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Monday, September 04, 2006

Translating the genitive construction

One of the most frequent Greek grammatical constructions in the New Testament (occurring thousands of times) is what grammarians call the “genitive construction.” English translations often reflect this with the preposition of as in the love of God. In Intermediate New Testament Greek, Richard Young lists 20 different meanings that the genitive construction can convey, including description, possession, relationship, comparison, manner, means, reason, and purpose.

The genitive construction occurs three times in the phrase the kingdom of the son of the love of him (Colossians 1:13). Since each genitive construction can convey 20 possible meanings, there could be as many as 8,000 (20x20x20) possible interpretations of such a phrase. However, the meaning of the nouns and their context reduce that number significantly.

In the Colossians text, none of the following translations rephrases the first genitive construction, the kingdom of the son. The translators apparently felt that the meaning is clear in that form. But most of the translations (even the King James Version) rephrase the second and third genitive constructions (the son of the love of him) to convey the meaning his dear Son, or the Son he loves.

the kingdom of his dear/beloved Son – KJV, NASV, RSV, TEV, CEV, NEB, GNC, NLT, Phillips, Source
the kingdom of the Son he loves – NIV, Jerusalem Bible, God’s Word, Message
The New King James Version rephrases only the third genitive construction (the love of him) to convey the meaning His love:
the kingdom of the Son of His love
As one can see, the more literal a translation is, the less clear and natural it tends to be. This is particularly evident in the literal translation of the Greek: the kingdom of the son of the love of him.

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At Mon Sep 04, 05:29:00 PM, Blogger solarblogger said...

Whether or not this means that some Bibles should aim for a clear and natural translation to facilitate reading, I would hope that I had a choice of a good clunky literal version so that I had a better idea of what the original wording was.

I think that some Bibles are better for reading to get the gist of a passage without running into rocky terrain, and others are better for prooftexting. I want to have both kinds available. I hope that nobody ever succeeds in convincing people that there is one best translation philosophy that always must be followed.

At Mon Sep 04, 10:31:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I hope that nobody ever succeeds in convincing people that there is one best translation philosophy that always must be followed.

I hope not, also. And I hope we have not conveyed that idea on this blog. I think that there is a place for different translation philosophies to be used. And I think it is out of place for us to tell others that their preferred translation philosophy is not good. There are pros and cons for each translation approach.

I happen to push very hard for English Bibles to be in the vernacular, good quality contemporary (but not colloquial or slangy) English, English that is grammatical, lacking imported syntax that does not sound good to native English speakers. I get so preachy about this sometimes that I suspect I come close to communicating the idea that Bible versions which are not in grammatical, natural English are bad translations. I realize that some people prefer them for a variety of reasons. I do think it is appropriate to raise questions about anything that concerns us in any translation, as long as we don't dismiss translations with a single stroke of a brush, generalized statements that would be better replaced by many statements about translations of specific passages.

At Tue Sep 05, 03:48:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I must say I was surprised to find that not only are Bibles translated, but according to various versions of this verse we believers are also translated. I am aware of this sense of "translate" only as a technical term in geometry, to move without a change of orientation.

Solarblogger, I agree that "some Bibles are better for reading to get the gist of a passage without running into rocky terrain, and others are better for prooftexting". But I don't appreciate Bibles of the latter kind precisely because I consider "prooftexting" to be a misuse of the Bible.

Anon, are you suggesting that RV/ASV is "in common use"? I would disagree. As you point out, RV is barely in print, only in this strange "interlinear" edition.

Also you wrote, "In contemporary English it sounds faintly archaic to use an inversion such as "entered Noah"". To me that is not just "faintly archaic" but downright ungrammatical, far more so than any singular "they". It leaves me trying to work out if the archaic "the selfsame" can be understood as a noun phrase so that "day" can become the subject of the sentence, in the poetic but possible core sentence "day entered Noah". Otherwise it seems that the sentence is missing a subject.

At Tue Sep 05, 10:05:00 AM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

Peter said, "As you point out, RV is barely in print, only in this strange "interlinear" edition."

This "strange interlinear edition" is by Cambridge University Press. It is the KJV/RV interlinear Bible, and I find it to be easily one of the easiest to use interlinears ever created. ISBN: 0521508606

At Tue Sep 05, 10:25:00 AM, Blogger solarblogger said...


There's prooftexting and there's prooftexting. I think I may know what you're trying to reject. My point is that we do draw doctrines from the Bible, and we want more accuracy when we do so. We especially want to know whether the words in question correspond to words in the original, or whether they are explanatory phrases added by the translator.

I once had a friend attempt to prove the last point of Calvinism from Ephesians 1:14, which in the NIV says that the Holy Spirit "is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance." In his quotation, he would raise his index finger up while saying "guaranteeing our inheritance." The trouble was, the last four words in that quote were a simple noun in the Greek. "Guaranteeing our inheritance" was an explanatory phrase.

Now people can argue over whether it was always the nature of such a deposit to guarantee an inheritance. But with the NIV there was no argument. It was decided. The reader could not decide for him or herself what was the point of analogy.

Yet if these words had been in the original, I don't see my friend's citation as a misuse. Nor do I really consider the NIV a mistranslation here. It just has a different philosophy, which limits its uses.

I think prooftexting is often a misuse of the Bible. But I think some kinds of Biblical writing lend themselves to that purpose better than others. But laymen need to know something about the nature of what they are using.

At Tue Sep 05, 10:30:00 AM, Blogger solarblogger said...

Sorry, not totally accurate on which words were in Eph. 1:14. But "guaranteeing" was not in the Greek. Yet it was the case that my friend put more weight on individual words than the NIV can take.

At Tue Sep 05, 12:11:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I accept that "move, transfer" is a possible meaning of "translate", but it is certainly a rare one in modern usage, except as a geometrical and ecclesiastical technical term. As for "translate ideas into action", I have always taken this as an image of going from one language to another, which is the primary sense of "translate" for me - and for the American Heritage Dictionary, which lists "To transfer from one place or condition to another as its fourth sense, and "translate ideas into reality" as an example of a separate sense.

As for RV, if the author of Hebrews could argue that Levi paid tithes through his great-grandfather Abraham, then I suppose you can argue that NRSV and ESV users are using its grandfather RV. But then RV is also NASB's grandfather. On that logic RV must by definition have more readers than any one of its grandchildren and so than NASB. But is this kind of reasoning useful in judging the popularity of Bible translations? The facts are that RV itself, as distinct from its grandchildren, is much less used than NASB. And, while RV may have been better in some ways than what preceded it, I'm not sure in what ways it is better (except as a historical record) than all that follow it and are now available.

I accept that if prooftexting is to be done, it is best done from the original languages, and if that is impossible from a highly literal translation (and not from NIV). And this method is certainly of historical and theological interest. I accept for example that one cannot understand the interpretive excesses of Rabbinic Judaism, Calvinism and many other theologies without understanding their prooftexting method, and that can only be done with a suitable Bible version. But I continue to hold that prooftexting as a method, when done apart from "the gist of a passage" as Solarblogger initially suggested, is misuse of the Bible.

At Tue Sep 05, 01:34:00 PM, Blogger Sylvanus said...

Back to Colossians 1:13:

Concerning the 8000 possible interpretations, I think you can reduce it to 400 since 'the kingdom' here is in the accusative, hence making it the subject of the next genitive noun(s).

there are other passages where this construction exists:
(t-acc-sg, n-acc-sg, t-gen-sg, n-gen-sg, t-gen-sg, n-gen-sg, pp-gen-sg):
Eph 1:18 (the riches of the glory of the inheritance of him)
Eph 1:19 (the working of the might of the power of him)
and Rev 3:12 (the name of the city of the God of me)
and nobody seems to have any problem understanding them.
The English language has a magic wand not many languages have: the " 's "., and I think that in their precautious efforts to be accurate, many translators do not make enough use of it.
-> the riches of his inheritance's glory
-> the working of his power's might
-> the name of my God's city

Col 1:13 is more tricky because it's not good English to say 'the kingdom of his love's Son', neither is 'the son of his love' easily understandable, nor 'his loved son's kingdom' accurate. Besides, the only other alternative is 'the kingdom of his son's love' (both love and son are genitive) - which although questionable, wouldn't be inaccurate.

It is true that although here the multiple genitive case is difficult, this particular case is only one of a very few, as seen with the examples quoted just above.


At Tue Sep 05, 02:04:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At Tue Sep 05, 03:17:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Verb-subject inversion is a grammatical rule in German, whenever there is any sentence component preceding this. I think this is also the case in Scandinavian languages - the only fault I ever notice in one Norwegian e-mail contact's English was a tendency to invert in this way. And it is found to some extent in English, especially in older texts. But it is not normal in modern English, and would I think be counted as ungrammatical by most speakers except in a few special cases.

At Tue Sep 05, 04:05:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


I will find a few comparisons between B-R and Luther later. But for now - Yoda!


Here are the lines that I found so funny last spring, while reading The David Story.

And a man of Israel said, "Have you seen this man coming up? Why, to insult Israel he comes up? And the man who strikes him down the king will enrich with a great fortune, and his daughter he will give him, and his father's household he will make free of levies in Israel."

1 Samuel 17:25

It is really too bad, because otherwise I really like Alter's style quite a bit.

At Tue Sep 05, 09:09:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


Have you read the introduction to the Five Books of Moses? This is from page xxxviii,

Syntactical inversion, however, is familiar enough in the more traditional strata of literary English. and if one adopts a general norm of decorous stylization for the prose of the translation, as I have done, on the grounds I explained earlier, it becomes feasible to reproduce most of the Hebrew reconfigurations of syntax, preserving the thematic or psychological emphases they are meant to convey. The present translation does this, I think, to a greater degree than all previous versions.

On page xli. He writes,

No previous English translation has made a serious effort to represent the elevated and archaic nature of the poetic language in contradistinction to the prose, though that is clearly part of the intended literary effect of biblical narrative. The present translation tries to suggest this contrast in levels of style - through a more liberal use of syntactic inversion in the poetry, through a selective invocation of slightly archaic terms, ...

This is dated December 2003!

Now, I will not quote the worthy examples that Alter himself uses. I notice that you have quoted this introduction yourself but an earlier page.

However, I would like to say that sytantactic inversion is the single most distinctive feature of this text. Let me mention a few examples that I noticed in reading Genesis.

27:39 By the sword shall you live
and your brother shall you serve.

34:34 Like a whore should our sister be treated.

38:25 By the man to whom these belong I have conceived.

39:19 Things of this sort your servant has done to me.

42:9 To see the land's nakedness you have come.

It is notable that Fox does not use syntactic inversion in most of these places. In fact, I believe that this strategy is a signature feature that marks the text as Alter's and it was very striking to me on a first reading.

I would be very interested in hearing whether Alter has, as you say, decided to discontinue using syntactic inversions since 2003. Please communicate to him my high regard for his use of diction and excellent notes.

Please let me add that this episode regarding syntactic inversion no longer reminds me of Yoda, as you suggest, but brings to mind instead Tigger bouncing through Winnie the Pooh, masquerading as owl!

At Tue Sep 05, 10:53:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

In fact, Alter is remarkable for using relatively natural contemporary language. Was mentioning him in the comment above perhaps a mistake?

I do not find the object-verb inversion relatively natural and I did notice particularly that Fox did not use this as a strategy nearly as often as Alter so it became the marked feature of Alter's text.

So no, I did not mistake the issue, but perhaps I am leaning towards stylistic issues rather just what is strictly grammatical.

the latter is odd when overused but still widely found in contemporary language and, I believe, universally recognized as grammatical if not good form

Ah yes, in good form.

At Wed Sep 06, 06:34:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Anon, I did say that in a few special cases subject-verb inversion is normal, and "Here comes..." is one of them. And I was referring only to subject-verb inversion triggered by a sentence initial component (of which Genesis 27:39 and 34:34 as quoted by Suzanne are examples; but is the latter a question?), not to object fronting for emphasis, which can be acceptable but not to the extent used in "The David Story".

At Wed Sep 06, 01:28:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


Let me explain how I came to analyse Alter in terms of Yoda.

On Language Log, May 18, 2005, Pullum wrote extensively on Yoda's syntax.

One way to look at Yoda's syntax is that it shows signs of favoring OSV syntax (Object-Subject-Verb) as the basic order in the simple clause. In fact one could call it XSV syntax, where the X is whatever complement would appropriately go with the verb, whether it's an object or not. This is a fantastically rare kind of clausal syntax.

You can see the examples here.

So clearly I interpreted the similarity in terms of the XSV pattern supplied by Pullum and not the subject-verb inversion which you suggested. I was already familiar with Pullum's work and had noted the examples in Alter with reference to this essay of Pullum's. Here are some examples,

Always two there are, no more.
Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is.
Much to learn, you still have.
When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good you will not.

I am not aware of whether Yoda used subject-verb inversion or not. I have not seen evidence of that. I had thought of it in terms of 'predicate fronting'.

Ultimately, it is regrettable that this conversation had focused on the only feature of Alter that I do not find superior.

In conclusion, Pullum remarks about Yoda that,

His English is an odd mix, as if he were sometimes thinking in terms of XSV constituent order, and sometimes just over-using English stylistic variant orders, and sometimes getting the idiomatic English word order just right.

I hope this supplies the missing context for my previous comments regarding syntactic inversions in Alter. I regret that there might have been a misunderstanding. Thank you for the stimulating exchange.

At Wed Sep 06, 03:48:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

I am not sure if the link to LL is posted correctly.

I am a long time fan of LL and generally find Pullum's analyses worthwhile.

At Sun Sep 10, 04:25:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Anon wrote: "This example argues for archaic status, rather than ungrammatical status, for verb-subject inversion." Indeed! But when a construction becomes archaic, it is no longer a standard part of the language (except of course for particular idiomatic usages which continue in use) and so can be judged ungrammatical. I know of no other criterion for grammaticality than that a sentence is generally recognised as not acceptable in the variety of language under consideration, which generall excludes archaic forms. See of course my posting on acceptable English.


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