Greek Students Should Do Two Translations (Matthew 13:11) — Mondays with Mounce 336
(Note: you can watch this blog post on YouTube.) In first year Greek we historically do just one wooden, word-for-word translation. This way the teacher knows that the student knows the tense of the verb or case of the noun. The problem is that the students leave first year class thinking that word-for-word is acceptable English and is the most accurate translation method, neither of which is accurate.
Take Matthew 13:11 for example. “And (δὲ) answering he said to them (ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν), ‘because (ὅτι) to you it has been given (δέδοται) to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven (οὐρανῶν), but to them it has not been given (δέδοται).’”
- But translating δέ in this context is redundant. In v 10 the disciples asked a question, and v 11 is his answer. No connective is necessary in English, nor is it stylish English.
- Since “answering he said” is not English by anyone’s measure, and since the idiom simply means “to answer,” why not say that?
- In the rush to translate every Greek word with a specific English word, did the student miss the fact that ὅτι introduces direct speech and is translated by quotation marks, as most translations do?
- Does Jesus mean to imply that the mysteries of the kingdom have, in their totality, been given to the disciples? That’s what “has given” would mean. Isn’t Jesus’ statement more timeless, that the mysteries are given? This is better English, says what the Greek means, and is an accepted translation of the perfect tense.
- If you translate the plural οὐρανῶν as “heavens,” it would seriously miscommunicate in English. We think of heaven as a single entity, and saying “heavens” would not communicate what the Greeks would have understood by οὐρανῶν.
- Finally, by putting “to you” and “to them” before the verb, Jesus is placing emphasis on this contrast. This can carry over to English, but you will have to decide if putting the subject first is better.
How much better to require our students to give two translations.
- “And answering he said to them, ‘because to you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.”
- “He answered them, ‘the mysteries of the kingdom are given to you, but they are not given to them.’”
As we will see in v 13, when people consistently reject the message of God, eventually their punishment is secure and they will not be able to understand any longer (Deut 29:4; Jer 5:21). How fortunate we are to be the recipient’s of God’s revelation and the meaning of his parables about his kingdom. But if knowledge does not translate into obedience, then we run the risk of not being able to understand, or not receiving the secrets of the kingdom, and having our ears and eyes dulled. Much better to obey.
Professors: Request an exam copy of Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar, Fourth Edition, here.
Bill is the founder and President of BiblicalTraining.org, serves on the Committee for Bible Translation (which is responsible for the NIV translation of the Bible), and has written the best-selling biblical Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek, and many other Greek resources. He blogs regularly on Greek and issues of spiritual growth. Learn more about Bill’s Greek resources at BillMounce.com.
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