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The Art of Translation

When I agreed to produce a new translation of the Apostolic Fathers for the Loeb Classical Library, my first thought was: How hard can it be?  These were texts that I had read and studied from the time I was in my PhD program in the early 1980s.  I translated them regularly with my graduate students.  I taught seminars on them.   It can’t be that tough, can it?

Oh boy was I wrong.   If you’re not accustomed to doing a translation for publication, the first time comes as a shock.  At least it did for me.  Publishing a translation is very different indeed from simply reading the Greek (or Latin, or whatever) to yourself, making sense of it in your head; and it is also very different from sitting around a seminar table with a group of students working out plausible ways to construe a text.  For one thing, when you’re preparing a translation for publication, you have to make a hard and fast decision about how you want to render a passage, a sentence, a clause, a phrase, a word.   You can’t do what we all do with our students – suggest a variety of options that, taken together, get to the meaning of the passage in the original language.  No, you have to type ONE translation.  And there are usually lots and lots of options (otherwise, all the translations would be the same).  And you have to choose.  I think at first it was that business of having to choose that through me for a loop.  It took me a while to get over it.

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Lake’s Apostolic Fathers
The Sense of an Ending



  1. Avatar
    Adam  November 3, 2012

    A general question – are there major differences between the Greek of the NT (which itself is of diverse quality) with the Greek of the Apostolic Fathers (which I presume is equally of diverse quality?). Is the syntax, grammar, etc. similar? Both are Koine Greek?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 4, 2012

      Yes, they are all koine Greek, and the grammar is not significantly different. Students who learn only “New Testament Greek” (whatever *that* is! It’s like taking a course in “To Kill a Mockingbird English”) find the Apostolic Fathers difficult, but only because they have not learned a wide range of koine Greek usage and vocabulary.

  2. Avatar
    hwl  November 3, 2012

    I have read in various places that ancient Greek texts – including some texts of the NT (e.g. Revelation) – can contain grammatical mistakes. This seems very peculiar to me. First, how do modern translators know if the “mistake” is not merely an unusual grammatical construction that may over time become the norm? Modern languages like English, due to its written nature and the abundance of standardised grammar books, are fairly fixed. But surely ancient languages, being primarily used orally, were in constant flux. Second, surely ancient manuscripts would have obvious mistakes corrected by the highly literature scribes over the centuries – they have no reason to preserve what are obviously spelling or grammatical mistakes.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 4, 2012

      There were ancient discussions of grammar as well, and with a language like Greek it is very easy (well, it’s very hard; but it can be done) to establish standard usage. When the book of Revelation gives a nominative case for the object of a preposition, there’s no one on the planet who can (or ever should, anyway) argue that that was acceptable grammar!

      • Avatar
        hwl  November 4, 2012

        How about the reason for highly literature scribes over the centuries preserving obvious grammatical errors?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  November 5, 2012

          Copying texts was by its nature a conservative process; most scribes thought their job was to copy what was in front of them. So they usually did!

          • Avatar
            hwl  November 5, 2012

            It seems odd to me that Christian scribes sometimes deliberately modified the texts that express dubious theology or could be read as such (a theme you regularly explored in your books), yet they are happy to preserve obvious grammatical errors.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  November 6, 2012

            Maybe they didn’t value grammar as much as you do! But I should also point out that scribes sometimes did indeed correct the grammar. Lots of times. Just not all the time.

          • Avatar
            hwl  November 7, 2012

            those lousy scribes who tolerated grammatical errors, obviously never heard of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy 🙂

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  November 7, 2012

            Yeah, what were they thinking?

  3. Avatar
    donmax  November 3, 2012


    This is a bit off topic, but not too far afield – I think. It’s kinda like translating the remote past through archaeology.

    I’m sending this message from biblical Tamar in Southern Israel. It is a magical place near the Dead Sea where caravans once traveled bringing trade goods to and from the Far East. Only recently has the location been rediscovered and identified as an important archaeological tel worthy of further excavation. Even more recently, just yesterday, in fact, the national government, together with the Israeli Antiquities Authority, have decided to make use of the site as an educational tool for teaching school-age children about the history of their country.

    The goal is to show, through seven historic periods of interactive displays, how people lived during and after the rebirth of monotheism, from Abrahamic times to the present day. Realizing this goal will require help from all quarters, including, perhaps, Bart and his bloggers.

    I just happen to be one of the people involved in this dig, along with many others working under the direction of Dr. DeWayne Coxon, the founder of Blossoming Rose. BR is a nonprofit organization working to preserve and protect Biblical Tamar Park for posterity. It is on the threshold of being the most talked about place in Israel. If you or someone you know would like to find out more about how to get involved in support of this project (on-the-job training is provided, plus food and lodging), just click on blossomingrose.org. You won’t be disappointed.

    Thank you,
    D.C. Smith

  4. Avatar
    Jacobus  November 3, 2012

    Prof. Ehrman, I’ve decided to buy your edition of the Apostolic Fathers to see how it differs from Lake’s and because I still don’t know how you’ve overcome some of the problems. I find the above post fascinating.

  5. Avatar
    Pat Ferguson  November 4, 2012

    I agree: “lots and lots of options”. And I’m curious: if you were to add a third column to a bilingual edition, what might it be? Notes? Commentary? Strong’s numbers?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 4, 2012

      Yes, probably notes to the translation, to explain why it has been rendered the way it has, and not some other way, and to explain grammatical difficulties, textual problems, and the like. It’d be a big task, but very useful!

  6. Avatar
    Christian  November 4, 2012

    I translated love poems of Pablo Neruda into French. A couple of them have sexual undertones. They have no titles and the editor wanted to number them. (This matters in the following.) One opens as follows: “Ebrio de trementina y largos besos”. The edition was bilingual, so I chose a literal translation: “Ivre de térébenthine et de longs baisers”, which is in English: “Drunk with turpentine and long kisses”. The editor objected because “turpentine” evoked industrial chemicals, not poetry, and other translations choose “pines” or “terebinths” instead. I had to remind her that Neruda’s vocabulary and imagery was always down to earth and that was not because of a lack of education. In the 1920s, when Neruda wrote, there was no industry of latex nor turpentine. Moreover, for a poem whose perfect title/number should have been “69”, “turpentine”, after checking the definition in a dictionary, made perfect sense!

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