[B-Greek] Lexical entries and "final meaning" - translation vs. understanding

Mitch Larramore mitchlarramore at yahoo.com
Mon Jul 28 10:08:21 EDT 2008

Here’s what goes through my mind when I read this:

When learning something new, one is forced to move from the known to the unknown. You can not learn the unknown with words that are unknown. 

I could not give a lexical entry of the word “bizrimfolt” by saying it the gloss, “to hiujnotic with tobbikorist.” Nor could I give a more detailed definition with better results, such as, “this means nuoetail memtoys after fooptil varnmums betyifis by the argilusitoin blanthvout. 

What a lexicon does is gives one the gloss in the target language AS THE STARTING POINT. Nobody reads these glosses and presumes they are exhaustive in any sense of the word. A gloss by definition represents a word within the semantic range of a word; this word’s semantic range may divide into dozens of subsemantic meanings, some seemingly unrelated to others, some actually unrelated to others. 

To understand the myriad of nuances of a dead language can not be learned by reading only. If one lived in that culture and was native to it, that person would attain near 100%. As a reader only, the best one can hope for is maybe half that.

And then I thought about your concern with “translations.” Translations are nothing more than an attempt to communicate the idea expressed in one language to another. Translations - like Bibles - are not intended to capture the multiple and various nuances of a word. If that is what you want, you have to move in the direction of a paraphrase. Of course, a paraphrase has set limits just as translations do. Lexicons are just a way of giving a reader enough of the “known” to allow him to move farther into the unknown. How far one goes depends on other factors, such as intellect, motive, time, etc.  

To “understand” what a word or phrase means in a dead language is obviously what we are after, but I would not make this arbitrary distinction between translation and understanding. I think you have somehow come to understand these words quite different than those within my sphere. I certainly hope you are not trying to “rebuke” scholars who are guilty of this. Scholars guilty of this cease to be scholars when such a thought seems rational.
All in all, I really think you have assigned very poor meanings to these words, and I certainly don’t doubt that this has been your experience. But you understand the limits of lexicons, translations, glosses, etc. I think most people who give themselves to honest pursuit of historical research have long since passed that illusionary barrier. I do think this point should find its way into a Translation 101 class, but I would still relegate it to a footnote. 

As always, I give you my thoughts to learn from the pros. I am sure I’ve said nothing to you, Dr. Conrad, that you are not more aware of than I. But I am just trying to figure out why you have been ranting on this point throughout the archives, a point that seems on the surface to be painfully obvious. 

Of course, if your point was to simply educate a neophyte, then I would like to retract the entire email to this point and rather commend you for your infinite patience with us mere mortals. 

Mitch Larramore
Sugar Land, Texas


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