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.

The Garden of Oilpress

It’s somewhat surprising how sentences like the one in Matthew 26:36 arrive so quickly at the heart of some hard and yet simply stated translation questions. In Greek the original sentence is, τότε ἔρχεται μετ’ αὐτῶν ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἰς χωρίον λεγόμενον Γεθσημανί. In English it is, “then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsamane.”

Gethsamane means oil-press. Should one translate it? Or transliterate it?

The US, just like everywhere else, has place names which rarely, if ever, bring the “original” meaning to mind. The locals around here rarely, if ever, think of a person named Landis when we refer to Landisburg. The newness of a port does not come to mind when we talk about Newport. Actually, as far as we’re concerned, there’s no port there. The town certainly isn’t new.

And like everywhere else, we also have place names which excite associated meaning in the hearer even though when we use the word we don’t necessarily intend that other meaning.

I live in Pennsylvania. We have some unique names. Many years ago we moved from an apartment into a house, and I needed to notify a magazine of the change of address. So I called their offices located in California. An apparently young woman (her voice sounded young) answered the phone and I told her what I wanted to do. She replied that it would be easy and we proceeded.

“Name?” “Mike Sangrey”
“Can you spell your last name?” “Sure,” and I did.
“Street?” “Well, it’s actually mailed to a box number,” and I gave that to her.
“City?” “It’s a small town.”
I paused.


She giggled.

“Really?” she said. I replied, “Yep, that’s the name.”
“Ok. What’s your new address? I need the street first.” I gave her the street name.
“And having left Intercourse where did you move to?”

I could tell there was a smile behind the question. It was at this point in time I realized this was going to be a bit funny.

“Well, ummmmmm…”
I paused.


Her previous giggle was now laughter.

Now that I’m older and a bit more mature…well, maybe not…I’ve thought about what drives the best way to translate this conversation into non-English. Would it be best to translate the names or to simply transliterate them? I think the answer to that question is obvious. One would have to translate it, or the laughter makes no sense (and yet, even that isn’t perfect). But, the real question is: What is it in this conversational situation which drives the answer to the translate vis-a-vis transliterate question?

The locals don’t think there is anything odd about living in a town called Intercourse. Sometimes there were conversations about how it use to be named Crosskeys. In a previous life, it formed the intersection between two main thoroughfares—two courses—tying the “west” of that time to the east. One course went from Lancaster, to the West, to Philadelphia, in the East, and the other went from a major town in Delaware, to the South-East of Pennsylvania, to North-Western Pennsylvania and a city named Erie. These two “highways” intersected in Intercourse.

Today Intercourse is a popular tourist site (many Amish live in the area). The town sign, maybe 18 inches long and a foot high, sitting on a 8 foot pole at the edge of town is one of the more photographed spots in the area. I suppose you understand why it’s photographed so much, but the sign is hardly photographic. Reminds me of semiotics. Amateur photographers use semiotics; though they wouldn’t know that. Some professionals know. The sign signals meaning—well, multiple meanings as the case might be.

But, where is the meaning? We can see the sign. But, where’s the meaning? It is the answer to this question that ultimately decides whether or not we translate or transliterate.

Words are signs. For the locals, Intercourse signalled the place where they live. For many others it signalled…well, it signalled one of the other meanings. The one you’re thinking about. You are thinking about it aren’t you? You see, the meaning is in the mind. It is not in the text, not really.

Words do that. They signal, they don’t mean.

Though they only signal when used in context. And, they’re always in context. If I use a word seemingly all by itself, it still brings to mind a context within which it is interpreted. However, the vast majority of word usages, especially those used in text, are within a literary context. In other words, they are within a dynamic, author developed context. (Dynamic in the sense that the context develops as the reader reads through the text.)

This author developed context imperfectly causes the author intended, specific meaning to be selected within the reader’s mind. All of the raw meaning the author has to work with is in the mind of the audience member. He or she adds to it, manipulates it, grows it. But, it’s all there in the mind.

There’s other meanings, too, than just the one meaning typically selected by the word-context pair. These other meanings wait in the wings of the focal thought, apparently partly turned on. However, nearly always, meanings which are sometimes associated with the word are not even thought of when the word is used in a specific context. These associated meanings might be more readily accessible at the moment of use; but, generally they are not accessed. Unless forcefully brought to mind through analysis, they stay mute. After the word is used, these other meanings simply and quietly power down over a short span of time—never thought of. The author doesn’t make use of them; neither does the reader.

When I used the signal Intercourse on the phone, I had an entire context within which the word obtained its meaning. There was an entire history surrounding the term. So, for me, this otherwise highly energetic (cognito-linguisticly speaking, of course) signal was simply the name of a place. To the California girl, there was no placeness associated within her mind for this signal to trigger. For her it signalled…well, you know what it signalled. It’s that meaning in your mind that was just signalled (and, interestingly, signalled again even without the use of the word! You really should be more careful. Authors can do this to you and you’re relatively helpless to prevent them).

So, in order to accurately communicate meaning, where is the place within which an author should be interacting? It’s in the audience’s mind, isn’t it? Well, then, let me rephrase that question: in order to accurately communicate meaning, where is the place within which a Bible translator should be interacting?

The reader’s mind provides the canvas and the colors with which the author can paint his or her painting. In the case of the Bible, the Author uses the reader’s canvas and colors to paint a self-portrait. But, I digress to the true purpose of Bible translation.

If the meanings an author has to use are in the mind of the reader, then shouldn’t the author use the naturally occurring lexis and grammar that is within the mind of that reader?

I think so. And I think that makes a much Better Bible. It makes it effective because it communicates to that reader in ways that persuade, that grab, that speak authoritatively. It gets the reader to think the way the reader needs to think. That’s the beauty of good, high quality English in Bible translations.

So, back to the original question. For Matthew 26:36, should we select Gethsamane or Oilpress?

The originally intended meaning has little if anything to do with pressing oil. So, Gethsamane seems quite adequate. However, when you put the word into an expression such as, “to a place called…” the possibilities open up a bit. The fact that the expression has the word “place” gives “oil press” a placeness it would not normally have. Additionally, capitalizing and concatenating the expression “oil press” into one word further turns it into a place name.

So, why not, ”then Jesus went with them to a place called Oilpress”? It seems to me that is quite accurate. And, it communicates well.

But, perhaps the answer to the “why not” is because the modern English audience expects Gethsamane. It’s just as accurate. And the sentence is good English. It’s really just the name of a place, isn’t it?

And, isn’t that what your mind was thinking it meant?