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Monday, August 22, 2005

Thinking in Greek

Carl Conrad, a moderator of the Biblical Greek (b-greek) discussion list, recently answered a questioner who asked how to develop thinking ability in Greek. Carl's answer is good. Note that he also addresses the issue of "authentic translation" which is a key concern on this blog. It is my belief that only authentic translation can result in better Bibles. Carl has given permission for me to post his answer here:
It may well be that your sense of competence at "translating" Greek to English has already achieved the capacity to think in Greek, but I'm skeptical about that, because that often involves thinking at the level of words rather than of phrases or syntactic units. In my experience, authentic translation is a step BEYOND comprehension of the original text: one must first come to understanding the original text on its own terms, grasp the CONTENT of what that text is saying on its own terms; translation into a target language then involves re-expressing the CONTENT as understood into English or whatever other target language it may be as best one can -- and that may involve an altogether different structure from that of the original Greek passage.

My own view of what's required in achieving "fluency" or the ability to think in ancient Greek involves three types of effort:
  1. Voluminous reading in a variety of texts that lie outside the sphere with which one is thoroughly familiar (let's say, outside the sphere of the Greek New Testament. This could be in older Classical Attic (e.g. Plato, Xenophon, or the like) or it could be from the first two centuries of the Christian era (e.g. Apostolic Fathers, Lucian of Samosata, Plutarch, or the like). The point is that one needs to read a lot of sequential text and thereby become familiar with the recurrent patterns of expression used by good or standard authors: those recurrent patterns of expression are at the core of what it means to "think in ancient Greek.
  2. Composition in ancient Greek accompanying reading of the sorts of texts one is attempting to mimic in one's own compositions. In more traditional schools this still is a vital part of the curriculum for ancient Greek; it has been dropped by perhaps most schools, but its value lies precisely in its power to train one in thinking in standard ancient Greek patterns of expression and using them consistently in what one writes.
  3. Drills in 'question-and-answer' sessions using ancient Greek phraseology; while some of the better recent Attic grammars (e.g. Reading Greek, Carl Ruck's Ancient Greek: A New Approach use this for written exercises, the best way of all would be oral question-and-answer sessions, the method espoused and employed by Randall Buth in his "Biblical Ulpan."
Some resources for Greek composition may be found at:

View Randall Buth's materials for "Living Greek for Everyone" at: (under popup menu on left for "Courses" choose "Greek Materials." The description there reads: "This is a unique introduction to Koine Greek. It is suitable for children, at least from as early an age as they are able to understand why they might want to learn Greek. It is equally suitable for adults of any age. It is doubly efficient in language learning and re-teaches adults what it means to learn a language and to think in a language. The methodology is based on listening comprehension approaches to language learning and has been successfully developed and applied to many modern languages by Harris Winitz."

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University (Emeritus)
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