Translating Punctuation when there is No Punctuation to Translate

Jonathan Morgan, on our share page, asks this,

One thing I have heard a number of times is the assertion that “Greek has no punctuation”, and that as a result we can choose to repunctuate the *English* in any way we like, because “it’s all just been added by the translator anyway”. I’ve never been entirely convinced by this…

First, good for you not being convinced by the apparent, and incorrect, logic of “no punctuation in the original means we can punctuate the translation any way we like.” We are never free to translate “any way we like.” The goal is accuracy. Secondly, there’s an underlying assumption (if I myself may assume such) in the “logic” that punctuating is not translation. The use of punctuation in the destination text most certainly is translation as is such things as paragraph breaks and section breaks.

English uses punctuation. So, punctuation is required in the translation, or it wouldn’t be clear and natural—it wouldn’t communicate to an English audience. However, just because there were no punctuation marks, per se in the original, does not mean the function of punctuation was not performed in the original. The function of punctuation is to generate meaning pauses for the reader so as to generate cognitive chunking (think of this as taking bites of the text with your mind). And so it is such a basic cognitive requirement that, as far as language goes, this function is a language universal. So, the function is there; we just need to determine how that function is formally captured in the original so we can accurately translate the meaning into a language that uses punctuation marks.

Before I give some explanation, I’ll point out that the web page you point us to gives a good explanation. The question the web page answers shows a wrong assumption about the translated text. It says, “Holman, CEV and others place the comma in a way that implies that Jesus had already risen, before the first day of the week,” citing Mark 16:9–“very early on the first day of the week, after Jesus had risen to life, he appeared…” While the translation might imply that Jesus had risen before the first day, the translation does not say that. It simply and only says that the resurrection happened before the appearance, and that Mary saw Jesus very early. Sometimes I think we judge a text by the cover we ourselves project on to it. While an important criteria for translation is to be unambiguous, we can’t prevent people from wrongly interpreting a text no matter how clearly we write it (see 2 Peter 3:15-16). I think there’s a tacit contract between translator and reader that each will do the best they can. There are no major translation publications where the translators have intended to lead the reader astray. I felt I had to get this out of the way.

I’m going to illustrate from the Greek. I assume Hebrew and Aramaic are analogous. Basically, the question is: What are some of the mechanisms ancient koine Greek used to “punctuate” the Biblical text?

Well, for example, Mark (and others) frequently used καί (KAI, ‘and’) to mark a sentence break.[1] Open an NASB to Mark 3:13-20 for a good illustration of this. The function καί brings to the text is to mark the closing and opening of two sentences. This “punctuation mark” (if you will) is much like our English period and a capital letter. Δέ (DE, ‘and’, ‘so’) frequently performs the same function.

Also, one should not think that the Gospel of Mark is rapid fire because he uses so many καί–“and this, and this, and this”. That’s not what is going on. That’s interpreting the Greek using an English idiom (ie. way of thinking with our language). Many times καί “provides” the punctuation between two sentences.

However, let me be clear here. Καί and δέ perform other functions, too; the ones we normally think of them doing. Καί connects two semantic items which are otherwise equal. Δέ adds supporting material to what has just been written. However, just like so many things in translation, there is no one-to-one mapping between the form in the original and its analog in the destination. The mapping between the languages is nearly always many-to-many. That is, the characteristics that a specific form brings to the text in the original will map to multiple forms in the destination and vice-versa.

This complexity is why the Tower of Babel was so successful, and it makes translation hard. I’ll also point out that translating punctuation is clearly one place where a naive adherence to a formal equivalent methodology breaks down. A naive adherence that no formally equivalent translation follows. Since there was no punctuation in the original, there’s no way to formally map it to the destination. The point being: Even the formal equivalent methodology must follow a functional equivalent methodology when it comes to punctuation.

So, there were no punctuation marks in the original; but that function is dispersed through many Greek forms. And one of the characteristics of those original forms (a punctuation function) maps to the many punctuation marks in English. So, it’s not arbitrary. But, nor is it formally equivalent.

Furthermore, Greek has flexible word order, but it is certainly common for the Greek sentence to either begin or end with a verb. This, too, tends to mark the breaks between sentences. Obviously, I’m not describing this in a mechanically precise way. Nor is its use or non-use determinative. To illustrate, I’m saying that the sentence in Acts 1:2 ends in a verb and the one in Acts 1:3 begins with one.

ἄχρι ἧς ἡμέρας … ἀνελήμφθη. οἷς καὶ παρέστησεν ἑαυτὸν ζῶντα…
“Until which day…he was taken up. To whom he also presented himself alive…

It’s very natural and expected to have the phrase οἷς καὶ pre-positional to the verb and still think of the verb as being “first” in the sentence. An author will vary the verb’s position for a variety of reasons. I believe “punctuation” to be one of those reasons. Again, there’s no, neat, sweat, simple one-to-one mapping.

There are other forms, too. I may be wrong, but I’ve often thought that one way of making direct speech very clear is the often used combination of two verbs of speaking used in close proximity. For example, ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς (Literally: “Answering, the Jesus said to-them.”) In English, we punctuate with double-quotes. In Greek, the ἀποκρίνομαι does more than just help fulfill this punctuation function, it also characterizes the way Jesus said what he said. Again, it’s many-to-many. An accurate translation is: Jesus answered, “…” or even Jesus responded, “…”. For our purposes here, note the quotation marks in the translation. They are not in the original, per se. But, their function is.

There’s much more that could be said. Hopefully, this provides enough meat so you and others will have confidence that punctuation is not arbitrarily decided. Punctuation, like every other form (or symbol as used in semiotics) signals something. The way at getting at that “signaling something” is to ask and answer, what function is it performing. Since the function punctuation performs is so cognitively basic, we expect the function to be in the original even when the English way of performing that function is no where to be found. I hope my start of an answer generates some further examples in the comments as well as some discussion.


[1] The so called definition that καί and δέ mean ‘and’ or ‘but’ is far too simplistic, and it is either wrong or at best an insufficient explanation. The continuity or discontinuity provided by the English ‘and’ or ‘but’ is provided in the Greek by the semantics of the sentence. Καί connects two equal items; δέ adds supporting material. Again, there’s a mapping between the original and the destination languages, but one cannot simply match the forms.