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!

Essentially Literal

This is a follow up to All things are lawful 2. I had been trying to think of how to define “essentially literal”. Does it mean being faithful to the grammatical structure versus the semantic structure? In other words, does it mean to defer to word order or word count instead of word choice? Does it mean representing the morphology faithfully, ie, if Elohim is plural then the English word for God should be plural, if the spirit is neuter, use “it” instead of “he” for the Holy Spirit?

Let’s look at an awkward examples. Here is 1 Cor. 14:20,

    Αδελφοι, μη παιδια γινεσθε ταις φρεσιν, αλλα τη κακια νηπιαζετε, ταις δε φρεσιν τελειοι γινεσθε

    Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. ESV

What is this word φρην? According to the lexicon it means the diaphragm. From this it can also mean “the seat of passions, the heart, mind, understanding and reason,” take your pick. In this verse, one cannot preserve morphological number, ie the plural, or semantic reference either.

But semantics, on the one hand, and morphology and syntax, on the other are often in conflict. In translation one might be able to preserve one at the expense of the other. But, preserving both. Hmm. This is difficult.

However, just recently, the ESV site provided an explanation of their term ‘essentially literal’ in this post which is interesting for other reasons as well.

    At the same time, in accord with its “essentially literal” translation philosophy, the ESV has retained consistency and concordance in the translation of Christos (“Christ”) throughout the New Testament.


    we have sought to use the same English word for important recurring words in the original (ESV Preface)

Let’s look at the ESV and see how it abides by its intention of maintaining concordance. I thought I would choose the word εξουσια and the English word authority for example.

Here is εξουσια and its various translations into English. And then I will present those same English words with their various Greek equivalents.

I English equivalents for εξουσια in the ESV

Matt. 7:29 authority (and many other places)

Acts 8:19 power (and many other places)

1 Cor. 8:9 right

1 Cor. 11:10 symbol of authority (only this once)

Rev. 13:17 strength

II Now let’s go in the other direction.

a) authority

In most places -εξουσια

1 Tim. 2:13 – αυθεντειν (a one off)

b) power

Luke 22:69 – δυναμις

Acts 8:19 – εξουσια

c) right

John 18:23 – καλως

Acts 2:33 – δεξια

Acts 4:19 – δικαιον

Acts 6:2 – αρεστον

Acts 10:35 – δικαιοσυνην

1 Cοr. 8:9 – εξουσια

1 Cor. 9:15 (no Greek found for ‘right’ in this verse)

d) symbol of authority

1 Cor. 11:10 – εξουσια (found only this once – strange how men have ‘rights’ and women have a ‘symbol of authority’ – and then they call this constancy and concordance!)

e) strength

Mark 5:4 – ισχυεν

Luke 1:51 – κρατος

Acts 9:22 – ενεδυναμουτο

Acts 14:22 – επιστηριζοντες

2 Cor. 1:8 – δυναμιν

Okay, this is what I think. The ESV only occasionally wanders right off course in its translation. However, if the ESV blog identifies ‘essentially literal’ with concordance, then it needs to reconsider. I have asked the editor about this, does he really think the ESV provides concordance, and he said “That is what we set out to do.”

The problem is that when I complete a study like this I remember that the ESV translators have these notions about men and women,

    God gave men, in general, a disposition that is better suited to teaching and governing in the church, a disposition that inclines more to the rational, logical analysis of doctrine and a desire to protect the doctrinal purity of the church, and God gave women, in general, a disposition that inclines more toward a relational, nurturing emphasis that places a higher value on unity and community in the church

so they won’t actually consider a study like mine as having validity. The ESV translators will persist in their belief that they have produced concordance. Or maybe they simply mean that authority is not an important concept. I can handle that.