Research Languages

I have, in an earlier post, pointed out a resource I consider very helpful in learning and practicing modern research languages (French, Italian, German, etc): Another practice I use is to read the Bible in these languages. As an undergraduate, I was completely opposed to using materials which I knew in English to study foreign languages. I promised if I ever was asked to teach Koine Greek, we would only use Josephus or Philo – I didn’t want those future students of mine to get off too easily. Granted, this probably assumes that students would know the Bible well enough to recognize it and this is assuming a lot.

I’ve changed my mind a bit, or at least relaxed my philosophy. There are a lot of benefits to studying a language with materials which you know in English.

I’m reading through St. John’s prologue this morning in German (in the Hoffnung Für Alle translation) and I noticed that 1.6-7 is not exactly what the Greek says. The Greek reads:

Ἐγένετο ἄνθρωπος, ἀπεσταλμένος παρὰ θεοῦ, ὄνομα αὐτῷ Ἰωάννης· οὗτος ἦλθεν εἰς μαρτυρίαν ἵνα μαρτυρήσῃ περὶ τοῦ φωτός, ἵνα πάντες πιστεύωσιν δι’ αὐτοῦ.

And there was a man, having been sent by God, whose name was John. This man came for a witness, in order to witness concerning the light, in order that all men might believe in Him.

The German translation, however, reads as such:

Gott schickte einen Boten, einen Mann, der Johannes hieß. Er sollte die Menschen auf das Licht hinweisen, damit alle durch seine Botschaft an den glauben, der das Licht ist.

God sent a messenger, a man called John. He was meant to point out to men the light so that all men might believe in Him who is the light.

You can see the differences – in the Greek, St. John the Baptist is the subject of the sentence (Ἐγένετο ἄνθρωπος – “There was a man”), but in the German translation I’m using, God becomes the subject (Gott schickte – God sent).  It’s not as though German does not have the passive voice – the translators very well could have written, “Ein Mann war schickten” (A man was sent), but chose not to.

My point in writing this short post is to point out that it’s fun to read these familiar texts in other languages because it’s not always the exact equivalent of what you’re used to. Not only did I get the benefit of reading the German, but because of the oddity, I thought for awhile about German passive construction. Win-win, really.


Filed under German, Graduate School, New Testament

4 responses to “Research Languages

  1. coreystephan

    Thank you for another helpful and thoughtful post, Josh. It is worth noting, of course, that sometimes an official translation of a text will include more than changes of nuance but actually change the very nature of a statement (or statements) within the text.

    For a particular famous/infamous (depending upon how the significance of the difference is interpreted) example, let us take the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The Creed begins “Πιστεύομεν” (“We believe” – or perhaps “We hold faith”) in its original Greek, but the Latin translation has actually been rendered as “Credo” (“I believe”) rather than “Credimus” (“We believe”), and “Credo” and its English translation of “I believe” are the forms recited at Catholic Masses.

    Needless to say, those claiming to be historical purists and/or more inclusion-minded (among others) have criticized the translation, wishing instead to stress the communal aspect of the Mass and the solidarity of the Christian faith with “We believe.” Defenders have used technical-language filled explanations about the significance of a Profession of Faith coming from the mouth of an individual (among other defenses).

    Due to a lack of sufficient knowledge and proper resources, I will not dive more deeply into the discussion at this time. I would be very curious to read what you might have to write about the subject, Josh, given your background and access to the relevant resources. Perhaps this comment may serve as the perfect fodder for a future Son of the Fathers blog post.

    Anyway, I simply wanted to issue a reminder that there are many instances of official translations including even more strong changes in meaning than the example you offered. I have also – like you, Josh – found that focusing on these differences helps me connect multiple linguistic and theological ideas at one time, solidifying them in my memory. I certainly agree that reading a text one knows in one language in a different language’s translation/version is very helpful in learning the target language. It helps solidify idioms more natural to the target language, its verb forms, et cētera.

  2. Stephen C. Carlson

    Another benefit to reading the Bible in your research languages is that it helps you acquire the active theological or Biblical vocabulary for the articles and books that you will read.

    • Joshua McManaway

      I hadn’t even thought of that, but it’s certainly true. Thanks for the comment!

    • coreystephan

      Following this line of reasoning, would you consider it to be important to read the Bible in a historically significant, especially common translation in one’s research language?

      For example, if I were to recommend editions to a person learning English (my own native tongue) for theological research, they would likely be the KJV – a staple in English literature – and the NRSV – a staple among modern academic theology. The Vulgate (traditional, not Neo-) would be crucial for any biblical Latin work.

      Thank you for any thoughts you might have.

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