Glosses for Lexicons and Translation for Grammar

I tried to stay away from it, but I couldn’t help myself. When I first saw the review of Campbell’s book at Dr. Witherington’s blog, I very nearly left a comment. But then I realized that if I did, I’d be trapped in a long discussion about grammar and aspect and I didn’t want that.

Luckily, Dr. Decker left a comment instead addressing all of the issues that I would have, which was good because he definitely has more authority than I do.

But when I went back over there to read the comments, I was sucked in. I just had to address a problem, though the problem had less to do with aspect and more to do with teaching grammar in general.

Campbell’s statement that the “present tense-form” conveys imperfective aspect was challenged in the review on the basis of a statement from Mounce’s grammar,

“The present tense indicates either a continuous or undefined action. You can translate either ‘I am studying’ or ‘I study.’ Choose the aspect which best fits the context” (BBG, 135).

But look at this, the determining of aspect is here based on the translation into English rather than the meaning of the Greek form itself. Yes, we can often translate the “present” with an English perfective/aoristic, but by no means does that make the Greek “present” be perfective. All it means is that English is different from Greek.

For decades, people like Louw & Nida in their lexicon, Danker in the third edition of BDAG and John Lee in A A History of New Testament Lexicography have taught us that glosses are an inadequate way of determining the meaning of individual words.

When will we start realizing the using translation to teach grammar is just as flawed? In a way, a translation is a bunch of glosses strung together.* And thus just as inadequate for determining meaning.

*This is actually backwards – glosses have traditionally been pulled from existing translations for the creation of past lexicons. Ironically, this is rather circular since after that, translators used the lexicons to create translations.

4 thoughts on “Glosses for Lexicons and Translation for Grammar

  1. Well said, Mike. Your point at the end about circular logic is well taken.

    Bible translators, including those who translate to English, need to take an entirely fresh look at how they get the meanings of biblical language words and express them in their translations.

    It is the lexicons of the biblical languages themselves which determine the meanings of words and the lexical relationships among the words, all of which are part of the overall grammar of a languages.

    Sorry, I almost felt I was preaching there for a few seconds! 🙂

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