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How much should we ask of our students? (Mark 12:28)

Video version of the blog

I am thinking quite a bit these days about sequencing, and how different Greek is from English, which then raises interesting problems for the translator. I am also wondering more about how students should be translating in first year.

Look at the series of participles in the Greatest Command (Mk 12:28).

προσελθὼν εἷς τῶν γραμματέων
ἀκούσας αὐτῶν συζητούντων,
ἰδὼν ὅτι καλῶς ἀπεκρίθη αὐτοῖς
ἐπηρώτησεν αὐτόν· ποία ἐστὶν ἐντολὴ πρώτη πάντων;

The basic sentence structure is εἷς ἐπηρώτησεν αὐτόν. “One (of the scribes) asked him.” As a side note, my friend Dan Wallace told me that he prefers his students to find the verb–subject–direct object, especially in a complicated sentence, and then see where the rest of the words fit in relation to that structure. This is instead of just going word for word. A good idea.

In first year Greek, in order to let your teacher know that you know the difference between a present and aorist participle and understand the concept of relative time, you might translate something like this.

“After having come, one of the scribes, after having heard them debating, after having seen that he answered them well, asked him, ‘Which is the first commandment of all?’”

Relative time means the aorist participles indicate actions occurring prior to the aorist ἐπηρώτησεν.

This might let your teacher know that you know the individual forms, but I think we should be asking more of our students, since this translation, while word for word, is not really English (unless you think Yoda speaks acceptable English). I am thinking that we should require first year Greek students to do two levels of translation, word for word, and then English. This would force them to the end of the translation process, and it would also explode the myth that wooden, word for word “translations” are somehow superior to smoother English.

Does anyone really think that the translation I gave above is acceptable? I don’t. Teachers, let’s have our students do both word for word and then a real translation. Which brings me to the topic of sequence.

Greek uses participles (with different tenses) to indicate the relationship between various actions and the main verb. A simpler example is Matt 2:16.

“After Herod saw (ἰδὼν) that he had been tricked (ἐνεπαίχθη) by the Magi, he became angry (ἐθυμώθη), and after sending (ἀποστείλας), he had the babies killed (ἀνεῖλεν).”

However, in English we understand a series of verbs to already be in sequence (assuming of course that the context allows this). If we hear “Herod saw he was tricked” and “Herod sent the soldiers and had the babies killed,” we intuitively understand the relationship between the events. We don’t need an explicit “after.”

So going back to our passage, after the student has translated word for word, how should they compose an accurate and yet readable translation?

“One of the scribes came and heard them debating. He saw that Jesus answered them well and asked ….”

I had to break the Greek into two English sentences, supply the subject “he,” and then supply the subject from the verb ἀπεκρίθη as “Jesus”; otherwise, I would have “he … he …,“ each referring to different people. But what I get is readable, understandable English that faithfully reproduces the sequencing of ideas but avoids the awkward English of the first translation.

Let’s ask more of our students and of ourselves. If we wait until second year, we miss the bulk of our students and the patterns of poor translation are set in their minds.

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