Translating Pragmatics – Lessons from the Apostolic Fathers

Since Topic & Focus Posts are popular right now, I thought I’d throw one up that’s been sitting on the sidelines since March.*

Right now, I’m going through examples of discontinuous phrases in the Apostolic Fathers where the head noun is first. We’ve been calling this structure Y2 Hyperbaton. Because its been a while since we discussed discontinuous phrases in Greek, I want to give a quick review of concepts that we’ve been using before we look at the Greek text. We’ll remind ourselves of the terminology we’ve been using as well as the basic concepts they express.

We’ve talked about a lot of about Topic & Focus as well as Asymmetrical Markedness. Those of you who have been following Steve’s blog (introduction HERE) should have a pretty good grasp of the latter, but we’ll review it anyway.

Let’s review Topic and Focus first (first discussed here). The Topic, to put it concisely, is what the clause is “about.” Regarding Focus, we speak of three main types: Sentential Focus, where the entire clause is in Focus, Broad Focus, where an entire constituent or multiple constituents are Focused, and Narrow Focus, where only a part of a constituent is in Focus. Each of these three types can occur in two basic flavors: Weak and Strong. Whereas Weak Focus merely provides a listener/reader with new information:

(1) Mike has a blue bicycle.

In this example, “Mike” receives the discourse function Topic. This is because you as a reader already know Mike or, more accurately, I as the writer/speaker assume that the referent of Mike (me) is accessible to my readers as a potential Topic. A speaker selects the Topic of a given clause based on 1) its relevancy for the discourse and 2) its accessibility for his/her audience. The Verb Phrase (VP) receives the discourse function Focus – specifically, Sentential Broad Focus. This is simply because the fact that I have a blue bicycle new information for you as a reader.

Strong Focus is different. It  evokes a set, either implicitly or explicitly, and negates that set.

(2) Mike’s bicycle is red.

Example (2) has the same Topic as example (1), but differs in its Focus structure. In this case, “red” receives the function Narrow Strong Focus. The italics marks intonational emphasis on the adjective “red,” were this clause to be spoken out loud.  In English, this intonation marks the Focus status of “red.” Since it is limited only to the Adjective, the Focus is narrow. The intonation, along with the context, where I ask a speaker seek to correct a misunderstanding about the colour of my bicycle, evokes and negates set of colours. Thus the Focus is also Strong. My bicycle is not blue. It is red – my wife’s bicycle is blue.

Is it coming back to you?

Now let’s add something extra to this:

In English, certain adjectives are more likely to express Strong Focus than others. And this is where Markedness comes in. Consider the following to examples, both of which express the same piece of new information:

(3) My apartment is small.

(4) My apartment is tiny.

Both these sentences are attributive predicates, where size is predicated upon my apartment.  Of these two Adjectives, example (3) should be considered unmarked for its type of Focus (e.g. Weak vs. Strong). That is, “small” could be said with Strong Focus, but such a reading is in no way necessary. Conversely, “tiny” is marked for Strong Focus. A speaker or writer would choose “tiny” over “small” is more likely be choosing the former adjective to draw attention to the very small size. By its very semantic nature, “tiny” is going to evoke and negate other possible adjectives of size. I’m not sure I’d say impossible, but at the very least, purely informational reading is far less likely than a Strong Focused reading. This same sort of situation can be seen in other adjective pairs such as large/huge.

Now to Greek.

In previous posts, we’ve said that when a given phrase Y (YP) is divided in half by phrase X (XP), the first half of the YP is Y1 and the second half is Y2. Y1 The name for each type of hyperbaton derives from the position of the Modifier in the phrase. If the modifier is first, we call it Y1 Hyperbaton. If the modifier is last, we call it Y2 Hyperbaton.

We’ve already established, that in Y1 Hyperbaton, the initial modifier is assigned the pragmatic function of Narrow Focus. My basic claim for Y2 Hyperbaton, which I’ll be providing rather extensive evidence for in the next week (finally), is that Y2 Hyperbaton, depending on context, will mark the Y1 Noun either with the function of Topic or Weak Focus.**

With all of that background in mind, I want to look at a particular example in the Apostolic Fathers with reference to Michael Holmes’ translation (and, actually, Lightfoot & Lake’s translations as well).

Herm, Sim. VIII, i, 2

Εἱστήκει δὲ ἄγγελος τοῦ κυρίου ἔνδοξος λίαν ὑψηλὸς παρὰ τὴν ἰτέαν, δρέπανον ἔχων μέγα, καὶ ἔκοπτε κλάδους ἀπὸ τῆς ἰτέας, καὶ ἐπεδίδου τῷ λαῷ τῷ σκεπαζομένῳ ὑπὸ τῆς ἰτέας· μικρὰ δὲ ῥαβδία ἐπεδίδου αὐτοῖς, ὡσεὶ πηχυαῖα.

And by the willow there stood an angel of the Lord, glorious and very tall, with a huge pruning hook, and he was lopping off branches from the willow and giving them to the people who were in the shade of the willow; he gave them small sticks, about eighteen inches long.

Michael Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (Updated ed.; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1999).

The clause in question is a participial clause marked in bold: δρέπανον ἔχων μέγα. This small clause is a nice example of a Weak Focus Y2 Hyperbaton. The Clause as a whole is Sentential Focus providing additional information about the Angel. And within the split NP itself (δρέπανον … μέγα), we also have Weak Focus.

And that’s the issue here. Holmes translations μέγα with “huge.” Likewise, both Lake and Lightfoot translate it as “great.” Now perhaps 100 years ago, “great” was unmarked for Strong Focus, at least in my reading of the text, both “great” and “huge” are marked adjectives. There is nothing in the text that emphasizes that the sickle/pruning hook was particularly massive or huge. The Greek adjective μέγας is definitely not inherently marked for Strong Focus. It can be used in that manner, but its not necessary. Such a reading would be dependent on other factors other than lexical semantics (there are Greek Adjectives that would imply such a reading lexically, perhaps πᾰχύς or εὐογκος – though I have not put any work into actually looking at examples of them; I just searched LSJ).

An Adjective, like “big” or (probably better) “large,” would fit the syntax/pragmatics and semantics of this particular clause better than Holmes’ translation “huge.”

Now I’m sure many of you, after reading all of this, are probably thinking that I’ve spent way too much time thinking and writing about a single Adjective.

Probably. But at the very least, I want to show you how things like Information Structure and Word Order can and should affect how we translated the Greek text. Thus far, there are really no English translations of any Christian text, scripture or not, that have put effort into such issues. Perhaps its time they did.

* Other Posts I’ve written on the Subject (its heavy reading)

Discontinuous Syntax in the New Testament Part I

Discontinuous Syntax in the New Testament Part II

Discontinuous Syntax in the New Testament Part III

Discontinuous Syntax in the New Testament Part IV

**There are a two instances in the NT where Strong Focus might be a better match (one instance is more likely than the other), but this will be discussed at a later time.

8 thoughts on “Translating Pragmatics – Lessons from the Apostolic Fathers

  1. off topic, but since en epheso probably isn’t in the Bible, does that mean you’re blog isn’t really a blog? Things that make you go hmmmmm…. yeah it’s late and i’m tired.

    1. Rob, en epheso is in 1 Corinthians 15:32, 16:8, 1 Timothy 1:3, 2 Timothy 1:18 and Revelation 2:1. So I might expect this blog to be about 1 Corinthians, the Pastoral Epistles and Revelation, not about “Ephesians”, nor for that matter the Apostolic Fathers.😉

  2. Could you explain what you mean by strong and weak focus? Is weak focus focus within the NP only and not the clause to which it belongs, whereas strong focus is focus not only within the NP, but also the governing clause? Help me out here, Mike. You linguists are constantly throwing out new jargon such that crusty old grammarians are unable to keep pace! Have mercy and provide a definition.

    1. These are Devine & Stephens terms (though I’m guessing they don’t originate with D&S).

      Strong Focus is implicitly or explicitly contrastive – not only is it new, salient information, but it also seeks to correct a perceived error of the listener/reader.

      Weak Focus is just filling in a gap in the knowledge of the speaker – just plain vanilla Focus (<- just an idiom, personally, I think vanilla is a rather complex flavor).

      So basically, Strong Focus = corrective; Weak Focus = gap fill-itive.

      1. Are you quite sure that “strong focus” doesn’t have something to do with Strong’s numbers? People keep talking about Strong’s numbers and I keep thinking that they must be good for something.

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