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Monday, September 19, 2005

What is obedience of faith?

Semantics, that is, structured meaning, is basically universal. Because of this, translation is possible. Through translation, meaning remains the same from one language to another.

Different languages overtly omit different elements of semantic structure producing syntactic structures that vary from one language to another. But the semantic elements underlying those syntactic structures are the same, again, making translation possible.

Romans 1:5 illustrates these principles nicely. This verse has a complex genitive phrase, hupakoen pisteos, which is often translated to English using Greek-like syntax which does not adequately communicate the underlying semantic structure of the Greek phrase. Traditionally, more formal English versions translate this genitive phrase as "obedience of faith." But this phrase makes little, if any, sense in English. It requires additional explanation for English speakers to understand what it means. But adequate translation should not require additional explanation to explain the semantic structure of the source text. Rather, adequate translation should express the same semantic structure that is in the source text using the syntactic structures that are appropriate for expressing that structure in the target language.

Let's do some commonsense observations of the Greek genitive, so that we discover its semantic structure. "Faith" is a noun in Greek, but it is a noun that encodes an action, not a thing. Faith is an action. It has no volition. It does not act on its own. Instead, it requires a person who believes ("has faith"). Greek allows the actor of some verbs, such as pistis (faith), to be ellipsized. Greek speakers clearly understood that pistis does not act on its own. Faith cannot obey, which is what a literal translation of only the overt syntactic elements of the Greek phrase superficially seems to imply ("obedience of faith").

Who might be the person or persons who do the believing in Rom. 1:5? The answer is clear. We don't have to guess. We don't have to do "interpretive translation" to make the believer(s) overt in any language, such as English, which requires the actor to be explicitly stated, in most linguistic contexts. Those who are to do the believing in Rom. 1:5 are the pasin tois ethnesin 'all the nations.'

The final part of the semantic structure here to discover is the relationship between pistis (faith) and hupakoe (obedience). Clearly, as noted already, it is not faith which obeys. So who is it that obeys? Again, the answer is right in front of us in the context. It is the same people, 'all the nations,' who believe who also obey. In Greek it is not necessary to explicitly state the relationship between faith and obedience. The syntactic structure of Greek, with its cases, enabled Greek speakers to quickly understand the underlying semantic structure which is what communicates meaning. (Syntax is the surface form that leads us to the underlying meaning.)

When people believe, they obey. Faith that is only cognitive, that does not result in obedience, is dead faith, as the book of James emphasizes.

An adequate English translation of Rom. 1:5, then, must make clear for English speakers who is doing the believing and what they do as a result of believing. In my opinion, an adequate translation of hupakoen pisteos within the context of all the other semantic elements of this verse would be:
so that all nations would believe and obey
or, even more explicitly
so that all nations would obey after believing
I consider the following English versions to have adequate translations of the semantic structure of the Greek genitive phrase hupakoen pisteos:
in order to lead people of all nations to believe and obey (TEV)
so that people of all nations would obey and have faith (CEV)
to lead people of all nations to believe and obey (NCV)
so that they will believe and obey him (NLT)
Have these translations accurately retained the semantic structure of the Greek genitive? Yes, far better than English translations which retain the Greek syntax, but not its semantic structure. Have these translations inserted translators' interpretive opinions. No, these versions simply translate the semantic structure which is already in the Greek, which we discover from studying the Greek syntax within its context. Have these versions "dumbed down" the translation? No, they have not made the translation simpler than it needs to be. Rather, they have translated the Greek more accurately than translations which attempt to retain the Greek syntactic structure, but not its semantic structure. There is nothing simplistic or "dumbing down" about being accurate or clear. There is only dumbing down when a translation is simpler than it needs to be for its intended target audience.

We can note that not even the NIV, which some have called a dynamic equivalent translation (I believe it is far more of a formally equivalent translation), conveys through adequate, clear, natural English the semantic structure of the Greek genitive phrase:
to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith
In English we don't normally call people to (the) obedience. Instead, we call them to obey.

During translation, the more that we retain the semantic structures of the biblical languages using the syntax of target languages, the more accurate and clear our translations will be.

Categories: exegesis semantic.structure syntax bible.translation

7 Comments:

At Mon Sep 19, 07:03:00 PM, Blogger exegete77 said...

Howdy, Wayne.

This is a critical topic and needs careful scrutiny. Thanks for raising it.

Wayne wrote:
==========================
In Greek it is not necessary to explicitly state the relationship between faith and obedience. The syntactic structure of Greek, with its cases, enabled Greek speakers to quickly understand the underlying semantic structure which is what communicates meaning. (Syntax is the surface form that leads us to the underlying meaning.)

When people believe, they obey.

An adequate English translation of Rom. 1:5, then, must make clear for English speakers who is doing the believing and what they do as a result of believing

==========================

I wholeheartedly agree with this. However, it appears that one of the translations you quote misses the point, namely the CEV.

==========================
so that people of all nations would obey and have faith (CEV)
==========================

For the CEV the "act of obeying" precedes and perhaps even results in "faith", which does not reflect the Greek.

And, of course, there are other passages that present the same concern such as.

1 Thes. 1:3 In the presence of our God and Father, we never forget that your faith is active, your love is working hard, and your confidence in our Lord Jesus Christ is enduring. [GW]

1 Thes. 1:3 ... constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father ... [NAS95]

 
At Thu Sep 22, 10:17:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding "obedience of faith," you claim that "this phrase makes little, if any, sense in English." But on what basis can you make such an abstract claim about what makes sense and what does not make sense "in English"? I think it is very doubtful that most English readers will fail to gather the sense "the obedience that is connected with faith" when reading the phrase. That is how the Greek phrase would have been understood, and that is what Paul means by it. But in the translations that you recommend, I think few readers would grasp Paul's meaning. Paul's meaning is not preserved in the translation when "faith" and "obedience" are simply put next to each other as separate things. He joined them together with the genitive so as to prevent them from being perceived as separate things.

And further, do you have any idea how controversial some of your theoretical statements are in this post?

For example, you state, "Through translation, meaning remains the same from one language to another." But I think you may have a hard time finding a competent linguist who will support that statement. It is a commonplace of linguistics that meaning often does NOT remain the same in translation. "Meaning" does not remain constant even among speakers of the same language as they interpret the original text, if their backgrounds are widely different.

 
At Sun Sep 25, 06:09:00 AM, Blogger Trevor Jenkins said...

Anonymous comments upon Wayne's statement of "Through translation, meaning remains the same from one language to another." with their own observation that I think you may have a hard time finding a competent linguist who will support that statement.

I don't believe that anonymous is right in their counter claim. Firstly, linguistics is under-going an upheaval at the moment as the ideas behind Sperber and Wilson's Relevance Theory are explored. Ernst-August Gutt has applied Relevance Theory specifically to Bible translation. His conclusion is that meaning can be retained between languages. In his early work Gutt says that all Bible translation should be Meaning-Based. From presonal experience as a sign language communicator I can also state that meaning can is retained even when the grammatical order and the lexemes of the languages involved are fundamentally different and the language register is modern not archaic.

Secondly, Wayne is a competent linguist himself which also mean the premise is unfounded. Readers of this blog have no way to check anonymous' bona fides but we can check Wayne's.

 
At Mon Sep 26, 07:01:00 PM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Trevor wrote: "Readers of this blog have no way to check anonymous' bona fides but we can check Wayne's."

The blog rule says,

"Comments on blog posts should focus on issues not personalities."

But if issues are to be discussed without a discussion of people, why should anonymity be seen as a problem?

 
At Tue Sep 27, 06:21:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Rich, sorry for not responding sooner. I agree with you about the weakness of the CEV putting obedience before faith in the word order of this verse.

 
At Tue Sep 27, 06:26:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Son of Abraham, you raise a good question. There needs to be a balance here, where it is best for individuals to "own" their own comments posted. A good way to do that is to attach one's real name to comments. There is accountability that comes from doing so.

On the other hand, you are right that comments from an anonymous poster can be just as legitimate and helpful as those from someone who posts under their own name.

Personally, I prefer that people post under their real name. I have tried posting under pseudonyms on some other Internet sites and it didn't work out well.

 
At Wed Sep 28, 09:36:00 AM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Trevor wrote: "[Ernst-August Gutt's] conclusion is that meaning can be retained between languages."

Yes, but that is rather different from making some kind of axiomatic statement that "meaning remains the same" whenever principles of "meaning-based" translation are put into practice. One would like to think that this is the result, and of course the theory depends upon the idea that it is mostly achievable. But when I look at the translations that have been produced by people who profess to be guided by the "meaning-based" or "dynamic equivalence" theories, I find that the translations do not in fact accomplish this. There is normally (not just ocassionally, but normally) a considerable loss of meaning in translations like the CEV. And I think this "obedience of faith" example is a case in point. However much someone may explain the supposed "semantic structures" in a way that justifies the loss of meaning here, the truth is, something has fallen out when "obedience" is no longer joined to "faith" in the genitive relation. One might justify it on the grounds that the genitive here is not very idiomatic in everyday English, but at the same time one should acknowledge that a trade-off has taken place, in which some part of the meaning is sacrificed for the sake of the reader's ease. One should not make exaggerated claims for versions like the CEV, TEV and NLT in this regard. It would be better to acknowledge the exegetical weakness of these versions, while making more modest and supportable claims about their usefulness ("good version for children," etc.).

 

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