[B-Greek] English translation - or what?

Eric Inman eric.inman at wescorpflex.com
Mon Jun 8 09:51:04 EDT 2009

One question I have about this, and I'm not sure if it's been discussed, but
it seems to me that if we speak in koine or ancient Greek we'll really be
creating a new version of that language and we'll have that version in our
minds more than the original one. I'm not so much referring to the need to
create additional vocabulary, but rather that living languages evolve and
people key off of each others usage patterns as they interact with each
other. It seems like every few months you can observe new patterns emerging.
I'm not saying that this would necessarily make it undesirable to use this
approach, but I'm not sure if I've seen this issue discussed.

Another question is whether or not we have any information about
conversational koine or ancient Greek. Conversational language is very
different from book language. If we develop a conversational language from
what we see in books, I wonder how close this derived conversational
language will be to what people spoke back then.

Any thoughts?

Eric Inman

-----Original Message-----
From: b-greek-bounces at lists.ibiblio.org
[mailto:b-greek-bounces at lists.ibiblio.org] On Behalf Of Carl Conrad
Sent: Monday, June 08, 2009 7:44 AM
To: B-Greek
Subject: [B-Greek] English translation - or what?

The ongoing controversy over pedagogical methodology with regard to  
ancient Greek seems to be moving back into the murky realm of mutually  
exclusive opposites or of blurred distinctions, whatever. Perhaps I  
have misunderstood, or perhaps others have misunderstood, or perhaps  
we have all been understood perfectly well and just disagree very  
strongly. That may well be the case.

For my part, I have repeatedly and strongly urged that the student of  
ancient Greek needs to move as soon as possible toward thinking in the  
patterns and structures of ancient Greek and away from reliance upon  
tools and techniques that keep drawing the mind of a student focusing  
upon a Greek text back to a converted English word, phrase, clause,  
sentence, or connected passage. I have harangued against a pedagogy in  
ancient Greek that is ultimately directed toward producing a version,  
preferably as literally accurate as possible, of the Greek text in  
question. I don't object nearly so much to a conversion process aimed  
at producing a nuanced, idiomatic equivalent of the Greek text in  
question, for the reason that producing that sort of version requires  
an understanding of the Greek text as something more than a random- 
order sequence of words that have been parsed and converted into their  
English equivalent and then placed in an English sequential order  
yielding some minimal level of intelligible meaning. This latter  
process is what I've called "decoding" the Greek text which somehow  
continues to be - for the student performing such a conversion process  
- an alien congeries of words that are only slightly more meaningful  
in sequence than a column of a telephone directory.

I really do believe that students who persist at reading ancient Greek  
in meaningful volume do, sooner or later, increasingly cross over that  
dependence upon a "decoding" procedure that requires deciphering each  
word of a Greek phrase or sentence and rearranging the deciphered  
parts into a less alien, more familiar sequence. I think that growth  
in understanding ancient Greek texts can occur and does occur even  
among students learning ancient Greek in the old-fashioned way of  
memorizing paradigms and vocabulary lists and rules of syntax. I  
believe that because it has been my own experience and because I have  
seen my own students - many of them, at any rate - succeed in their  
efforts to read ancient Greek with some facility. I taught the old  
traditional way myself for several decades, only in later years using  
a method pushing students to reading lengthy narrative and expository  
sequences rather than phrases and single sentences. I believe that the  
old-fashioned pedagogical system is considerably enhanced by  
practicing composition in ancient Greek, particularly as students get  
beyond converting English phrases and sentences into Greek and  
endeavor to turn paragraphs of English text into Greek paragraphs in a  
style with which one grows familiar while reading that style in volume.

I do believe that Randall Buth's conversational method is better  
suited to acquiring facility in ancient Greek and it is what I would  
endeavor to use in the classroom today if I were still actively  
teaching ancient Greek. But it seems to me that whether one uses the  
classroom conversational method or a variation of the "old-fashioned"  
method, the student gains facility in understanding spoken Greek or  
reading Greek texts for the reason that the language was and still is,  
most fundamentally, a vehicle of human communication that works  
because its words and structures make it possible for human beings to  
share experiences with each other.

Do advanced students and scholars who read ancient Greek ever, or  
regularly, depend upon converting the text which they are reading into  
English or whatever native language they speak. I don't think the  
answer to that question is EITHER "yes" OR "no" but that it must be  
answered with qualifications. Can one read a Biblical text that one  
has read once, twice, or repeatedly in the past without thinking about  
converting it? Certainly one can. Can one read an unfamiliar Greek  
text of an author that one has never read before without relying on a  
lexicon or referring to a grammar? That will depend on the author and  
it will depend, to a considerable extent, on whether the vocabulary  
and the genre and substantive material dealt with by the author are  
familiar from past reading. One will very likely need to consult a  
lexicon when one encounters words that aren't clear in their context  
or that one needs to learn more about in order to understand the  
context better. But that's what we do when we're reading material in  
our native language that deal with matters that go beyond our  
comfortable range of experience.  For Greek we happen to depend upon  
LSJ and BDAG, both of which offer definitions of Greek words in  
English. But I would call attention to something that surprised me  
when I studied Greek at the University of Munich many years ago: the  
ancient Greek lexicon being used by German students and scholars was  
LSJ! But, of course, educated German students and scholars read  
English as a matter of course. Moreover, we can readily conceive of a  
lexicon for Classical Greek or Koine Greek with definitions in Greek;  
such a lexicon will probably not be produced within my lifetime, but I  
suspect that it will be developed eventually. There's a vast amount of  
material in the Suda (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suda and
, the great Byzantine 10th-century lexicon and encyclopedia: guess  
what language it' in! And it's certainly true that when an advanced  
student or scholar comes to discuss a Greek text with others, either  
conversationally or in an internet forum such as B-Greek, then we  
almost always offer an English version of the text or of the key part  
of the text in order to demonstrate how we understand that text, what  
we believe that it is communicating. If we were conducting the  
discussion among French- or German-speakers, we'd offer a French or a  
German version. That doesn't mean that the Greek text wasn't first  
understood on its own terms, as a Greek text.

Perhaps this message is superfluous, but when I read messages that  
seem to imply that, since Koine Greek is a dead language, it really  
isn't possible to speak it  conversationally, or write it, or think in  
it, or that when we read an ancient Greek text of any considerable  
length, we must necessarily convert it, while we read, into an English  
equivalent, I can't help but think that either I haven't understood  
what others are saying, or they haven't understood what I've been  
saying, or maybe neither of us has understood the other. I would hope  
that's not really the case.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University (Retired)

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