[B-Greek] Descriptions of function based on translation

Carl W. Conrad cwconrad at artsci.wustl.edu
Tue Jul 10 11:58:55 EDT 2007

On Jul 10, 2007, at 10:02 AM, Steve Runge wrote:

> Carl,
> I did not expect that the idea of backgrounding would be an  
> epiphany for you.  I work with a seminary student, and a consistent  
> frustration he has expressed is focusing more in translation that  
> meaning/function.  Quite often, preverbal participles are  
> translated into English as main verbs, since English does not use  
> the participle nearly to the extent of Greek.  This is especially  
> the case in Luke and Matthew, and possibly one of the reasons why  
> people find these gospels so much more complex than John.  In  
> describing the function based on the translation, students often  
> miss what is obvious to you.  The 'translation' framework is lousy  
> for description, since it often leads to the idea that there are  
> different kinds of adverbial participles, some are more like main  
> verbs, others are not.  This is why I have appreciated the patient  
> discussion that you and Elizabeth have had over the past week to  
> illustrate your explanations from the data.

And here you've touched on a pet peeve that I've probably expressed  
to a dismaying extent on B-Greek: the fact that American NT Greed  
pedagogy is geared to the production of translations far more than to  
understanding -- and the grammars such as Wallace's GGBB (and  
software like the "syntactic database" items that I know Logos has,  
with syntactic terms derived from Wallace) tend to be based upon  
translation strategies rather than upon understanding the Greek  
constructions. I deplore this. I sometimes wonder if the sort of  
composition exercises such as are still required in better graduate  
Classics programs -- where one translates whole paragraphs  of  
classic English prose into good Greek -- might be more useful for the  
purpose of helping students of NT Greek understand the fundamental  
differences between modes of expressing similar content in the two  
languages. I'm currently reviewing a Reader for Koine Greek that is  
really first-rate in its thorough attention to detail, but  
nevertheless seems to take as the bottom line of successful work the  
production of an acceptable English version.


> From: Carl W. Conrad [mailto:cwconrad at artsci.wustl.edu]
> Sent: Tue 7/10/2007 3:59 AM
> On Jul 9, 2007, at 12:37 PM, Steve Runge wrote:
>> Carl,
>> You raised a point that I wanted address:
>> "It certainly seems to be the case; that these dative participial
>> clauses at the beginning of a sentence function very much like the
>> so-called genitive "absolute" constructions. I don't know whether
>> this would be useful or not, but I'm now wondering whether even
>> nominative participial phrases in agreement with the subject of
>> main clauses don't generally display these same characteristics."
>> I think that you are dead on in your inclination to look for a
>> common function of preverbal participles.  As a starting point, it
>> is worth asking what difference it would have made if each of these
>> participial actions had been conveyed using indicative verbs.  In
>> other words, based on the context what difference is there between
>> use of the participle versus a main clause mood such as the
>> indicative.  I would contend that use of an indicative mood would
>> place the 'participial' action on the same par with the main clause
>> action.  All would have similar weight, from a morphological point
>> of view.  If this is true, then what is the effect of using a
>> participle?  Levinsohn (2000:181-190) has argued that it has the
>> effect of 'backgrounding' the participial action with respect to
>> the main verb.
>> What do I mean by backgrounding?  It would be like having a line of
>> soldiers at attention and having some of them take a step back.
>> Those who step back are pushed into the background somewhat
>> compared to those in their original position.  At the same time,
>> those that have not moved end up in a slightly more prominent
>> position than those backgrounded, even though they have not moved.
>> The text I have used to illustrate this is Mark 5:25-27, where the
>> writer uses 7 separate participial clauses to establish the needed
>> circumstantial information for the reader to understand the main
>> clause action: the woman touching Jesus.  English does not use
>> participles like this, and thus many of them are rendered as main
>> verbs in translation.
>> Had the writer used indicative verbs for some or most of the seven
>> participial actions (as most English translations do), the
>> 'touching' would not have stood out nearly as blatantly.  The woman
>> 'touching' Jesus ends up being the thing that Jesus specifically
>> responds to in v. 30: TIS MOU hHYATO TWN hIMATIWN;
>> If you are looking for a unifying explanation to describe the
>> function of pre-verbal participles in the gospels and Acts, I would
>> suggest starting with the idea of 'backgrounding' as a hypothesis
>> and testing it.  I have found this explanation also covers a good
>> many of the pre-verbal participles in the Epistles as well.
>> Making the main clause action 'stand out' does not make it
>> emphatic.  If you go back to the 'line of soldiers' the line of
>> those who did not move is the normal position.  Having some step
>> back 'backgrounds' them.  Having some of them step forward
>> 'emphasizes' them by making the stand out from the normal position.
>> Hope this helps advance the discussion,
>> Steve
>> Note:  Some folks, like Robert Longacre and Alvierro Niccacci, have
>> described narrative in terms of mainline and offline, foreground
>> and background.  I am not arguing that use of a participle makes
>> the action 'background information'.  Instead, the action is
>> backgroundED with respect to the main clause action, making the
>> main action stand out more than the participial action, compared to
>> if all indicative verbs had been used.
> Thanks for these suggestions, Steve. Your appended note unfortunately
> illustrates the problem of terminology and jargon that drives me up
> the wall when I try to read Linguists. I continue to think I'll
> survive it and perhaps even learn something from what I read of it,
> but ...
> After a thrid reading, I find myself reacting ambivalently toward
> what you say about nominative participial clauses:
> (1) On the one hand, the preposition of aorist participial phrases/
> clauses is such a standard feature of ancient Greek narrative prose
> that anyone who has read much ancient Greek will not find it
> especially new or enlightening that the action indicated by such
> preposed participial phrases/clauses is backgrounded with respect to
> the action of the main clause -- the reader of ancient Greek
> narrative takes that in without thinking about it; students who have
> done any serious work in Greek prose composition are even taught the
> principle in a standard composition primer like North and Hilliard.
> (2) On the other hand, I doubt whether this usage or preposed
> participial phrases/clauses is as common a feature of non-narrative
> Greek prose -- oratory, philosophical discourse and essays such as
> those of Xenophon and Plutarch. I haven't tested this guess that the
> usage differs between narrative and non-narrative prose genres, but I
> think it's pretty likely. I think that some kinds of finite-mood
> circumstantial clauses preceding main clauses may very well be
> "backgrounded" -- but that's just a hunch. I do think that genre
> matters in this regard.
> (3) I very much appreciate your calling attention to the structure of
> Mark 5;25-27. It's worth spelling out:
> Mark 5:25
> I don't think an Attic prose master could have formulated this more
> eloquently. That's one reason I find it hard to take seriously any
> suggestion that Mark's gospel was originally composed in Aramaic.
> There was a time when I thought Mark's Greek was very rough, but upon
> careful study and at the suggestion of Edward Hobbs, I came to
> believe that the rough places in Mark's gospel narrative more likely
> come from his received tradition, whereas the sequences more likely
> to have been composed by the evangelist himself are in quite
> acceptable Greek and even with some rhetorical flair and heavy irony.
> Carl W. Conrad
> Department of Classics, Washington University (Retired)
> 1989 Grindstaff Road/Burnsville, NC 28714/(828) 675-4243
> cwconrad2 at mac.com
> WWW: http://www.ioa.com/~cwconrad/
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Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University (Retired)
1989 Grindstaff Road/Burnsville, NC 28714/(828) 675-4243
cwconrad2 at mac.com
WWW: http://www.ioa.com/~cwconrad/

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