Don’t use “means” when you mean “translates as”

I’m trying to cultivate a new habit, and the title is it. Everytime I find myself writing something like, “the word ὑπόστασις means “blah de blah blah'”, I stop and rewrite it to something more like, “the word ὑπόστασις translates as ‘blah’ or ‘blech'”.

The reason is that ‘means’ in these cases tends to perpetuate an implicit approach to language that treats it as mere code or cipher, as if other languages really encode ‘meaning’ that is genuine in English. Which is patently false. ὑπόστασις doesn’t mean “subsistence” or “person” or “being”.

On this issue I’m not trying to be some kind of hardline “no, you can never say X in one language ‘means’ Y in another”, but I do think it would serve our writing better to avoid the construction because of its implicit connotations.

This is particularly a problem with Biblical Exegetes and their tendency to say, “Ah, yes, the Greek word ‘means’…English.” Let’s at least start killing that.

4 responses

  1. Interesting. I’ve always thought of it in exactly the opposite way. I make a point of saying in my classes, “What does X _mean_ in Latin?” or “What does X _mean_ in English?” to try to help my students think in terms of expressing meaning rather than just solving a translation puzzle or deciphering a code. But I can see the case for the reverse, though perhaps more in academic writing than in pedagogy.

    • Yes, I’m primarily making a point about academic writing.

      I think, too, that it is indeed very worthwhile discussing, ‘what does “imperium” mean in Latin?’, or pietas, or even just basic words. This is about the meaning of words rather than using ‘means’ to signify ‘is a perfect gloss for English term X’.

  2. This is why context is important. I ask my students: “What is the best way to translate X here?” Then we talk about how a construction (usually Latin, since I teach more Latin than Greek) “maps” onto English. A genitive of content or amount, for example, “maps” well: poculum aquae or multum sanguinis are very similar to “a cup of water” or “a lot of blood”. Other things don’t map so well– cupidus auri, say, or ventum est.–so we talk about “how would we say this in English?”