Being literal—and a new download

[For the download on Greek conditional sentences, see below]


A colleague jested in the Common Room:
Q: What is the difference between a fundamentalist and a kleptomaniac?
A: One takes everything literally, and the other takes everything—literally.

Later that morning, in the mysterious way of words that meet up and congregate, a sixth former asked if we could talk about being literal. How literal should a translation be?

I reminded her of one guideline: translation should stick as closely as possible to the words, while being in the most natural English possible.

But there is a gulf between the translation of 16 year olds sitting the GCSE examination, whose rendering must demonstrate that they have understood the grammar and syntax of the original, and that of the sixth former or university student who does not need to demonstrate this: rather, in translating material more subtle and more nuanced, he or she must use all the resources of English to reproduce what was the original writer’s intent. That may mean changing the syntactical relation of a sentence.

One visiting speaker remarked that there is no such thing as a translation. He was a well-known poet, and he was talking about individual words. Ship, he pointed out (and he quoted CS Lewis) does not translate the word ναῦς. The Greek word denotes something long and dark, bristling with oars on either side, which is not what the English word signifies. Even a commonplace word like father is not the same as the French père, because French and English people have different nuances attaching to that person.

But granted all that, what about the grammatical relations, the syntax, and the word order?

The student who is learning both Greek and Latin soon discovers that Greek is the more susceptible to literal rendering: with Homer, for example, the poetry can usually be rendered line by line, and often with the same word order:

αὐτίκα δ᾽ Ἠὼς ἦλθεν ἐύθρονος, ἥ μιν ἔγειρε
Ναυσικάαν ἐύπεπλον: ἄφαρ δ᾽ ἀπεθαύμασ᾽ ὄνειρον,
βῆ δ᾽ ἰέναι διὰ δώμαθ᾽, ἵν᾽ ἀγγείλειε τοκεῦσιν,
πατρὶ φίλῳ καὶ μητρί: κιχήσατο δ᾽ ἔνδον ἐόντας…

Straightway Dawn came, fair throned, who woke her—
Nausicaa, fair robed; and at once she marvelled at the dream,
and left to go through the palace, so she might tell it to her parents,
her dear father and mother: and she found them, for they were within.

Even such writers as challenging as Thucydides can write sentences whose order of words can be reproduced in English:

τοιούτῳ μὲν πάθει οἱ Ἀθηναῖοι περιπεσόντες ἐπιέζοντο, ἀνθρώπων τ᾽ ἔνδον θνῃσκόντων καὶ γῆς ἔξω δῃουμένης.

Such was the affliction that the Athenians had fallen into and were being crushed by, with people dying in the city and the land outside being ravaged.

So another point was made to the student who raised this issue: if you can preserve the order of thought in a sentence, do so, whether it is Greek or Latin.


Here is a link to the download on Greek conditional sentences, which can also be found in the Greek language menu above:
Greek conditionals
This was done for a student who wanted the main points set out simply on one page.