Beside The Point

This morning I’ve been thinking about the Greek exegesis class I’ll be teaching in the fall, and wondering how to talk to my students about my somewhat out-of-the-ordinary perspective on the work of biblical interpretation (especially pertinent in a Greek class, since a superficial version of my hermeneutics might convey the sense that original-language study doesn’t matter much). I don’t anticipate requiring my students to prepare formal translations of the assigned passages, but I do want them to study the Greek carefully; as I was mulling over how to express this, I thought about what I’ve written elsewhere on the topic of translation.
It occurred to me to suggest to students that they regard translation as a side effect of understanding what they read in Greek, rather than as a goal. When we treat translation as a goal, we tend to succumb to the red herrings about meaning and correctness that I’ve inveighed against at such great length. If on the other hand we put our greatest emphasis on understanding the Greek — making sense of the words before us — the capacity to translate will come along. After all, translating involves a finer understanding of the target language than many students bring with them (teachers of Greek commonly bemoan the weight of responsibility they bear to teach students elementary English grammar).
In the Greek reading group that some of us sustained at Seabury, we often came to the point of agreeing on what was up with the Greek, without arriving at a consensus on how we’d translate it. That seems right to me (however much it may frustrate people who want to arrive at a sound English translation). On one hand, we’re all constrained by the common-tongue translations that the churches uphold (the NRSV, NIV, and so on), so that adopting a reading that departs from those cuts us off, to some extent, from the shared discourses of those readers who encounter the New Testament only in translation. Moreover, promoting one’s own particular translation entails a de facto claim to superior authority (a claim few of us can actually back up), and tends to provoke assertions about “real meaning” that I find profoundly misguided. Better to stick with observing and attending to the Greek as the primary focus of our work. As I’ve been known repeatedly to say, “Let the Greek teach you Greek.”

6 comments / Add your comment below

  1. You don’t need to know Greek to do postmodern biblical criticism. In fact, knowledge of Greek, philology, history, anything dealing with ‘fact’ and reality, etc. is inimical to your postmodern biblical hermeneutics.

    You aren’t equipped to teach a Greek exegesis course, and your students have nothing to gain.

    Of course, once I’ve written these words, the message that I myself am conveying to you is irrelevant; my authorial voice and intent are forever gone.

    So let the reader of this comment interpret however she (politically correct as always) will. Perhaps this comment is really all about quantum mechanics, God as a top and Moses as a bottom, and the need for everyone to have burgers and beer rather than wasting one’s time in the library searching for textual variants.

  2. nicely said. in my own work in philosophy this comes home to me in a giant way. Abelard says things and makes connections in Latin that just work, and are sometimes quite hard to get across in English. the experience of reading Descartes’ meditations in the original Latin, as well, is illuminating in the extreme–points once dark become clear!

    It makes me feel very inadequate any time I have taught Plato since this realization–because my Greek is not up to the task. Perhaps one day it will be.

  3. Brad, I’m not sure what the basis might be for your remarks; it doesn’t sound like anything I’ve proposed under the heading of “postmodern,” and I’m not particularly wedded to that label anyway. If you suppose that “knowledge of Greek, philology, history, anything dealing with ‘fact’ and reality, etc. is inimical to [my] postmodern biblical hermeneutics,” I guess I have to ask you to instruct me in my own thought. Or perhaps you are confusing me with other people who have written about postmodernity, because so far as I can tell, all the facts and reality about my own professed claims about hermeneutics contradict your denunciation.
    Thomas, I should admit first of all that I haven’t yet made time to read your series on theological interpretation, to my regret. Relative to translation, though, I’ve experienced this in study of other sources as well (not in Latin, alas — I wish my Latin were good enough for me to experience this in Latin!). I’m less vexed about the “hard to get across” angle, and more intrigued by the “not fretting about ‘how one would say it in English,’” as though Engllish were the linguistic center of the created order. In biblical studies, this arises particularly because (in the interest of modern efficiency) we usually teach students one year of Greek, framed mostly as an exercise in decoding a theological cryptogram. Few students learn to think “how a Greek-speaker would say this” or “why a Greek-speaker might say that instead.” If we trap students in the snare of trying to understand Greek as though it were a bizarre dialect of English, we impoverish their understanding of Greek, unduly inflate their sense of their own accomplishment, and imperil their apprehension of the Gospel as Greek-fluent writers communicated it.

  4. It’s not surprising that this post is bookended by ruminations that involve music, as it seems to move, in its discussion of translation, towards an interpretive engagement that is more akin to how we listen to music, and less like how we mimic one language in another. This musical, or melocentric, model aligns more closely with the gestural and emotive elements and less with those that involve strict lexical accuracy and encyclopedic exactitude. Not that it spurns these, just that it is attuned to other, perhaps less immediately lexical attributes of the text.

    When you say

    It occurred to me to suggest to students that they regard translation as a side effect of understanding what they read in Greek, rather than as a goal.

    it’s something like, in my experience, how we can connect with a piece of music, or a poem read aloud, and have a strong response to its power of expression without actually knowing the lyrics. Yet hereabouts you are paying special attention to lyrics.

  5. Tom, that’s very much to the point (and congruent with what we’ve been saying about gestures and visual hermeneutics). A great part of my hermeneutical ardor involves the ways we who teach actually impair students’ capacity to read, by distracting them from the exoteric devices that communicators rely on for the preponderance of their effects, in favor of detecting some (less probable) esoteric allusion or meaning or formal device.
    In this sense, the defenders of “plain meaning” are indeed on the right track, though I continue to insist that “plainness” should not be understood as an intrinsic quality of verbal meaning, but as the preponderant weight of exoteric, non-exotic, non-outlandish aspects of communication. A pedagogical emphasis on “hidden” communicative devices misleads students into thinking of the evangelists and apostles (and the playwrights, poets, novelists, essayists of the literary tradition) as cryptographers. I love Joyce, but not every narrative is Ulysses; not every testament is a Wake.

  6. I like your distinction between the plain and the esoteric, or cryptic, but would not wish to lose sight of the accompanying conundrum, that it is precisely the plain, what is out in the open, that eludes the capture of translation. I suspect part of the reason has to do with the fact that macro elements of signification are so difficult to parse. It does seem that one can analyze exhaustively the syntactic and lexical of many a poem or song, only to not be able to account for aspects of its emotive force or authoritative power.

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