Asking New Testament students to provide a translation of a known (chapter/verse) NT text in an exam or exegetical paper is a waste of time. It tests nothing and it discriminates nothing.
Every student ought to be getting 90-100% on this part of an assessment anyway, because either:
- they are smart enough to check any translation they do with several English versions and realise their errors beforehand
- they are smart and a little unscrupulous and are just going to vary an existing English version anyway.
- if it’s an exam situation, and it’s a set text, then all we are testing is their preparation, not their ability to read Greek.
Why are we even asking them to do translations anyway? They are unlikely to create a translation that is genuinely better or meaningfully different from the hyper-abundance of English versions already in existence. And, assuming that this is a paper and not an exam, as an examiner I gain almost zero insight into their Greek ability or their understanding of the text, unless they stuff it up horribly. Even on an exam, I am testing an unrealistic environment and their ability to read Greek under pressure but with the real question of “what did they prepare and how well?”
Consider what translation is meant to be testing.
- Their ability to read Greek.
- Their ability to translate
- Their understanding of grammar.
In reverse order:
Understanding grammar: Yes, it’s true that asking someone to translate something is a fast and relatively effective way to see if they understand it. But a set translation doesn’t do that, and a set text doesn’t do that either. Knowledge of the English is too strong an interference.
And, if we are asking students to translate in a way that demonstrates their knowledge of the grammar (as I unfortunately have to instruct some of my tutoring students to do), we are training them to be bad translators.
If you want to test explicit grammar knowledge, just ask explicit grammar questions. It’s that simple.
Ability to translate:
Translation is a skill, and it’s a high order one, not a low order one. It requires a real and comprehensive ability in both the source and target languages. Most translation exercises are a test in the students ability to reproduce “Biblish” English.
If we genuinely wanted to test (and train!) translation ability, we would set translation tasks/assessments in which the translation target was specified in demanding ways: Basic English, Anglish, a specific Flesch Reading Ease score, Poetry, highly idiomatic, highly regionalised, etc., etc..
Ability to read Greek:
In some ways it’s difficult to easily, accurately, and comprehensively assess someone’s ability to read Greek. It’s certainly possible to, for instance, ask questions in Greek. But then you are also testing their ability to comprehend the questions. And, you run into ‘form’ problems – if you understand the form of the question, and the answer, you can answer a foreign language question without actually understanding the question or its answer. I did this a great deal in Mongolian because of my “fake it till you make it” philosophy.
I think you might till test this via translation, if you want to, but by varying a few factors. Firstly, in exams simply remove all chapter and verse markings. maybe even punctuation. You don’t need to make them read undivided uncials though, unless you are cruel.
Secondly, you could also provide texts that are single-manuscript sources, rather than eclectic texts. Students easily get used to the sanitised versions of ‘text’ that critical editions give them. Throw them into the wild and have them read something more like this:
ειπ]ε[ν ουν] αυτοις ο ι̅η̅· α[μην αμην λεγ]ω̣ υμιν̣ [οτι εγω ειμι η θυρα των
π̣ροβατ̣ω̣ν· παντες οσοι̣ [ηλθον κλεπτα]ι εισιν και λησται· α̣[λλ ουκ η
κουσεν αυτων τα προβατα[· εγω ειμι η] θ̣υ[ρ]α· δι εμου εαν τις εισ[ελθη σωθη
σεται· και εισελευσεται· και εξ[ε]λ[ε]υσεται· και νομην ευρησει· [ο κλεπτης
ουκ ερχεται ει μη ϊνα κλεψη και θυση και απολεση· εγω η̣[λθον
ϊνα ζωην εχωσι· και περισσον εχωσιν·
(John 10:7-10 from P45)
If they were classical Greek students tackling a NT class, you can be meaner. Convert a NT text into Ionian, or similar mean tricks.
Anyway, my point is simple – asking students to produce a ‘standard’-esque translation of a Greek NT text is not a very useful assessment tool because it doesn’t test anything very useful, and doesn’t provide any real discrimination among students. So it’s neither providing any valuable feedback to me as a teacher, nor is it spreading the student field in any meaningful way, so giving them all 10/10 is the same as giving them 0/10 for it. Yes, by all means students should probably go on translating NT texts as part of their studies, it won’t harm them (much), but let’s give up assessing them with it.