch supports as well. It’s a little difficult in that “the Lord’s Day” occurs only once, and “Lord’s” occurs only twice; but as I mentioned, the genitive of “Lord” is used everywhere “the Day of the Lord” appears, so the negative case seems strong in spite of the lack of positive evidence.

  23. CD-Host says:

    Wm —

    The phrase you are asking about in Revelations is poorly understood. Its not really a question of Greek as much as a question of Archeology. Think about the English expression, “That’s a Mickey Mouse X” you are calling X “small-time, amateurish or trivial”. What’s meant by that is then a question of culture not strictly grammer. You are really attempting to stretch grammer beyond what it is capable of. You 2000 years from now could not parse “That’s a Mickey Mouse presentation” vs. “Another one of those Mickey Mouse presentations” by focusing on the grammatical structure.

    In later Christian writing “The Lord’s day” meant Sunday. Revelations is a very early book by all accounts. The expression has other meanings in 1st century contexts. As a translator you have to make a judgement call about which sources do you think are more applicable:

    a) Other Jewish 1st century apocryphal writings.
    b) 2nd century Christian writings
    c) Similar language in other biblical books
    d) Other uses of this expression in Greek.

    To translate what the phrase you are going to need to weigh a,b,c and d. Your friends idea is just made up and has no contemporary support. If on the other hand he believes Christians are influenced by the Holy Spirit to read the bible and divine its true intent via. some sort of supernatural process then obviously evidence doesn’t play much of a role.

    So if we exclude that, what we find is that it means a regular holy day and we aren’t sure which one he’s talking about. Thus I think we should be cautious and leave “Lord’s day” as sabbath. But I think the verse is typically under translated leaving too much Greek structure behind and a good translation would be “I was in a spiritual trance on the sabbath when I heard behind me…”

    But to argue for “sabbath” vs. the day of the apocalypse you are asking what’s fundamentally a question of history not grammar. I did a post on a similar line 2 years back: http://church-discipline.blogspot.com/2009/07/venus-translation-vs-transculturation.html

    Hope this helps.

  24. alien@translation says:

    Translations is very important it is a way to communicate with other people, specially those people that has a different dialect, translators well be the frontliners to communicate with them, and to have communication.

  25. Donna says:

    If you’re primarily communicating possession then:

    Sarah’s son, Abram’s tent, Solomon’s temple, God’s son etc are definitely the most natural for me.

    I have hard time thinking how “the son of Sarah” or “the tent of Abram” could possibly sound natural. Perhaps if they were a title for something, though I’ve never heard of a restaurant called “The Tent of Abram” I could certainly imagine it working as a title.

  26. Chrysostom says:

    1. Sarah’s son
    2. Abram’s tent
    3. Solomon’s Temple or Temple of Solomon
    4. Son of God
    5. Temple of God
    6. House of God
    7. John’s house
    8. Peter’s boat

    “Of” seems to indicate both a higher register, and seems to be more natural in direct relation to the majesty or power of the possessor, regardless of the object.

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