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Why It’s Hard to Publish a Translation: Blast from the Past

In my last post in this thread, 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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  1. Avatar
    rivercrowman  September 2, 2019

    Bart’s 2-Volume Set “The Apostolic Fathers” has a Scripture Index at the end of Vol. 2. This is a handy feature.

  2. Avatar
    flshrP  September 2, 2019

    So, the good folks at the Loeb Library did not want you to supply a critical apparatus that would be published on each page along with your selected version of the translated Greek?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2019

      There was a critical apparatus. Just not a huge one. The Loebs aren’t meant to be that kind of thing.

      • Avatar
        Sadfad  September 4, 2019

        hi Bart, saw most of your videos online, and tried to search the blog … but couldnt find anything about the “holy ghost”; its origins, evolution as an integral concept of trinity. Hope to see something about it. (Sorry didnt know where to suggest a topic, so sent it as a reply).

        • Bart
          Bart  September 8, 2019

          Nope, I’ve never dealt with the topic at length in writing or speaking.

  3. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 2, 2019

    So, with the problem of differing texts and differing translation options, there is no THE BIBLE to interpret literally even if one wants to do so.

  4. Avatar
    Hormiga  September 2, 2019

    >you get the nuances of what the Greek is saying and understand it as Greek, not as English in another language

    This is a point (with Russian instead of Greek) that I’ve occasionally had a hard time putting over to monolingual friends. Even with my learned-not-native-Russian, I don’t “translate” reading and listening it into English, I just understand it as it is, to the best of my ability.

    As for translation, not are there often different ways to translate things, sometimes there isn’t *any* succinct translation and a footnote is needed to explain as well as possible what is meant.

  5. Avatar
    tadmania  September 2, 2019

    In the forms of Greek you are translating, how nuanced and complex is the language ‘within’ itself? Or do the antique features of the language present the most problems? Is it that we lack sufficient contemporary context for a more accurate rendering from koine Greek into English word-for-word, or that the language is inherently complex/vague?

    It is not possible to say exactly “I would have liked to be an astronaut” in French. The verb constructs don’t exist. Is this a kind of challenge you faced?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2019

      Yes, all of that. It’s hard to find English equivalents to express the nuances of the Greek; and the Greek itself has internal complexities and nuances with numerous possible ways of interpretation.

    • Avatar
      hankgillette  September 6, 2019

      So, for all we know, there could have been thousands of French people who would have liked to be an astronaut, but there was no way they could tell anyone?

  6. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  September 3, 2019

    All I can do is repeat Ai yai yai…..

    • Avatar
      quadell  September 5, 2019

      I’d seen Dr. Ehrman say that in a number of his lectures, but I’d never seen him write it out until now. What would be the best Koine Greek translation of “ai yai yai”, I wonder?

  7. Avatar
    robgrayson  September 3, 2019

    As a professional translator (albeit in the commercial rather than the academic realm), it’s heartening to see someone point out just how complex and challenging the translation task is.

  8. Avatar
    rburos  September 6, 2019

    When doing this project, did you have a particular audience in mind, and did that affect your translations? For example, you would want to translate it much more simply for someone like me, while for your colleagues you could afford a much more nuanced translation. Or maybe were you simply wanting to provide something that was a fair translation that flowed more poetically (by that I mean more oriented on the feelings invoked)?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 8, 2019

      We did it so scholars (grad students/professors/etc.) could have access to both the original language texts and recent translations, side by side, in one volume, a very useful tool. Some of these texts are bit hard to find in the originals.

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