Transliteration versus Translation

A number of highly important words in translations of the Bible are in fact not translated at all, but merely transliterated. A translation is a rendering of the meaning of a text into a different language. A transliteration does not render the meaning of the word into the other language, but only represents its sound. βασιλεύς, for example, can be translated into English as king. Transliterated into English, it would be Basileus.

Clearly, transliterating this word into English would not make its meaning clear. It would, in essence, hide the meaning and give us a new English word, which we would then have to explain to readers of the text. This is exactly what happened with quite a few theologically important words in the earliest English translations of the Bible. Rather than translating them into English, the earliest translators chose to transliterate them, representing their sound rather than their meaning in English.  In most cases, these transliterations were accepted by the churches of the time and became traditional usage in the new languages into which the Bible was translated, with the church providing new “official” meanings for these words. 

Four examples of such transliteration still found in our modern English Bibles are shown below.

Original Language Word Translation Transliteration
βαπτίζειν dip, wash, rinse baptize
χριστός anointed Christ
מַשִׁיחַ anointed Messiah
χριστιανός of the party of the anointed Christian

Why do you think the earliest translators chose not to translate these word, but to transliterate them? What could happen if we chose now to actually translate them rather than continuing to use the transliterations given to us by those early translators?

Ἐγὼ μὲν ὑμᾶς βαπτίζω ἐν ὕδατι εἰς μετάνοιαν (Matthew 3:11)
I dip you in water for repentance
I wash you with water for repentance 
I rinse you with water for repentance

At the very least, in the case of βαπτίζω, we would have to think very hard about which English word best represents the sense of the Greek word in each particular context. Continuing to use the transliteration baptize hides this problem from us

μακαριοῦσίν με πᾶσαι αἱ γενεαί A first century Speech Act

Olin T. Binkley Memorial Baptist Church

Originally published December 17, 2014: μακαριοῦσίν με πᾶσαι αἱ γενεαί

I had the privilege this Sunday of hearing a spectacular sermon by Rev. Stephanie Ford on the Magnificat. When the text was read before the sermon I noticed something that raised for me a question about translation and cultural assumptions.

The translation being read rendered Luke 1:48 as

God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. 
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.

It is the second of these lines that concerns me. The Greek text of that second line reads:

ἰδοὺ γὰρ ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν μακαριοῦσίν με πᾶσαι αἱ γενεαί

Does the verb μακαρίζω really mean “call blessed” here? In the ancient world one did not “call” someone blessed, but simply blessed that person. It was a speech act. The act of affirming a person or making a positive statement about a person’s future was to bless that person (μακαρίζω).

The interpretive difference this raises has to do with who is doing the blessing, who is performing the speech act. To translate μακαρίζω as “call [someone] blessed” suggests that it is someone other than the speaker who does the blessing. The speaker is simply reporting the fact of “blessedness.” In both Classical and Hellenistic Greek, though, the subject of μακαρίζω is the person doing the blessing, not someone else reporting about it.

This issue did not come up in the sermon, which addressed more pressing matters and related the Magnificat fabulously to issues of justice that still should concern us in the 21st century. I apologize to Rev. Ford for being distracted by the Greek text! Her sermon was excellent and blessed.

Euphorion and "a boar"

While reading fragments of Hellenistic poetry today, I ran across this bit from Εὐφόριον:

καὶ ταύτην τὴν Κορινθίαν Σαρωνίδα καλοῦσιν,
ὡς μὲν Εὐφορίον φησὴν,

ἐπειδὴ Σάρων τις κυνηγὸς ἐπιδιώκων <σῦν> ἐκεῖθεν κατεκρημνίσθη εἰς θάλασσαν, καὶ δία τοῦτο Σαρωνικὸν κληθῆναι τὸ πέλαγος.

Which I translate as:

And this Corinthian [sea] they call Saronic, as Euphorion says,

Since Saron, a certain hunter, chasing [something]
was flung down the cliff into the sea,
and therefore the sea came to be called Saronic.

Lightfoot (Hellenistic Collection) fills in the “something” with “a boar.” Do any of you know why? What about this texts could have suggested a boar?

Multilingual Experience and Reading Greek

I had an interesting experience reading the Greek text of Acts 2:1-20 this morning in church.

Yes. I confess to being one of those geeks who takes his Greek New Testament to church. There are quite a few people at my church who have seminary degrees, including studies of the biblical languages, so I’m not that out-of-place in doing this, though I am in the distinct minority. I take it because I enjoy reading the Greek text of any New Testament passages read in worship.

Today being Pentecost, the passage from Acts was read in five different languages, starting with English, and changing languages every verse or so. As the English was read, as usual, I read along in Greek, not paying much attention to the English reading, but when the language suddenly switched to Russian, I was jarred by the sudden lack of mooring for keeping pace with the reader. I had not thought much before about the fact that I usually finish a sentence in Greek at the same time that sentence is completed in the English translation being read aloud. It just seemed normal. But when the language being read aloud was Russian (and I understand no Russian) I could continue reading in Greek, but had no way to judge the pace. From Russian the reading switched to Portuguese. While I do understand a little Portuguese, I found that I was equally unable to keep pace. Then the reading switched to Spanish. Suddenly I could keep perfect time with the reading, then it switched to Mandarin. All ability to keep pace vanished again.

It suddenly hit me that my usual experience of reading in Greek in worship is actually a bilingual experience. I must be paying attention to the English, even though I was not doing so consciously. How else would I keep pace with it? How did my ability to keep pace return when the reading switched to Spanish today? I must have been simultaneously processing the Spanish along with the Greek.

For a short time while I lived in Louisville, Kentucky I had a job as a simultaneous translator for the Western Kentucky U.S. District Court. It hit me this morning that what I do while reading Greek and hearing the text in another language is what used to happen on the job in the court. The two languages would recede into the background, and my work felt more like just repeating what I heard without thinking too hard about how I was saying it.

This is not very different from what I experience with Spanish and English on a daily basis. I regularly have conversations in which some participants speak fluent English and little Spanish while others speak fluent Spanish with little English.  As I navigate these conversations, I don’t actually think consciously about which language to use. I simply respond in the language that seems necessary.

My experience this morning raised questions that I will ponder for some time. In a sense, it felt more like Pentecost than any Pentecost service ever has before.

NA28 with two parallel English Texts

Yesterday I received a very nice gift from my church where I regularly teach classes in Biblical Studies. At the end of an afternoon meeting, the Minister of Christian Formation handed me a copy of the Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft double diglot edition of  Novum Testamentum Graece. The two parallel English texts, on facing pages from the Greek, are the NRSV and the REB. Amazingly, the entire volume is just under seven and a half inches tall, just over five and a half inches wide, and only an inch and a half thick—a comfortable size and weight.

Μὴ γίνεσθε ἑτεροζυγοῦντες ἀπίστοις

Recently I was approached by a friend who wanted my take on Paul’s comment that Christians should not be “unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Cor. 6:14). This particular friend is in an interfaith marriage and had been challenged by someone who took Paul’s comment as a prohibition against such marriages.

Μὴ γίνεσθε ἑτεροζυγοῦντες ἀπίστοις· τίς γὰρ μετοχὴ δικαιοσύνῃ καὶ ἀνομίᾳ, ἢ τίς κοινωνία φωτὶ πρὸς σκότος;

I’ve spent some time looking at the way this verse has been used and reading the relevant section of 2 Corinthians carefully. Here are a few observations on what I have found:

1. The passage in question (2 Corinthians 6) does not address marriage at all. It is about the work of the gospel, the work of early Christians in spreading the “good news” (to use Paul’s favorite term for it elsewhere). If this one verse refers to marriage, it seems quite out-of-place here.

2. The phrase “unequally yoked” translates the Greek word ἑτεροζυγοῦντες—a compound of the two words ἕτερος and ζυγέω. A problem with interpreting this as a reference to interfaith marriage is that the verb ζυγέω is not used elsewhere to refer to marriage. It refers to wearing a device that allows two animals (or slaves) to work together, not to form a family together. If Paul used the term figuratively to refer to marriage, he used it in a very odd way.

A much more reasonable interpretation of the verb would be something like, “Don’t partner with unbelievers [in the work of spreading the gospel].” In fact, in the very next clause Paul asks, “What partnership (μετοχὴ) [is there] between righteousness and lawlessness?” (τίς γὰρ μετοχὴ δικαιοσύνῃ καὶ ἀνομίᾳ).

Note that I’m not arguing a theological point here. I can’t speak for Paul about his view of interfaith marriage. I just notice that this particular verse does not appear to be about marriage at all, but about partnership in the work of the gospel.

There’s a separate issue that can be raised in reference to this same statement in 2 Corinthians 6:14, and that has to do with the word ἀπίστοις. Most published English translations render ἀπίστοις as unbelievers. While this adjective does seem to have that sense in a number of other contexts, it is important to realize that it is a combination of the privative α- and the adjective πιστός (faithful) and can also describe a lack of faithfulness rather than a lack of belief.

Of course translating ἀπίστοις  as unfaithful would significantly change the meaning of the passage. Rather than arguing that the Corinthians not work with unbelievers in the spread of the gospel, Paul would be arguing that they should not work with those who are unfaithful. This could very well include his opponents within the Corinthian church! Why would he have to counsel them not to work with unbelievers in the spread of the gospel anyway? Why would unbelievers want to be involved in that work?

If we read ἀπίστοις as unfaithful, we would see Paul as counseling the Corinthians not to work with unfaithful Christians. Doing so could damage their witness. He prefers that they work with those who are faithful (πιστός) like him.

Usage of καί

Earlier today, Eric Rasmusen posted the following comment in the Punctuation in Ancient Greek Texts discussion. While it is related to that topic, it raises a question more specific to the usage of the word καί, and I would like to invite other comments more particular to that topic than to punctuation.

Here’s what Eric had to say:

I don’t know Greek. I have a question about Biblical Greek, which often strikes me as ugly in literal translation. I was just reading Colossians in English and wondered whether most of the “and”‘s in it ought to be translated by periods. In other words: is the Greek word kai actually mean NEW SENTENCE?

3:13 Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have aquarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.
3:14 And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.
3:15 And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful.

And here’s my response, to which you can feel free to add:

I agree that overly literal translations sound “ugly.” That’s because they try to make English sound like Greek, and that’s just not normal English usage!

As to the meaning of καί…
No. Καί is not equivalent to a verbal punctuation mark. It can be used in all of the ways that the English word “and” can be, plus a few others. I’ll stick to ways that have a parallel in English to make the discussion below easy to follow.

Καί can be used to link two or more simple words in a list:

χρυσὸν καὶ λίβανον καὶ σμύρναν
gold and frankincense and myrrh (Matthew 2:11)

Σίμωνος καὶ Ἀνδρέου
Simon and Andrew (Mark 1:29)

Καί can be used to link two or more phrases:

γῆ Ζαβουλὼν καὶ γῆ Νεφθαλίμ
The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali (Matthew 4:15)

It can be used to link entire clauses:

τέξεται. . . υἱόν, καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν
She will bear a son, and you will name him “Jesus” (Matthew 1:21)

In English we often omit “and” when it would sound repetitive. For example, in the first example above (Matthew 2:11), a more natural English translation would be “gold, frankincense, and myrrh” rather than “gold and frankincense and myrrh.” In a list of three or more items, we tend to use “and” only between the last two in English. In ancient Greek texts, however, it is quite common to find καί between each set of items in the list. While including “and” in all of these places in the English translation would sound “ugly” as you put it, including και´in Greek sounds quite normal.

Because Ancient Greek had a much more developed system of grammatical endings (for verbs, nouns, pronouns, adjectives, etc.), it was possible to write sentences that were considerably longer than what would be understandable in English. Often the parts of such long sentences were held together by conjunctions like καί. There were, of course, many other such conjunctions, but καί was among the most common. Overly literal translations attempt to make English work like Greek and include all of those conjunctions rather than breaking the long sentences down into the smaller units that English usage requires. This results both in “ugly” sounding sentences and a significant loss of comprehensibility.