German language tools on the web

I am currently reading Richard Nordsiek’s Das Thomas-Evangelim: Einleitung Zur Frage des historishen Jesus Kommentierung aller 114 Logien and am finding that my German is more than a little rusty. 😦 I am therefore engaging in a bit of translation practise so that I don’t have to look the vocab up every time I want to refer back to the bits about my particular text sections and also to force myself to think carefully about what is being said. Not to mention the fact that I actually enjoy the challenge of translating from one language to another.

I offer the following comments about German to English translation tools on the web:

  • LEO on-line dictionary is excellent! It offers a comprehensive list of ways of translating German words into English, including idiomatic uses. If it can’t find the word you’ve typed in its database, it also offers you a list of options that might be related to it on the basis of the word patterns in it. LEO’s base language is German and it only provides meanings of German words in English, Italian, Spanish, French and Chinese. You cannot look up, for example, a French word in LEO and find the English meaning, although it does do English to German as well as German to English.

None of the sites that offer translations of blocks of German are particularly good (no surprises here) so if you have never learned German at anything above a tourist level, don’t expect that you will be able to read theological German using only an on-line translation tool.  However, if you are just stuck on a particular sentence where you understand all the words individually but can’t make sense of how they’ve been put together in this particular context, there are three sites that I have found helpful, especially when used in combination.  They are:

  • Google translate: this is generally the best. It seems to be better able to tell from the context when Funk is an author’s name, rather than a radio, for example, and it also seems to have a wider vocabulary and to be better able to come up with sensible meanings for the compound words so beloved of Germans. It is by no means perfect, however.
  • Arthropolis transtlation: provides amusement from its translation of people’s names and is not so good with compound words, but sometimes selects a better option for translating particular idioms.
  • Provides a third perspective which is also sometimes helpful.  Has the same drawbacks as Arthropolis and provides the most wooden English, but …

(All of these also provide translation between a range of other languages.)

And when you get desperate for a particular word that you can’t find in a dictionary, there’s always ordinary Google which will often identify the names of famous (but not to you) people and provide definitions of technical terms that haven’t been included in your education.

My two new terms for the week are Weckformel and corpus permixtum. If I understand it correctly, Weckformel means “alertness formula” and was coined by Dibelius to refer to the “let anyone who has ears, hear” formula that is found in Revelation 2:7 and its Synoptic parallels (or maybe only the Synoptic parallels).  Corpus permixtum means “mixed body” and refers to Augustine’s argument against the Donatist heresy – that  that the church could not be a pure body because was a mixed body of saints and sinners. I suspect that my lack of familiarity with the latter is due to my having discovered that early church history was not compulsory for ordination and that I therefore did not need to sit through two semesters of classes from arguably the worst lecturer in the theological faculty at the time.  I don’t see myself needing to use either term any time soon, but at least I will understand them if I find them again. 🙂

And even when translating for my own personal use, I find myself trying to decide where I should walk on the line between an absolutely literal translation and one that reads more smoothly in English.


I am informed by my German friend that the bits of Nordsiek’s writing that I am finding hard going are actually written in very difficult German. Perhaps my German is not as rusty as I had thought.  🙂

A translation assumption in Layton’s Coptic grammar

I was somewhat gobsmacked (can you be “somewhat gobsmacked”, or is that akin to saying “almost a virgin”?) to read the following comment made by Layton in talking about how he chose his examples:

There is no reason to doubt that Biblical Sahidic Coptic is normal, idiomatic, and polished in character even thought its wording and rhetoric are also governed by the Greek original. (xii)

This brought me to a stop in my reading. As Layton says (albeit much less colloquially) in his opening chapter, there is much about how Coptic operated that we don’t know because it hasn’t been a spoken daily language for around a millennium. He also says that the Nag Hammadi texts “whose language resembles Sahidic display a non-Standard mix of isoglosses, sometimes fluctuating, from all over Egypt” (xii) so he has omitted them. I have no difficulty with the idea that the Biblical Sahidic in the oldest manuscripts is polished. I am less sure that it is necessarily either normal or idiomatic.

I think it is eminently sensible of him to chose the Sahidic Bible and the writings of Apa Shenoute (which he also uses) as the standard for Standard Sahidic because the corpora that we have available are those, Nag Hammadi and non-literary material such as personal, magical, legal and medical texts.  I think it making too sweeping an assumption to say that religious texts, especially those translated from another language are either normal or idiomatic, though. Certainly, most modern English bible translations  are neither particularly normal nor particularly idiomatic and there are loud cries of dismay when a version comes out that attempts more normal and idiomatic usage (and no, I don’t think I’m confusing this with colloquial usage, which is definitely not well accepted – I am thinking about how well the TEV/Good News is accepted in most church circles).

While we have no evidence that the Copts were like us in this, we have no evidence that they weren’t either.  I think it would be safer to assume that the Sahidic Coptic Bible and the writings of Apa Shenoute are good examples of polished, formal, religous Sahidic and since it’s what we’ve got to work with, to use it as the standard. Even in my limited reading of the Nag Hammadi Sahidic corpus, I  have come across examples where a word is clearly using the spelling of another dialect, so I would not doubt his expert judgement about the isoglosses in it.  I just don’t think we can assume that religious documents are necessarily good examples of normal idiomatic usage and I think that there have been times when too-broad assumptions that “everybody knows” have blinded people to important discoveries for too long in the past.

Dynamic equivalence and inclusive language

In response to my previous post on dynamic equivalence, Mike Grondin asked some questions about my approach to inclusive language on the Gospel of Thomas email list. In particular he asked

  1. why I think that “kingdom” excludes women since women can be both subjects and rulers?
  2. why worry about the word “kingdom” when Coptic Thomas talks about the “kingdom of the Father”?

Seeing I am sure that not all readers of this blog also belong to the email list and I thought these were very good questions that made me think further about the issue, here are my responses in a somewhat more considered form than my response on-list:

Re Question 1:

I don’t think that the notion of  kingdom actually excludes women.  It simply makes them into second class citizens. Growing up as a woman in a British Commonwealth country, I have known ever since I was quite small that a kingdom is a place where men are privileged above women in the leadership stakes. We’ve had a queen for as long as I have been alive, but only because Elizabeth had no brothers. Although Princess Anne was her second child, as soon as her younger brothers were born, she was moved down the list of those in line to the throne to third and then fourth. While the wife of a king is a queen, the husband of a queen who is ruling in her own right is only a prince. A king or queen can have twenty daughters and their succession to the throne is in birth order, but as soon as a son is born, he gets shunted straight to the top of the line. This is why England has only had six queens in modern history – two Elizabeths, two Marys, an Ann and a Victoria. To give you some sense of how few this is, Elizabeth II’s father was George VI and his father was Edward VIII, then there were at least 8 Henrys, 4 Williams and quite a few James and Charles.

Because Commonwealth countries are constitutional monarchies, we all learn this stuff at school. It is quite clear to us that a kingdom is a place where a male is in charge unless there is no male available.  A woman in charge is always the last resort and the choice is based on chromosomes, not ability. Of course, it doesn’t work like this in all countries and in the US, I suspect that this kind of gendered hierarchy is not so deeply engrained and obvious.

In addition, if Crum is to be believed, Coptic speakers didn’t have the option of an alternative to MeNTERO to talk about the concept that we name “kingdom”, so the writer of Gos Thom didn’t deliberately choose a term which has masculine overtones – that was the only option available to express the desired concept.

Re Question 2

The term “Father” is the title, or  one of the titles,  of the current ruler. It doesn’t say anything about who’s allowed to be ruler, just who is currently in charge. The fact that the author of  Gos Thom has chosen to use  “Father” rather than “God” is at least as likely to be because the term “Father” emphasises the relational aspect of the divine as that the divine is conceptualised in masculine terms. I think the use of Father lines up with the notion that we are reading the secret sayings of Jesus that only those “in the know” get to hear.  Surely the readers of this kind of thing would be encouraged to think about the divine in the closer “Father” terms rather than the more distant “God” terms?

Comments, anyone?

Dynamic equivalence in translation

I finally found time to have a look at Jim Getz’s Biblical Studies Carnival XLII, which contains links to some interesting posts and also has a Hitchhiker’s theme, so is doubly awesome. On it, I found links to AKMA’s series on exegesis.  The first post made me to think  about the whole issue of translation, how biblical scholars approach it, and why we approach it that way.

As I type, the SheepWorld glasses case that my daughter brought back for me from her student exchange to Germany is sitting on my desk. It says “ohne Mama is alles doof” and it has cartoon pictures of a range of things that are “doof” without Mama.  Now LEO, my favourite on-line German dictionary, tells me that doof can mean: daft; ditzy(Amer.); dopey; dumb; foolish; gormless (Brit.); or silly. The two big paper dictionaries we own say similar things and my daughter’s school German text-book translates it as “dumb”, so she is hesistant about adopting my contemporary Australian translation: “Without Mum, everything’s lame”, despite the facts that this is so much closer to the way she normally speaks than “everything’s dumb” and she only ever calls me Mama when she’s speaking German. I would argue that my translation gives your average Aussie a better feel for the intent of the words, even though the dictionary doesn’t give “lame” as an option for “doof” – clearly an example of dynamic equivalence. Dare I suggest that it also  displays a more sophisticated grasp of the relationship between the two languages?

Recently, I read a blog post where  someone was lamenting the fact that Bible translations are often wooden and unpleasant to read, unlike a good translation of some of the classic authors of antiquity. My response was “well, yes, but it doesn’t matter if they lose something in the translation – no-one is going to start a war over the way Pliny is interpreted.” All this has set me wondering about my own approach to translating Scripture and to translating Thomas and whether they’re different.

I know that when I translate both the Christian canon and Gospel of Thomas, I lean much further towards formal equivalence than I do when translating the words on glasses cases, mugs and T-shirts. The genres are, of course, entirely different and my translation goals are different, too. The text on glasses cases, mugs and T-shirts is generally only trying to convey one idea, although sometimes you simply can’t get it across in translation. Even my monolingual husband can hear that “Ich habe zehn Zehen, aber du kannst sie nicht sehen” loses something in the English  “I have ten toes but you can’t see them.” And I’m sure this is not nearly as amusing if you haven’t been part of the community of my daughter’s year at school where “I have toes” is the standard response when someone doesn’t want to answer a question.  As in: “Have you started that assignment yet?” “Um…I have toes?” Or a random comment to break an awkward silence. Or… but I guess you just had to be there. 🙂

It wasn’t until I started studying theology that I had any real sense that the writers of the Bible deliberately used various sorts of word play, including double and triple meanings, to convey ideas that we simply can’t get across in English translation without clumsy circumlocutions or footnotes.  It’s quite possible that they also used “in jokes” that we’re simply not aware of because we’re not part of the community out of which the text arose. It hadn’t occurred to me that there might be funny bits in the Bible, which, after all is “inspired by God” and therefore “holy”, whatever you might understand by those terms.

So, what I am trying to do when I translate the texts I work with? When I work with the Canon for teaching and preaching purposes, I want a gender-inclusive text because I believe that we have sufficient evidence to believe that Jesus/God intended us to have a gender-inclusive community. I get cross when people insist on translating anthropos as “men”, thus taking an inclusive Greek word and making it into an exclusive English one. OTOH, I tend to lean towards “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did no master it” for John 1: 5 because, despite its masculine overtones,  “master” is the only English word I know that picks up the sense of the Greek katelaben – both understood and overcome are possible translations and I think this is intentional.  (I need to add that this is not an original thought – Prof Nigel Watson suggested it when he was teaching John’s gospel at the United Faculty of Theology – my theological alma mater). My other solution is to say “the darkness neither understood nor overcame it.” Here, I am using dynamic equivalence to get the idea behind the word across, whilst maintaining the inclusivity of the text. And, of course, I am making a judgement call in saying that I think that the author of John’s gospel was deliberately using a word that conveyed both those meanings.

When I started work on my PhD, I had as a working title “The parables of the Realm in the Gospel of Thomas and their parallels in the canonical Synoptic Gospels”. This arose out of my commitment to inclusive language translations and one of the academics who attended my preliminary presentation seminar suggested that this wasn’t a good enough reason to drop the word “kingdom”. I now talk about the “parables of the Reign in the Gospel of Thomas” because in Thomas it is quite clear that although the term MeNTERO (from eReRO – king) is used, the emphasis is clearly on the act of reigning rather than on the sphere in which the reigning is taking place. The fact that it also satisfies my desire for inclusivity is a definite bonus. 🙂 It does mean, however, that I often have to say reign/kingdom because people tend not to make the link between reign and kingdom as readily as they do between realm and kingdom.

The problem, of course, with dynamic equivalence is that it sometimes makes it more difficult to get behind the translation to the original text, so if I am wrong in my assumptions about what the author was trying to convey, my reader has less chance of working out for her- or himself what the author (or God?) really intended. I am leading him or her up my personal theological garden path, which may get them into trouble. But then, unless my reader has a fairly good facility in the original language of the text, s/he is quite capable of making wrong assumptions anyway. I can’t remember any specific example off the top of my head, but I have a number of times listened to a preacher interpreting a piece of Scripture based on English synonyms, syntax or idiom and thought “but you can’t do that in Greek”.

I am far less worried about the possibility of making wrong assumptions about the mind of God in my research than in my preaching. I think this is partly because, as I said above, people are not going to start a war or make life-changing judgements about themselves or others on the basis of what I say in my thesis/dissertation. I don’t have that kind of authority in the sphere of academia. They are probably not going to start a war on the basis of my preaching, either, but could easily make wrong judgement calls. The fact that I am ordained means that people will often pay more attention to me than they do to lay people. It is also partly because just about everyone who is going to read the results of my research has a sufficiently high level of biblical and linguistic sophistication to understand the limitations of what I am saying whereas most of those who listen to my preaching don’t.

AKMA expresses dissatisfaction that his students tend to express their exegetical views as questions of the “could it be this?” type, rather than as assertions, and I understand both why he wants this and why the students don’t feel confident to do it. The more I work in the field, however, the more I am inclined to make assertions such as “on the balance of probability, it seems that X is true because Y” rather than “as you can see, X is clearly true.” And I guess that part of this is trying to steer the middle road between dynamic and formal equivalence in my translation. 🙂

New Features on Grondin’s Interlinear site

Mike Grondin has added some new features to his Gospel of Thomas in Context website. You can now access the Gospel of Thomas saying by saying using a split screen format that gives you access to Mike’s interlinear Coptic/English version with notes in one part of the screen, together with the English translations by:

  • Thomas O. Lambdin in Robinson, ed., 1988. The Nag Hammadi Library
  • Beate Blatz, as in Schneemelcher, 1991. New Testament Aprocrypha
  • Stephen Patterson & James Robinson, 1998, in The Fifth Gospel

in the other screen. Mike has added to his interlinear version the Jesus Seminar voting on the likely authenticity of the saying in question found in Robert Funk and Roy Hoover’s The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus: New Translation and Commentary. New York, Toronto: Macmillan, 1993 and April DeConick’s categorisation of the saying as Kernel or group one or group two accretion as found in her bookRecovering the Original Gospel of Thomas: A History of the Gospel and its Growth. London: T&T Clark, 2005.

Well worth a visit!!

PS – please excuse the funny formatting of the dates, above. If I put them in parentheses, it appears that browsers will read the html wrongly and produce emoticons!!