Awkward Translation: Ordering Arguments and other Goodies

Typical/Default word order in English requires Core Arguments to appear closer to the verb than Oblique Arguments:

We do not tend to say things like:

The doctor removed with a knife her kidney.

Rather, we would tend to say:

The doctor removed her kidney with a knife.

In both sentences “her kidney” is a core argument and “with a knife” is an oblique argument.

Now, I know that both these sentences and the ones in the translations below are comprehensible. That’s not what’s at stake here. They mean basically the same thing, so when you comment on this post, please don’t give that whole argument about how this stuff about naturalness doesn’t really matter as long as the translation is “literal.” For one I’m really tired of that argument and I think its nonsense anyway, so you won’t convince me with it. But secondly, and more significantly, such an argument shows little awareness of how the languages work. When we translation Greek word order that is both natural and default in such a way that makes the English word order neither natural nor default, we also subtly change the meaning of the text. Specifically, we change the pragmatics of the text. When we place a prepositional phrase between the verb and the object, we draw greater attention to it. Were someone to actually speak the first sentence above, they would likely stress the phrase “with a knife” in their intonation. They may even pause after saying, “with a knife.” Third, its debatable whether this could be consider a “literal” translation anyway.

Now, on to the text at hand: Acts 15:37.

Last night I came across this in a KJV tradition translation and it caught my eye. So I looked at a variety of other translations. Here are the ones with a rather awkward sounding “with them” placed directly between the verb and the direct object – so much for the translations that are supposedly “good for public reading…”

Barnabas wanted to take with them also John, who was called Mark, NAB

And Barnabas was minded to take with them John also, who was called Mark. ASV

Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. ESV

Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. NRSV

And Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. RSV

And Barnabas determined to take with them John, whose surname was Mark. KJV

There’s another problem from an English perspective with these translations. Its the combination of the strange position of “with them” and the “also” of the NAB & ASV. In English, “also” marks a focused constituent in a given clause. So what we have here, in the NAB & ASV, is essentially focus overkill and its often ungrammatical. We have two emphatic constituents in the same clause. This sort of thing can only confuse the readers. Now the translators of the KJV seem to have recognized this fact, which is why they do not have an “also” (though it is in Greek). The ASV, in following the the KJV, while also wanting to be the most literal translation it could, reinserted the “also” and it seems that the NAB, independently of the ASV (but perhaps unconsciously influenced by the KJV?), did the same. In contrast, the RSV (and thus also the ESV & NRSV) followed the KJV more closely.

Here are the translations that maintain the “with them” phrase, but place it in a significantly more natural spot.

Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, T/NIV

Barnabas wanted to take John, called Mark, along with them also. NASB95

Barnabas wanted to bring John called Mark along with them too, NET

Barnabas wanted to take John Mark with them, NCV

Barnabas wanted to take John Mark with them. NIrV

Barnabas wanted to take John Mark with them, GNB

These translations sound infinitely better in English (I’m willing to give the KJV the benefit of the doubt that its odd word order could have been felicitous in 1611). But not all of them have draw attention to John, called Mark, with an “also” or “too,” loosing the Focused nature of the Direct Object here (the NIrV, GNB, and NCV).

But this is where I get nitpicky (which is a silly word). Let’s talk about accuracy/literalness now. And this relates to examining why the first group of translations put the prepositional phrase, “with them,” where they did. Here’s the Greek text:

Βαρναβᾶς δὲ ἐβούλετο συμπαραλαβεῖν καὶ τὸν Ἰωάννην τὸν καλούμενον Μᾶρκον·

It seems that the first group of translations, the KJV tradition, were trying to keep “with them” as close to the verb as possible because in the Greek text, “with them” is part of the verb – the derivational prefix συν-. That makes sense, I suppose, but its about as silly as saying that you shouldn’t split an infinitive in English because Latin can’t. So, is it more literal to keep this prepositional phrase as close to the verb as possible?

Well, perhaps, but it introduces problems. A truly literal translation would require the translation of the adverbial καί, which modifies the direct object. So if you do not include it, you do not have a literal translation (ESV, NRSV, RSV, KJV). But if you do include it, you still don’t have a literal translation because then we have some sort of double Focus construction that does not exist in the Greek and is barely grammatical (if at all) in English.

Then if you follow the path of the of the second group of translations, particularly the first three, you’ve distanced the “with them” from the verb, so that we have a natural and default ordering of the Arguments as well as the marking of Focus on the Direct Object – though unfortunately, by placing the “also” right before “called,” the TNIV fails by placing Focus in the wrong place. It should be on the entire direct object “also John, called Mark,” not “John, also called Mark.”

So under normal circumstances, I would definitely say that the approach of the NASB95, and NET is by far the best and most literal approach to dealing with this verb.

But that was before I read what the NLT said at this verse. That’s right. I said the NLT. Here’s its translation:

Barnabas agreed and wanted to take along John Mark. NLT

For the verb itself, the NLT has got it right. They’ve successfully kept the meaning of the “with them” phrase directly with the verb by recognizing that the Greek prefix συν– doesn’t mean “with.” Rather it denotes the abstract concept of accompaniment, which is often expressed by “with” in English, but not necessarily so. In terms of literal translation, “along” does a far better job of maintaining cohesion with the verb, but also accurately and naturally conveying the meaning in English. After I read it, I check and found two others that roughly take this approach:

Barnabas persisted in wanting to take along John, who was called Mark, ISV

Barnabas wanted to take along John Mark. HCSB

But of course, there is still an issue with all four of these. None of them translation the καί, which, I would argue, is necessary for accurately conveying the emphatic nature of the Greek’s καὶ τὸν Ἰωάννην τὸν καλούμενον Μᾶρκον.

And that’s where things got amusing for me in this little search. I decided to check The Message:

Barnabas wanted to take John along, the John nicknamed Mark. The Message

Peterson essentially gets it all right where 15 other committee translations got it wrong.

“Wait,” you say, “He didn’t translate the καί either!” Ah, but there you’d be wrong, though I doubt Peterson did this intentionally. Let me show you why:

When we deal with phrasal verbs such as “take along.” We are invariably going to be dealing with two potential word orders:

Take along X


Take X along

Now, think about how you would say both of these out loud. Which one of them would more likely lead you to place intonational emphasis upon X? I’m willing to bet that you’re more likely to say the second one (that and I’ve already surveyed people in the library where I wrote this). The fronted direct object makes it more appealing.

And that’s exactly how The Message translates the καί, with its English word order.

Who would have expect that The Message would get it right where everyone else failed?

9 thoughts on “Awkward Translation: Ordering Arguments and other Goodies

Add yours

  1. It seems to me that the stylistically preferred position of the particle “along” depends on the length of X. If X is short, then it goes afterward. On the other hand, if X is long then it goes before; otherwise we risk stranding the particle.

    The Free Dictionary gives these examples: “Can I take my friend along on the hike? You should take along your own drinking water.”

    The translator of Acts 15:37 has to decide how the length of English of τὸν Ἰωάννην τὸν καλούμενον Μᾶρκον fits with the position of “along.”

    1. The Free Dictionary’s example is actually more complicated than meets the eye.

      “You should take along your own drinking water.”

      The word “own” by definition marks contrastive focus (your own water – and not someone else’s) for the direct object and is pretty much guaranteed to receive intonational prominence, which makes the shift in word order completely unnecessary. And even still, it sounds just find to say:

      “You should take your own drinking water along.”

  2. Wonderful! Who would have thought that The Message would ever be more literally accurate than ESV?

    One thing you have missed, which I think Stephen was hinting at too, is a general exception in English to the rule “Core Arguments to appear closer to the verb than Oblique Arguments”, which does not apply if the core argument is much longer or “heavier” than the oblique argument. Thus “the doctor removed her kidney with a knife” but “the doctor removed with a knife the kidney of the woman who had just died of renal failure” (trying to make sense of your sentence without the doctor being a sadist!) It could be that some translators judged that “John who was called Mark” was long enough to count as a heavy argument and so appear further away from the verb.

    But I agree that NLT and The Message do the best job here.

  3. I think that it is helpful to view the “core arguments…” statement as a principle rather than a rule. Just as in textual criticism, there are mutually conflicting principles that govern the ordering of clauses. Some are stronger in one language than in another. For instance, the Natural Information Flow value of placing pronouns immediately following the verb, often trumps the core-oblique principle. This is definitely the norm in Biblical Hebrew, where the ordering of the English translations would sound very natural. Peter also raises another principle of moving from simple to complex constituents. Typically the oblique are more complex than the core. In this case, the role is reversed, and therefore is factored in to the ordering.

    You mentioned that there are two focal constituents: John Mark is definitely one of them, not sure what you feel the other is. Since John Mark forms the basis of the argument that follows, he is the more salient (if there really are two). According to Natural Info Flow, one is to move from what is most known to least know, with the focal constituent as close to the end of the clause as the typology allows.

    You raise a valid point about the awkwardness of the translation, but I think that they were trying to capture the salience of John Mark reflected in the Greek. Look at the disclosure of the number of the beast in Revelation 13:18. Why not just state “The number of the beast is…” at the end of v.17? To draw more attention to it. Different situation, but similar principle. John Mark is about to play a critical role, and Luke gives us a grammatical heads up.

    Does this mean that everything that comes last is most important? NOOOOOOOO! It is a PRINCIPLE! In this case, it trumps the core-oblique value.

    1. I think that it is helpful to view the “core arguments…” statement as a principle rather than a rule.

      It depends. I would say that at least for English syntax, it is a rule that core arguments must be closer to the verb for canonical/unmarked constituent ordering. Its only a principle if we ignore pragmatics while writing our rules. When they’re included then it becomes a rule for Information Structure X, while for Information Structure Y would have a different ordering rule, as would Information Structure Z.

      You mentioned that there are two focal constituents

      Perhaps I was unclear there, I’ll have to go back and check. There is only one Focal constituent in the Greek. I was saying that the ASV & NAB by moving “with them” forward beside the verb draw attention to that PP which then conflicts with the Focus placed on John Mark by the “also.” That’s highly distracting and makes it difficult for the reader to recognize what is actually being emphasized.

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