Layers of language and translation

Linguistics is a great thing to study! Anyone who has done a bit of formal study of linguistics will know that it has many sub-fields such as phonology, syntax, morphology, semantics and pragmatics. In this post we’re going to dig down through the layers and see how focusing on each layer results in significantly different translations. For this we’re going to use the following verse as an example:

Matthew 26:33: ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ Πέτρος εἶπεν αὐτῷ· εἰ πάντες σκανδαλισθήσονται ἐν σοί, ἐγὼ οὐδέποτε σκανδαλισθήσομαι.
NLT: Peter declared, “Even if everyone else deserts you, I will never desert you.”

Each layer is a little further from the source, a little more abstract and a little (or a lot) harder to study. But I hope you’ll see that the deeper you go the more potential there is for exciting and powerful translations!

Phonology is the study of sound in language. There is of course no translation which attempts to fully convey the phonology of its source – such a translation would really be a transliteration instead! Most translations do however transliterate occasionally. Although names, both of people and places, frequently are given a meaning in in the Bible, they are usually transliterated or transferred into the target language. For example Πέτρος /petros/ becomes Peter in most Bibles.

Many translations however also transliterate other words. These transliterated words have become English religious jargon, but in many cases they were regular words in the Hebrew or Greek. Words like apostle, baptise, messiah and sabbath are all basically transliterations. While it might be easiest to stick with tradition and use these words, it is worthwhile considering if they can be translated, and what effect that would have on the translation as a whole.

Morphosyntax, or morphology and syntax, is the study of structure in language, of words and sentences respectively. Translations that focus on morphosyntax will try to mimic the structure of the source text as much as is possible. Our example has two verbs in the main clause, ἀποκριθεὶς and ἀποκριθεὶς, and the strictest mimicking translations will actually include both, such as the NKJV: “Peter answered and said to Him…” Most translations recognise that this phrase is a common idiom and instead just use a single verb in English: for example the ESV has “Peter answered him…”

A better example is found in the next phrase, for which the ESV has “Though they all fall away because of you…” Some verbs must always have a preposition, as David Ker recently discussed. These are sometimes given the technical name of bipartite verbs, i.e. two-part verbs. The phrase looked over has a unique meaning which look by itself does not have – essentially it is a distinct verb. I suspect that σκανδαλισθήσονται ἐν is similar. Translations which are attempting to mimic the source’s morphosyntax will translate this phrase with a verb and a preposition, as the ESV did, with “fall away / because”. Okay, that’s really a three part verb! Other translations however might treat the Greek verb as a unit, and replace it with whatever conveys the meaning of the whole unit best. That may also be a multi-part verb, or it might be a single word. This is what the NLT does, which translates it as desert.

A morphosyntax-mimicking translation might be written by using the same types of clauses and phrases as the source, representing them as is natural for the target language. The most extreme mimicking translations however also attempt to mimic the source’s word order of regardless of whether that is the target language’s normal way of representing those structures. To me this seems especially ironic considering that both Hebrew and Greek have a significantly free word order, and so any significant word orders will be for reasons other than syntax!

Semantics is the study of meaning! To some extent I covered this in the previous section, as most translations which don’t focus on conveying morphosyntax instead focus on conveying semantics. So semantic translations are free to pick whichever words and sentences they need to most closely translate the meaning of the source, regardless of whether the structures are similar or not.

Each of these layers we’ve been digging through is more abstract, and so translations that focus on lower layers are harder to produce. Sometimes there is significant ambiguity, or even if the source is understood clearly, the target language’s culture may think about some issues in a very different way. One further example from our verse is the noun πάντες, which has the basic meaning of all. There are though a great many ways in which it has been translated, some of which are all, all men, or everyone. A semantics-sensitive translation will ask what was implied in the source language, and what will be inferred from the translation, and if they do not match up the translation will need to be edited further.

Pragmatics is the study of language in context. This is necessarily more abstract than the other layers we’ve covered as we have a far from complete knowledge of the context in which the Bible was written. As the focus of pragmatics is context, a big part of it is studying language as whole texts or conversations, rather than as individual sentences or words. Mike looked at some interesting contextual issues in Matthew recently.

One thing that comes under pragmatics is the intent of a text’s author. Everything ever said or written has been said or written with some purpose. Parts of the Bible have been written to encourage and to rebuke, to excite the readers and to express deep grief. I suspect that The Message as a translation aims to convey these author intentions as its highest priority, even if that means that the individual semantics of a sentence must be changed. Sometimes I think it does this very effectively, but at others times I think the intentions it conveys have been too strongly tainted by speculation. While The Message is an interesting experiment and other translation teams would be wise to study it, I personally don’t think that intentions should be ranked over semantics for most general purpose translations. These translations will remain a niche item.

Another aspect of pragmatics is to do with information. The study of information structure looks at how language is used to mediate between the different collections of knowledge we all have. One significant concept is that of focus, which is used to bring to the forefront something which the speaker thinks their listeners do not know. In Biblical Greek pronouns, like ἐγὼ “I”, are frequently optional, and using them adds emphasis. Both οὐδέποτε σκανδαλισθήσομαι and ἐγὼ οὐδέποτε σκανδαλισθήσομαι have the semantic meaning of “I will never desert you,” however the second has a pragmatic focus on the “I”. A translation could even consider printing I in italics in this verse. I’ve only found one translation which seems to convey this emphasis, the ISV: “Even if everyone else turns against you, I certainly won’t!”

Other layers
There are many other layers to language which are rarely considered to much depth for Bible translations. Some of these are the genre of texts, the register of texts (is it high brow or low brow?), the differences between individual authors etc. The list just keeps on going! I believe that the majority of current Bible translations focus on either morphosyntax or semantics. Clearly there is still much room for improvement!

This is definitely about Bible translation

Thanks for all the comments on my preceding post. You are alert readers. You caught that the issue had to do with whether or not I was referring to a specific tree in my made-up paragraph. (BTW, I did go moose-hunting with my father. I forget how old I was the last time he took me. I know I was big enough to help him pack out the carcass. But I was still fairly small, so I couldn’t carry a very big load.)

The usual pattern for well-formed discourses in English is, as some of you noted, to introduce an item first before we can refer to it with the definite article “the”. For instance, I could have included the following sentence in my moose-hunting story:

There was a tree where we always stopped when we were moose-hunting. It had large branches which could shelter us if there was a sudden downpour of rain.

However, as some of you also noted, English allows for “the” to precede certain other nouns under special conditions. One is if the speaker can assume that the hearer already knows which thing is being talked about, perhaps from previous conversations, or because it is common public knowledge, such as commonly known to everyone who lived in our village.

We properly ask each other in English, “How’s the weather?” We don’t ask, “How’s a weather?” We can safely assume that everyone else knows what we mean by weather.

These days, especially, we may fairly safely talk to someone about “the” national debt, without having to introduce the concept of a national debt.

For those BBB readers who live under the British monarchy, it is perfectly good English for them to refer to “the queen,” without having to first introduce into their discourse a person who is the current monarch of the U.K. There is only one monarch at a time and it is currently a queen. Presumably any resident of the U.K. knows this. Nouns which refer to entities which are assumed to be known as common knowledge can be referred to as definites.

Now, what does this discussion about English “the” have to do with Bible translation? It is on my mind these days because I am nearing the end of my check of the CEB sampler of the Gospel of Matthew. It has impressed me how often in the CEB a noun is marked with “the” as definite (already known to the author and assumed by the author to be known by his audience) when I am unable to find evidence that that noun was introduced yet in the discourse (typically the length of an episode). That clashes with my understanding of the use of English “the”. But it aligns word-for-word with the presence of the Greek definite article before its noun.

Usually this phenomenon occurs with the noun phrase “the house”, as in CEB Matt. 9:28, 13:36, 17:25, 24:43 (UPDATE: only the first instance in CEB 24:43 of “the house”). Notice how 9:27-28 reads:

“As Jesus departed, two blind men followed him, crying out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David.” When he came into the house, the blind men approached him.”

I don’t know which house in all of Palestine Jesus entered on this occasion, or any of the other occasions I have listed where a problematical “the house” occurs. (The issue is not for every instance of “the house” in Matthew, only where a specific house has not yet been introduced into the discourse).

The Greek text has ten okian, for which the default literal translation would be “the house,” and so the CEB translation has “the house.” I have checked other English versions and several follow the same practice of translating the Greek noun phrase with the definite article with an English noun phrase with the definite article “the.” (For Matt. 9:28 these other versions include KJV, RSV, ESV, NASB, and NET.)  Matching the Greek definite article with the English definite article makes sense for doing word-for-word translation. But it needs to be questioned if we are attempting to translate all levels of meaning, including pragmatic meaning, discourse meaning, referential meaning, etc.

I have been wondering why Matthew marked these instances of “house” with a definite article. I have not come up with any satisfactory answer. I am assuming that in all of Jesus travels around Palestine while he was teaching, he did not always teach in the same house, a house whose identity was known to Matthew and assumed by Matthew to also be known to his readers.

If I were translating the particular passages in question in Matthew, I would have to translate the phrases with “house” as “a house”, following English rules of introduction of new entities in discourse, in the absence of any other evidence to cause me to believe that it was a specific house known to the author and his hearers.

Note how the translators of the following versions handle this issue of definiteness or indefiniteness of the house mentioned (Matt. 9:27-28):

When Jesus left that place, two blind men followed him. They shouted, “Have mercy on us, Son of David.” Jesus went into a house (GW)

When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him (NIV, TNIV)

Jesus left that place, and as he walked along, two blind men started following him. “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” they shouted. When Jesus had gone indoors, the two blind men came to him (TEV/GNB)

As Jesus was walking along, two blind men began following him and shouting, “Son of David, have pity on us!” After Jesus had gone indoors (CEV)

As he went on from there Jesus was followed by two blind men, shouting, ‘Have pity on us, Son of David!’ When he had gone indoors they came to him, and Jesus asked, ‘Do you (REB)

When Jesus was leaving there, two blind men followed him. They cried out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” After Jesus went inside, the blind men went with him. (NCV)

After Jesus left the girl’s home, two blind men followed along behind him, shouting, “Son of David, have mercy on us!” They went right into the house where he was staying (NLT)

By the way, it is well known to students of Greek that Greek marks more nouns with the definite article than English does. One of the most famous instances, one which is debated by theologians, is John 1:1 where a rigorous word-for-word kind of translation would require a wording like:

In beginning was the god and the word was with the god and god was the word.

Since Greek word order is pragmatically determined, not syntactically determined, as is much of English,, the final clause can be re-ordered as “the word was god” or “the word was a god” or “the word was divine”. (Please, this is not the place to argue about the divinity of Christ from this verse. I can assure you who wonder, from what I have just written, that I do believe in the divinity of Christ. I am only referring objectively here to legitimate translation possibilities for the Greek. Please do not address the issue of the divinity of Christ in the Comments to this blog post. Such comments will be off-topic for this post and I will have to delete them.)

The point of referring to the Greek of John 1:1 is that the words for “god” (“God) as well as the word for “word” (Word, Logos) are marked as with the Greek definite articles, except, of course, for the final instance of “god”. Yet we never find word-for-word English Bible versions translating the word for “God” for this verse as “the god”. I assume that Greek theos is marked with the definite article because Matthew is a monotheist and assumes that his readers are, as well. In other words, there is for them, just one “god” (God). (Yes, I am a monotheist, as well!)

Again, in summary, I do not know why Matthew refers to “the” house several times in his gospel. Perhaps some of you might know why and can comment on this. I do know that if Jesus stayed and/or taught in more than one house and if this plurality of houses is noted throughout Matthew’s gospel, there is a mismatch between the Greek and English discourse patterns for marking definiteness.

I guess, in conclusion, I would have to say that I am indefinite about the Greek definite in some cases! How about you?

Is it mean to not mean what you mean?

Only if you don’t mean it. Unless, of course, you do mean to be mean; but, that’s a different topic.

I want to commend Steve Runge, and what he is doing with the NT Discourse blog. Though my commendation is hardly worth anything. What he is doing will stand on its own. In one of his blog entries, he talks about semantic meaning versus pragmatic effect. Translators need to get their minds around this.

I’d like to share an insight showing the value of pragmatic effect. But, first, let me generate some interest. 🙂 In my opinion, an understanding of pragmatic effect is vital to the proper exegesis of this text: It is John 1:50-51.

Jesus answered and said unto him, Because I said unto thee, I saw thee underneath the fig tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these. And he saith unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye shall see the heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man. [ASV]

I’m using the ASV in an attempt to achieve some level of transparency into the Greek.

ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, ὅτι εἶπόν σοι ὅτι εἶδόν σε ὑποκάτω τῆς συκῆς πιστεύεις; μείζω τούτων ὄψῃ. καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ὄψεσθε τὸν οὐρανὸν ἀνεῳγότα, καὶ τοὺς ἀγγέλους τοῦ θεοῦ ἀναβαίνοντας καὶ καταβαίνοντας ἐπὶ τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου.

Now, look at, but don’t really read, those two verses in a red letter edition. Note the phrase translated from καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ (“And he says to him”). Notice that Jesus is speaking, then John interjects, “and he says to him,” and then Jesus keeps speaking. Now, look through the rest of John and find another place that has the narrator of the story “interrupt” the speaker. (This is the value of the red letter edition.) There’s places where the story flips back and forth between different speakers. But, here we have the narrator of the story “interrupt” and state the obvious: “And Jesus says to him.” Does that type of discourse construction happen very often in John? In fact, how often does it happen anywhere?

There are places where clarifying statements are made–contextual qualifiers. John 2:7 is like this.

Jesus saith unto them, Fill the waterpots with water. And they filled them up to the brim. And he saith unto them, Draw out now, and bear unto the ruler of the feast. And they bare it. [ASV]

The comment about filling the waterpots to the brim qualifies what happens in the context of the story. Semantically, it expresses that these large jars were completely full. It has the effect of slowing the story down; it lets the reader “see” what is happening. The καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς (“And he says to them”) then causes the reader to pick back up after the interruption. John does a similar contextual qualification in John 1:50-51. But, there he states the obvious. It’s not a “picking back up after the interruption.” It IS the interruption! I think it was Seinfield who loved to say, “What’s up with that?”

I haven’t done a complete analysis, but I think the construction is rare.

So, why did John choose to do that?

That effect, or at least the originally intended effect, is called pragmatic effect. At this point I really don’t care what interpretation any one of us comes up with. The point is to notice, or get the feel for, the effect. It’s important to gain and improve one’s skill in observing these original authorial choices.

Pragmatic effect is the effect a semantic meaning has in a particular context. For exegesis it’s very important to notice it. For translating the meaning into a different time and place, it’s vital to reproduce that effect by constructing the resulting text appropriately. The original author chose a specific construction to accomplish it. We need to do the same, though the construction may be quite different. However, in order to translate accurately, first we have to learn to notice it.

discourse grammar and Bible translation

Steve Runge has just started a blog called NT Discourse. It is dedicated to the study of the discourse structure (grammar) of the Greek New Testament. Not many translators of English Bible versions have ever heard of discourse grammar, partly because it is a relatively new field in linguistic study and even newer for Biblical studies. But all Bible translations can be improved by careful attention paid to the discourse structures of the biblical source languages and those of the target language. There are many language patterns at higher “levels” of language than the sentence which native speakers of a language intuitively learn. These natural discourse patterns need to be reflected in Bible translations.

Some language features which are studied in discourse analysis of a language would include:

  • How are new characters introduced into a narrative?
  • How does the language enable hearers to know the same entity is being referred to after it has been introduced? (Greek discourse repeats a person’s name much more often than does English discourse which uses more pronouns to keep referring to the same person.)
  • How does the language maintain a theme over some section of discourse?
  • How does a language transition from one topic section to another?
  • What formal characteristics differentiate genres in the language?
  • What contextual clues accompany rhetorical effects such as sarcasm, irony, ecstasy, the peak of a plot, etc.?
  • Is the hero of a narrative formally marked in some way in the language? (In one language Judas was understood to be the hero of the section where he betrayed Jesus because of certain cultural expectations. It was necessary to do some adjustments to the translation to make sure the translation was accurate, that Judas was not the hero.)
  • How are beginnings and/or ends of direct quotes indicated in the language?

I have added the NT Discourse blog to our blogroll.

HT: Mike Aubrey