More on Aktionsart and How Words Convey Meaning – Mondays with Mounce 272
I have been thinking more these days about how words convey meaning. The challenge in any first year Greek class is to create a solid, accurate base of learning, simplified enough so students don’t get discouraged, but not so simple that they have to relearn their grammar in second year.
One area where this is especially sensitive is in translating verbal tenses. Teachers are divided in choosing the perfective or imperfective aspect as the default translation of the present tense. However, since Greek has the two past tenses that are clearly imperfective (imperfect) and perfective (aorist), we are generally pretty strict at always translating the imperfect as continuous and the aorist as undefined. Makes sense.
But what I am considering is that perhaps we need to be more nuanced even in first year Greek. Aktionsart describes all the factors that go into conveying a verbal idea. It includes not only tense and aspect, but also the lexical meaning and the context. Sometimes the meaning of the verb conveys the essence of the tense/aspect without having to use specifically continuous language.
Take for example 1 Cor 9:27. Paul writes, “I discipline (ὑπωπιάζω) my body and bring it into subjection, so that having preached to others I myself should not be disqualified.” ὑπωπιάζω means (1) “strike in the face,” (2) “wear down,” and (3) “to put under strict discipline, punish, treat roughly, torment” (BDAG). This explains the NIV’s unfortunate “I strike a blow to my body,” suggesting a one-time event; they keep the imagery of ὑπωπιάζω but do not accurately convey the sense conveyed by the constative aorist.
Then look at 1 Cor 10:4. They “drank (ἔπιον, aorist) the same spiritual drink; for they drank (ἔπινον, imperfect) from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ” (NIV). If you used the rigid “they were drinking” for the imperfect, the reader would get the idea of an ongoing action, but is that necessary? If someone knows the historical background, and if you let the meaning of “drank” carry its commonsense idea, you can see that the simple “drank” can convey the idea of ongoing action (NIV, ESV, HCSB, NRSV, NLT). If you wanted to make the action more explicit, you could say “were drinking” (NASB, NET) or my preferred, “used to drink.”
Another example is Matt 13:54. “Upon arriving at his hometown, he taught (ἐδίδασκεν) them in their synagogue.” ἐδίδασκεν is imperfect, but do you really have to say “was teaching”? How else would someone teach if not over a period of time (continuous). Isn’t the meaning of the verb inherently continuous?
My point is that rigid translation techniques such as “drank” for aorist and “were drinking” for imperfect help in first year, but second year requires the student to concentrate more on the quality of English, and English prefers less words and (I suspect) the simpler “drank” to the longer “were drinking.” I know it is a matter of style and we will differ on this, but I did want to raise the topic.
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language and exegesis on the ZA Blog. He is the president of BiblicalTraining.org, a ministry that creates and distributes world-class educational courses at no cost. He is also the author of numerous works including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek and a corresponding online class. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV.