Challenges for Literal Translation: Lessons from 4 Maccabees

I’d like to examine some of the challenges and issues in translation that generally not discussed and hopefully show that the process is significantly more complicated than most “literal” translation advocates suggest (at least, those advocates who leave comments at

Our example sentence is 4 Maccabees 1:1.

Φιλοσοφώτατον λόγον ἐπιδείκνυσθαι μέλλων, εἰ αὐτοδέσποτός ἐστιν τῶν παθῶν ὁ εὐσεβὴς λογισμός, συμβουλεύσαιμ̓ ἂν ὑμῖν ὀρθῶς ὅπως προσέχητε προθύμως τῇ φιλοσοφίᾳ.

On the one hand, if we follow the words and only the words themselves in their inflected forms, ignoring their order, we’ll get a literal translation something like:

Being about to demonstrate a highly philosophical subject [Φιλοσοφώτατον λόγον ἐπιδείκνυσθαι μέλλων], whether pious reason is sovereign over the emotions [εἰ αὐτοδέσποτός ἐστιν τῶν παθῶν ὁ εὐσεβὴς λογισμός], I should probably rightly advise you [συμβουλεύσαιμ̓ ἂν ὑμῖν ὀρθῶς] so that you might eagerly pay close attention to my philosophy [ὅπως προσέχητε προθύμως τῇ φιλοσοφίᾳ.].

This is a basically “literal” translation of the Greek, the grammatical relations of subject and object are rightly maintained in the translation through the entire thing. We’ve kept the voice of the verbs in place. Generally we’ve come quite close at one-to-one correspondence between the Greek and English while also following the Greek clause structure quite closely in terms of subordination and maintaining parallel relationships of subjects and objects between Greek and English.

Even still, we have a whole other set of functions and means present in the Greek syntax that are completely ignored by this translation. If we try to translate the verse based on the discourse structure, thus focusing on Greek “word” order (read: constituent/phrase order), our translation looks a little different:

Being about to demonstrate a highly philosophical subject [Φιλοσοφώτατον λόγον ἐπιδείκνυσθαι μέλλων], whether sovereign over emotions, pious reason is [εἰ αὐτοδέσποτός ἐστιν τῶν παθῶν ὁ εὐσεβὴς λογισμός], I should probably rightly advise you [συμβουλεύσαιμ̓ ἂν ὑμῖν ὀρθῶς] so that you might eagerly pay close attention to my philosophy [ὅπως προσέχητε προθύμως τῇ φιλοσοφίᾳ.].

In this second translation, some things have stayed the same and other things have changed, specifically in the condition clause (εἰ αὐτοδέσποτός ἐστιν τῶν παθῶν ὁ εὐσεβὴς λογισμός). The author uses a discontinuous phrase to mark αὐτοδέσποτός to mark the focused element of the clause. In order to maintain that element in the translation, we’ve been forced to use drastically awkward syntax, that makes the author of 4 Maccabees sound more like Yoda than a sophisticated Jewish religious philosopher from the first century. This translation definitely looses readability and could very well cause the modern day reader to break out in quoting Star Wars rather than thinking about the superiority of the Jewish Law in comparison the Hellenistic philosophy. That’s not the sort of things that encourages an authorial intent hermeneutic. Its unhelpful and distracting.

So basically, with both these “literal” translations we have a few problems:

  1. Translation #1 fails to communicate discourse functional information explicitly visible in the original text.
  2. Translation#2 represents the discourse functions, but does so in a highly artificial and unnatural manner. English does not tend to mark Focus by means of a fronted word or phrase.
  3. Both translations are less than natural English, with translation #2 being even more so.

At this point, there are two questions that should be asked:

  • Do these issues matter?
  • How do we deal with these issues?

How we answer the second question is dependent upon the first. If these issues don’t matter, then either translation is apparently adequate. If either issue 1 or issue 2 matters, then the opposite translation is the correct choice. And if all three matter, then a new path ought to be forged, one than places function over form and meaning over structure.

With that in mind, we’ll look at the different functions appearing in each clause of this sentence with an eye toward finding parallels for a natural English translation.

Clause #1: Φιλοσοφώτατον λόγον ἐπιδείκνυσθαι μέλλων,

Clause #2: εἰ αὐτοδέσποτός ἐστιν τῶν παθῶν ὁ εὐσεβὴς λογισμός,

Clause #3: συμβουλεύσαιμ̓ ἂν ὑμῖν ὀρθῶς ὅπως προσέχητε προθύμως τῇ φιλοσοφίᾳ.

Clause #1 sets the scene. In Steve’s terminology, it is the Topical Frame that creates a reference point for the rest of the sentence and in the case of 4 Macc 1:1, the entire discourse through chapter 18. Within, this clause topical frame, the specific topic is the fronted phrase “Φιλοσοφώτατον λόγον” and its meaning, “a highly philosophical subject.” Other functions and meanings in the clause include the expectation created by μέλλων (being about to) and the semantic content the Greek infinitive “ἐπιδείκνυσθαι,” which means “to cause something to be seen/recognized.”

Clause #2 has a discontinuous phrase: “αὐτοδέσποτός … τῶν παθῶν.” Head noun initial discontinuous phrases in Greek can either denote Topic or Focus. They are syntactically ambiguous and were likely reliant upon sentential stress (prosody) to determine which it was. But we have at least one major clue that suggests that αὐτοδέσποτός is Focused: εἰ. The combination of the conditional particle with the fronted αὐτοδέσποτός suggests the truth value of this proposition is dependent upon αὐτοδέσποτός. Specifically, whether the relation between pious reason and the emotions is one of sovereign rule or something else.

The only other issues is the function of εἰ. Is this word introducing a conditional clause or is it introducing an indirect question. If the former, then Clause #2 is the protasis and Clause #3 is the apodosis. If the latter, then clause #2 should be understood as part of the topical frame. This seems to be the better choice considering the context. The Clause #1 has set the stage for expecting a question quite clearly since the semantic range of λόγον overlaps with a variety of English words, including: word, message, subject, and question. On the other hand, in light of its relationship with the optative mood in Clause #3, it could very well be that the conditional nature does not completely disappear.

Clause #3 is the matrix clause on the entire sentence. Functional & Semantic elements involved in the translation include the various modal particles and the author’s use of the Optative Mood, which connects it to Clause #2, as well as the verbs, adverbs, and nouns themselves, “advise,” “pay close attention,” “eagerly,” and “philosophy.” The final word, φιλοσοφίᾳ, should probably viewed as referring specifically to the author’s thesis: the supremacy of devout/pious reason over the emotions.

With these descriptions in mind, this is my attempt at a natural and accurate English translation:

A highly philosophical question is set before us: Is pious reason’s position over the emotions a sovereign one? If it is, then I would be right in advising you to pay close and eager attention to my philosophical proposal.

Now, the greatest changes in form involve making Clause #1 grammatically independent, turning Clause #2 into a direct question, and adding an abbreviated conditional statement to Clause #3. The first change was done in order to make the second change more natural. The clause is no longer a Topical frame, but it still maintains its role as setting the stage for what follows. The second change was done in order to make the Focused nature of “sovereign” more clear in our written text since English typically does not mark Focus by means of syntax. The conditional that begins Clause #3 provides a natural connection between #1-2 & #3.

Now, I don’t necessarily expect that everyone will accept my translation as the best one possible, but at the very least, I hope it dispels that false notion of Functional/Dynamic translations being “thought-for-thought.” There’s a whole lot more involved in the translation process than that. And don’t think that the issues and challenges we’ve discussed here are irrelevant to translating the Bible simply because 4 Maccabees is pseudepigrapha. These issues appear in every single clause in any text in any language.

10 thoughts on “Challenges for Literal Translation: Lessons from 4 Maccabees

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  1. I think working through these issues in non-canonical text from roughly the same era is a valuable thing. It causes us to start focusing on the text itself and what it communicates, not on what our presuppositions and heritage have already determined it should say.

    I’ve found similar exercises with the writings of the Apostolic Fathers extremely valuable.

  2. I like what you’ve done here, Mike, even if I might question some parts of what you’ve said. I seriously question whether a “literal” translation of anything from one language to another can function very well at all beyond the concrete sort of proposition like, “Give me the apple.” I’ve argued for some time now that translation is an art, not a science, and that readers of ancient Greek (since that’s what I’ve been talking about) should not aim at translation but at understanding the given text. If, after one is confident that the text is rightly understood, one wants to English the content of that text, then one should put into one’s own best English the content of the original text; it would be nice to convey some impression of the style also, if the original has been formulated with elegance, but it takes all the better an artist to carry over stylistic qualities into a version.

    Upon reading the Greek sentence of 4 Macc, I too had thought in terms of two versions, one that somehow represents the structure of the original in the best English I can muster (but I wouldn’t call it literal in any sense), the other being an attempt to reformulate the elements of the original in a more natural English formulation. Here are my efforts:

    (1) Since the question I intend to expound is fundamentally a philosophical one, namely, whether an earnestly-religious power of reasoning holds sway over the passions, it would be proper for me to urge you to pay close attention to the philosophy.

    (2) Can an earnestly-religious reasoning faculty overrule one’s passions? That’s the question that I intend to expound, and it is a question that is fundamentally philosophical. It would be proper then for me to urge you to pay close attention to the philosophy.

    I think that better English is more generally paratactic than hypotactic, whereas well-composed Greek is periodic and arranges the clausal units in such a way that the whole is εὐσύνοπτον. Here the first clause indicates the reason for the action stated in the final clause: why the advice is rightly given. The intermediate clause states the proposition indicated by the term λόγον in the first clause — an exposition of which is promised (ἐπιδείκνυμι is almost a rhetorical technical term for “expound”). I think that ὀρθῶς, although at the end of the optative clause, is important, underscoring the urgency of the advice offered in the final clause. The final ὁπως clause is not a purpose clause but rather a substantive clause functioning as the object of συμβουλευσαίμ’ ἃν. (Cf. BDAG, ὁπως 2βb.)

    Finally, I have mixed feelings about the proper role of grammatical analysis in the process of translation. It’s a sort of “chicken-vs.-egg” priority question whether grammatical analysis assists the understanding necessary if one is to translate, or whether, contrariwise, grammatical analysis is only possible after one has already understood the original text well enough to “translate” it. My experience with Diagramming as an instrument of analysis is that, unless the text you’re diagramming is reasonably simple, you can’t diagram it unless you’ve really already understood it properly — in which case the diagramming is a superfluous exercise. On the other hand, it may be that diagramming can expose that either (a) one hasn’t really understood the text, or (b) the text really hasn’t been formulated with sufficient care by the author (this being my experience with an attempt at analyzing/diagramming Eph 1:3-14).

  3. Well said, Rick. Moving into non-canonical texts is probably the best thing I ever did. Reading and translating texts where I haven’t already read it half a dozen times makes a huge difference.

  4. Hi Carl. I think that we probably question the same thing when you write:

    I seriously question whether a “literal” translation of anything from one language to another can function very well at all beyond the concrete sort of proposition like, “Give me the apple.”

    Your words here are actually the major reason that I continually put the word “literal” in quotes. There’s been a whole lot of discussion about literal and word-for-word translations at the Better Bibles Blog lately, enough that I’ve begun pulling out my hair.

    And you’re right about the issue of grammatical analysis. I see its role as the precursor to even considering a translation in that we need grammatical analysis to learn the language to understand the text to be able to do the translation. In my personal experience, I use grammatical analysis for learning the language. I then “check my work” so to speak by seeing if anyone else has come to remotely similar conclusions about certain constructions or forms. Everything I wrote about above before my final third translation had already been recognized in my original reading of the sentence, so there was really no need to write it out like I did, but then this post would have been significantly shorter.

    You’re right about some of the formal features in my two initial translations don’t fit well – that’s the “word-for-word” part that I was aiming for in those two. I think (hope) that my final third translation improved on most if not all of those things.

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