Saturday, July 27, 2013

Is Greek Really More Expressive Than English?

I found a blog this evening discussing how Greek is "more expressive" than English and how this affects translations. Here is what the author wrote:
"The New Testament was initially written in a language that is generally more expressive than English tends to be, and sometimes our English versions do not fully convey the depth or the clarity communicated in the original Greek text. This is not always a weakness of translation as much as a limitation of the English language itself."
You may have heard someone say something like the following as well: "Hebrew is a more simple language. You can say things with Greek that you just couldn't communicate in Hebrew." Have you ever thought about this? First, are some languages really "more expressive" than others? And, second, is this true with Koine Greek compared to English?

In Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek, David Alan Black writes:
"Most importantly, because languages are similar, all languages will share the same high degree of adequacy in communication--in spite of their differences. Linguists reject the notion that any one language can be more expressive than all other languages, an opinion incorrectly held by many teachers of New Testament Greek. God has undoubtedly conferred special honor upon Greek as the language chosen for the inscripturation of the New Testament, but Greek is not inherently superior to the other languages of the world. At present, both linguists and Bible translators agree that any language can express whatever ideas its speakers are capable of having, and that a language can and does expand and change to fit new needs or ideas those speakers may have" (17-18). 
To quote Astroboy over at Philosophy Forums, "Different does not mean more expressive."

I was just talking to my brother about what I was writing right now, and I couldn't help but think of that question that some people ask those they love--"How much do you love me?" The response "There just aren't enough words" suggests that the problem is the deficient number of words in the English language. I've written this recently to a brother and sister in the Lord: "Words really do not suffice..." My problem at times like these is that the mere value of words is inadequate to express the deep appreciation and love we have for someone. The words are out there, but none of them, in no grouping or any order, could ever express what I'm trying to communicate. In one sense I suppose this is rhetorical, but it seems true too. I don't know all the English words out there, and I certainly can't imagine the innumerable groupings and infinite, logical orders they could be placed in to be exactly sure. But with certain people in our lives, we just have a pretty safe hunch that no words will cut it. The primary limitation in communication lies with the communicator. Translation falls under communication. And the same primary limitation is true: It lies with the translator, not the language itself.

When I was reading the blog quoted at the beginning of this post, my immediate reaction was the author did not really show that English is limited in communicating the ideas of Greek. I thought he made a fine presentation on how English translations, especially "literal" translations, have failed to think past the lexical-level of the Greek language when carrying it over into English. English can certainly capture any idea that is found in the New Testament. The problem is many people believe translation has to be quantitatively exact and lexically consistent in every instance in a receptor language. By quantitatively exact I mean one word for one word. And by lexically consistent I mean a single word has to carry over into the receptor language exactly the same without giving attention to things like author, context, and date of composition.

My wife is from Honduras and, obviously, speaks fluent Spanish. English is her second language. My first language is English (although I'm still not fluent being from da South), Spanish my second. So we have conversations all the time about this translation or that translation. I've never had a conversation with her where one of us just said "That just doesn't translate into Spanish/English...Your language just can't get that idea. My language is too deep and more clear than yours." It's never happened, and I met Lesly in 2005. Now we have said, "I just don't know how to translate it." But with that statement, the problem is with me or her, the translator, and not with the language itself.

We need to be careful when we say that Greek is one or two up on any language. In fact, we just don't need to say it at all. One of my hesitations about saying things like this (besides the fact that I just don't think they are true) is how they can potentially breed some dangerous ideas in local church ministry. I can see someone who knows Greek going into a church believing something like this and saying, "I wish you knew Greek because then you'd understand what this passage is saying. There's just no way for me to put it into words. It's too deep. Your English translation just doesn't get it done here." This creates a couple of major problems in local church settings. First, it undermines the trust that believers should have in their English Bibles. I don't ever want to tear down someone's trust in their Bible. Second, it puts the pastor up on some sort of pedestal. He ends up presenting himself as someone who knows more than anyone else in the congregation because of his knowledge of the biblical language. He becomes someone who has some special knowledge that is unknowable to anyone else apart from this special tool.

In conclusion, I don't think any language is "more expressive" than any other language. This includes Greek. What we should consider doing is thinking beyond the word-level of sentences that we are translating. And for a pastor interested in seeing how a verse or set of verses he is teaching can be translated, he might consider looking at multiple translations in the process of studying the text. Don't just look at the NASB and ESV either. Check out some other ones, even in other languages that you know, and see how others have made sense of the Greek.

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