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Why It Is Hard To Publish a Translation of an Ancient Text

In my last post, en route to discussing my latest attempt at publishing both a scholarly and a trade book on the same topic, I talked about how I took on the task of doing a new Greek-English edition of the Apostolic Fathers for the Loeb Classical Library.  At the end of the post I indicated that doing that edition was one of the hardest things I have ever done.   There were lots of things that made it very difficult – deciding which form of the Greek text to use for each of the writings included (i.e. what to do in the many places where the manuscripts differed from one another), doing all the research in order to write up competent and relatively complete Introductions to each text, studying the history of research into various problems posed by the Apostolic Fathers, from the 17th century until today, and so on.

But the hardest part was the translation itself.   The Greek of the Apostolic Fathers is not incredibly difficult, as far as Greek goes.  It is more difficult than most of the New Testament, but not nearly as difficult as most classical authors.  (Like the NT, it is the kind of Greek called “koine” [pronounced Coin-ay, rhymes with payday]; this was the common language of regular folk at the time, not the highbrow language of upper crust elite literary authors.)    Still, it’s difficult enough.   But what I found in doing this, my first really big translation project, was that it is hard not only to read the Greek but even more to put the Greek into English.

So here’s the deal.   For most of my professional life – and for my student life before that – I have actively translated Greek texts both by myself and in communal settings.   When you’re reading, say, 1 Corinthians in Greek to yourself, you do not try to produce a polished translation for others to read; you get the nuances of what the Greek is saying and understand it as Greek, not as English in another language (if that makes sense).   Often you don’t even choose one English word over another in order to understand what the author, in this case Paul, is saying.   You read it and try to understand it as Greek.

Communal settings are, for example, in the….

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Comments

  1. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  September 29, 2019

    Did you find that any of the church fathers had only passable Greek or were all of them classically fluent?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 30, 2019

      Oh, yes, some of them were highly skilled rhetoricians, especially staring in the mid third century and then big time by the early fourth.

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    doug  September 29, 2019

    I’m a little confused about ““koine” [pronounced Coin-ay, rhymes with payday]”. Is the first syllable pronounced “coin” (coin-ay) or is the first syllable pronounced “kay” to rhyme with payday?

  3. Avatar
    Duke12  September 30, 2019

    Heard a modern Greek speaker pronounce it “keen-aye,” claiming that is the correct pronunciation (comparing it to “oikoumene,” where “ecumenical” comes from). It’s literally all Greek to me, so I have no idea which is right (or could both pronunciations be right, depending on the time period? When a modern North Carolinian quotes the King James Bible, it presumably sounds a lot different than it did from the mouth of a 1611 English speaker.)

    • Bart
      Bart  October 1, 2019

      Ah, he’s speaking modern Greek. Scholars of antiquity who refer to it ALWAYS say coin. Modern Greek speakers tend to think that their modern pronunciation is the “right” way. We cdertainly wouldn’t want to hear (and we wouldn’t understand) Chaucer reading a newspaper!

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    gwayersdds  September 30, 2019

    Bart, I remember once that I had a foreign made VCR that I’m convinced that the original Japanese directions had been translated into Korean, then into Chinese followed by translation into German and finally into English. The directions were almost incomprehensible. I used to be fluent in Italian and competent in French so I can understand the difficulties in translating and getting the nuances and meaning right. My compliments to your abilities in doing what you did.

  5. Robert
    Robert  September 30, 2019

    Ha ha. This post was just posted as a Blast From the Past at the beginning of this month, on September 2nd: https://ehrmanblog.org/why-its-hard-to-publish-a-translation-blast-from-the-past/

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    • Bart
      Bart  October 1, 2019

      I know. I’ve been talking with my tech guy Steven about it — I have no idea how it got published yesterday again!

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  6. Avatar
    Brand3000  October 3, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    There’s been a debate about the text of 1 Cor. 11:23ff. In Barton’s book, he translates it the traditional way, but some scholars say there was not real betrayal, that there’s a mistranslation, and it really is “handed over by God.” Which do you think Paul originally wrote?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 4, 2019

      The Greek word is NOT the word for “betrayal” (PRODIDOMI) but a related, yet different, word (PARADIDOMI) which never means “betrayed” in Paul (or elsewhere, so far as a I know) but more neutrally “handed over.” Elsewhere Paul uses it specifically to refer to God “handing Jesus over” to his death.

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