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Monday, February 19, 2007

translating biblical cohesion

All well-formed discourses share a number of important characteristics. One of them is cohesion. Cohesion is linguistic "glue" that holds a text together. It helps us see an idea that an author wishes to maintain throughout a section of discourse. Cohesion can be maintained in a variety of ways, including repetition of the same words, or use of synonyms, to keep a focus on a concept behind those words.

A couple of days ago I was reviewing translation of a section of the gospel of John. It was worded like this in the version I was checking:
While Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Passover Festival, many people believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. Jesus, however, did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and didn't need anyone to tell him what people were like, because he himself knew what was in every person. (John 2:23-25)
This translation basically makes sense to me, as it is worded. But for some reason I decided to check the Greek underlying the wordings "believed in his name" and "did not entrust himself to them." I discovered that the Greek verb, pisteuw, behind each wording was identical (apart from adjustments for different subject prefixes for those verbs). Because the repetition of the verb was so close within the text, I wondered if the author of this gospel, known for deliberately using stylistic tools for rhetorical effect, was doing just that here. The more I thought about it and examined other English versions, the more I sensed that the author was using lexical cohesion here, using the same Greek verb, in order to contrast the way that the people trusted Jesus but he did not trust them.

We might be able to understand that contrast clearly from the words used in the translation above, words which are in the same semantic set, namely, "believe in" and "entrust to" but I wondered if the contrast could be made clearer in English, as clear as in the Greek, if the repetition of the same verb was stylistically deliberate. So I suggested to the translators of that version that they consider a revision to:
While Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Passover Festival, many people trusted him because they saw the signs that he was doing. Jesus, however, did not trust them, because he knew all people and didn't need anyone to tell him what people were like, because he himself knew what was in every person.
It can be argued whether my omission of literal "in his name" (which is the synecdoche figure of speech where the name of a person represents that person) is legitimate or not, but let's save that argument for another time.

For now, let's focus on the lexical cohesion in the translation of the Greek verb pisteuw. What do you think? Do you think that repetition was deliberate? If so, does it seem to you legitimate to try to translate the Greek verb in such a way that the English in each case is referring to the same thing? Can you think of any better ways to make clear the lexical cohesion of the Greek text here?

I found one other version which attempts to bring out the lexical cohesion which I suggest is part of this text:
Because of the miraculous signs Jesus did in Jerusalem at the Passover celebration, many began to trust in him. But Jesus didn't trust them, because he knew human nature. No one needed to tell him what mankind is really like. (NLT)

12 Comments:

At Mon Feb 19, 10:55:00 AM, Blogger daniel reed said...

I like the repetition, and personally think that it makes for a good translation. I think that it helps the reader understand the original author's intentions.

One thing I find strange in each translation you quoted (including your own proposal): how does one "do" a sign? In English, one "shows" a sign, or "sees" it, or "puts it up", but I can't think of another English equivalent to "the signs that he was doing".

Was the Greek usage as strange as that? That is, did the Greek word translated "sign" have the same meaning as the English word, and used in such a non-traditional way as it sounds to modern English?

Do you have any thoughts, or a better proposal for translation?

 
At Mon Feb 19, 11:06:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Daniel asked:

One thing I find strange in each translation you quoted (including your own proposal): how does one "do" a sign? In English, one "shows" a sign, or "sees" it, or "puts it up", but I can't think of another English equivalent to "the signs that he was doing".

Was the Greek usage as strange as that? That is, did the Greek word translated "sign" have the same meaning as the English word, and used in such a non-traditional way as it sounds to modern English?

Do you have any thoughts, or a better proposal for translation?


Good eyes, Daniel! In this post I did not comment on everything that could be revised to sound like better English. But I have flagged "do a sign" a few times for the Bible translation team. You are right: in English we do not "do" a sign. We do not "make" a sign, unless it is a sign such as a billboard.

One suggestion for better English would be "perform a miracle." But there are plurals of both "miracle" (Greek dunamis) and "sign" (semeion in the gospel of John. So we need to think of some other natural, standard English which can be the translation equivalent of Greek semeion.

 
At Mon Feb 19, 03:38:00 PM, Blogger exegete77 said...

Howdy, Wayne and Daniel. In order to re-think this change from "do a sign", we have to make sure that we understand the significance of τα σημεια α εποιει here, and even more importantly in John 20:30-31: "Therefore, many other signs Jesus also did" (πολλα μεν ουν αλλα σημεια εποισεν ο Ιεσους). So the first question is: what does τα σημεια α εποιει mean/imply in the Greek? And really, isn't part of the problem trying to identify what σημεια is/means and the referents to which the word points?

Perhaps we should translate as "do a miraculous sign" or better "perform a miraculous sign" which seem to be more consistent with English usage.

Rich

 
At Mon Feb 19, 03:59:00 PM, Blogger exegete77 said...

Wayne, your title reminds me of Mike Sangrey's signature line: "A network of highly cohesive details reveals the truth." A powerful challenge for us as translators/exegetes (really any Bible student).

Cohesion in the text isn't something that just "pops" out, especially in translations, from an incidental contact with the text, nor is it necessarily flagged by commentators. On Sundays I teach The Gospel According to Luke, and have been reading and re-reading the Greek of Luke 2 for the past 2 months. I can't tell you how many times over the past 50 years I have read that section in English in numerous translations. I also translated it several times and did an extended exegetical study 20 years ago, and taught Bible studies on it twice about 10 years ago.

But only this time did I begin to catch the use sense of cohesion in the text connected with ρημα in 2:15, 17, 19, and 26. Most translations give no clue about the cohesion of the mission nature of the angelic announcement, the shepherds' and Mary's assessment, and finally the culmination tying together glory, peace, and the ρημα by Simeon in 2:29-32. I didn't get the cohesion based on a commentator telling me it was there (although I'm sure several could have), but only from exposure to the Greek text, frequently and repeatedly.

So, the challenge of finding cohesion in the original language text is one step. The next step is being able to effectively communicate/translate that into the receptor language.

With you raising many good topics, it will take me another 150 years to wrap my head around even a small portion of it.

Rich

 
At Mon Feb 19, 04:22:00 PM, Blogger Damian McGrath said...

I'm a firm believer in attempting, where possible, to maintain such lexical cohesion - whether it's based on word-plays or onomatapoeia or ...

The problem with both translations for me is that they both leave something out - following the second occurrence of pisteuw (2:24) is a direct object. For this reason it is normally translated as "entrust himself." This is the closest that we can come in english to the meaning of the Greek - "trust" just doesn't cut it in this context. But, I think trust-entrust is a reasonable pairing, respecting the lexical cohesiveness of the greek text.

Damian

 
At Mon Feb 19, 09:15:00 PM, Blogger Jeremy Pierce said...

My worry is that the intent of the passage is to show that these people didn't really trust Jesus, even if in a sense they believed in him. They saw him as someone to follow, but they weren't really following him. You can make sense of saying that they believed in him but didn't really believe in him. I don't think it makes as much sense to say they trusted him but didn't really trust him.

 
At Tue Feb 20, 02:21:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I agree with Damian in wanting to preserve such lexical cohesion where possible. But I can't agree that the Greek wording is in any way identical. Yes, the verb is the same. But in 2:23 we have an aorist with no direct or indirect object, followed only by eis to onoma autou; in 2:24 the verb is imperfect and has a direct object auton (accusative) and an indirect object autois (dative). This Greek verb pisteuo has a wide semantic range, and the different syntactic context in these different verses signals that it is being used in two rather different senses. And in general it is impossible to translate different senses of the same verb into a target language in the same way. In English we just might get away with "trust" in both cases. But Wayne's suggestion "many people trusted him ... Jesus, however, did not trust them" seems to be based on a misunderstanding that pisteuo is being used in the same sense in both verses. The pairing "trust him ... entrust himself to them", with different syntactic contexts in English, might work, but only if "entrust" in this sense is not considered too high level language for the target audience.

Of course if we have "trust him" rather than "believe in him" in 2:23, for consistency and lexical cohesion we need to have the same expression elsewhere in the New Testament, or at least in this gospel, including in 3:16. Now I'm not sure whether "whoever trusts him... should have eternal life" is exegetically accurate (perhaps "whoever puts their trust in him..." would be an improvement). But I am sure that there would be considerable resistance to making such a change.

 
At Tue Feb 20, 04:54:00 AM, Blogger Dan Sindlinger said...

Great post, Wayne. I thought you might like to see how this is translated in The Better Life Bible:

"While Jesus was in Jerusalem during the annual freedom celebration, a lot more people began following him because they saw him do some extraordinary things. But he didn’t expect them all to continue because he knew how fickle people can be."

 
At Tue Feb 20, 09:32:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Rich wrote:

In order to re-think this change from "do a sign", we have to make sure that we understand the significance of τα σημεια α εποιει here, and even more importantly in John 20:30-31: "Therefore, many other signs Jesus also did" (πολλα μεν ουν αλλα σημεια εποισεν ο Ιεσους). So the first question is: what does τα σημεια α εποιει mean/imply in the Greek? And really, isn't part of the problem trying to identify what σημεια is/means and the referents to which the word points?

Absolutely. And what is the semantic difference within the gospel of John between semeion and dunamis?

Perhaps we should translate as "do a miraculous sign" or better "perform a miraculous sign" which seem to be more consistent with English usage.

Those sound better to me, especially the latter.

 
At Tue Feb 20, 12:13:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

To me "perform a sign" sounds a bit odd. Normally we talk about showing signs, but "show a sign" on its own doesn't work, perhaps "show a miraculous sign" does.

 
At Tue Feb 20, 02:22:00 PM, Blogger exegete77 said...

Perhaps part of the problem is that we in contemporary English/American culture separate the "sign" from its referent. But in the use of σημεια John seems to use "sign" as also the referent; thus, there is no distinction between the referent and the sign (the miraculous event/deed is in itself both the sign and the miraculous deed). I think this helps us distinguish John's use and our contemporary expression of it.

The more I think about it, the translation I offered "perform a miraculous sign" is perhaps the best at capturing the sense of what John wrote.

Wayne wrote: And what is the semantic difference within the gospel of John between semeion and dunamis?.

As I wrote out my response the first time, I considered that comparison. As BAGD #4 noted "of the outward expression of power; deed of power, miracle, wonder." So there would be definite overlap. I think John 20:30-31 would still be the guiding principle in assessing the role of each.

Rich

 
At Tue Feb 20, 05:43:00 PM, Blogger codepoke said...

Excellent post. Excellent point. Thank you, Wayne! I love when the authors tricks are bubbled up to the English like this.

In English, doesn't one "give" a sign?

 

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