Translation is not meaning

One of the downsides of training students to translate in order to understand, is that they very often develop the erroneous notion that translation is meaning. “The meaning of Greek word X is English word Y”, or slightly more complex versions of the same.

No, no, no.

Greek (or whatever language) means what it means, with reference to Greek, with reference to reality, with reference to its referents. Sure, I can concede that “Greek X means English Y” is sometimes just shorthand for “English Y is a suitable translation of Greek Y in this context”, but very often it’s not, it’s shorthand for “Greek X really means English Y, why didn’t they just write in English in the first place and make my life easier.”

Don’t fall for the trap. Figure out meaning first, then figure out how to render that meaning in your other language. That’s what translation is.

(I’m going to start trying to micro-blog more language/Greek/Latin/etc. mini-posts like this)

Mastronarde’s Introduction to Attic Greek

Well let’s have another brief review, shall we?

Mastronarde’s Introduction to Attic Greek dates back to 1993, at least, and has long been in use at UC Berkeley, and elsewhere. A second edition was released in 2013, though I am only familiar with the first edition. Both editions are well supported with some internet resources at http://atticgreek.org/ (2nd edition; a site for the 1st edition thankfully remains online. (A list of changes between editions can be found here)

Mastronarde outlines his pedagogical beliefs in his preface, saying, “My presentation is based on the belief that college students who are trying to learn Greek deserve full exposure to the morphology and grammar that they will encounter in real texts and full explanations of what they are asked to learn.” And the textbook does just that. Mastronarde does not hold back on quite full explanations, and expects (or at least presents) the panoply of Greek morphology through.

Personally, I came to Mastronarde twice – first as an independent learner trying to transition myself from a Koine background to Classical Greek, secondly as a student picking up a class to ‘fix’ my Greek (it was a class covering the second half of Mastronarde, and it was probably worth it though perhaps unnecessary).

Each chapter presents a thorough treatment of new grammatical material with in depth explanations of the reasons for morphological changes and examples of usage patterns. This is followed by vocab to be learnt and then exercises. Exercises include reading/translation passages (Greek > English) and translation exercises (English > Greek).

Mastronarde also states in the preface his aversion to a reading/inductive methodology where students are exposed to a reading text and meant to figure it out by themselves. However, he certainly doesn’t disavow reading itself. The textbook constantly brings the student into encounters with real Greek texts, and the expectation of the author is that the textbook may be used alongside, especially in the second half, the reading of a first Greek text (Xenophon being an obvious candidate).

Personally, I still turn to Mastronarde if I want an explanation for something. It’s in-depth, and yet user-friendly enough that it’s often more useful to read Mastronarde’s treatment of a grammatical topic, than to turn to a reference grammar like Smyth. For those who like a rigourist approach of grammar/morphology/reading/translation, I do recommend Mastronarde to them, as it’s a lot more friendly than, say, H&Q, though no less a stern taskmaster. I’m not sure I’d teach from it, but as usual that’s more due to my pedagogical preferences. Mastronarde is probably one of the better offerings on the market for traditional Classical Greek introductory textbooks.

Hansen and Quinn, An Intensive Course: an even briefer review

The copy I have of this, from the library is from 1980 and is described as a “Preliminary Edition.” A quick look at Amazon tells me that there is a 2nd Revised edition from 1992 though I can’t comment on what changes were made.

Originally written for Summer Greek Intensives in New York, the text certainly lives up to the “Intensive” in the title, trying to deliver 2 years of college level material over 11 weeks (six weeks to cover all the grammar, 5 weeks spent reading Plato and Homer: the book only covers the grammar).

The structure of the material is unrelenting grammatical information, in a classic instructional style (no inductive learning here), with each unit followed by grammatical drills of the Grammar-Translation method: translation, parsing, morphological manipulation, grammatical analysis.

Admittedly I have never used H&Q as a teaching text, nor have I put myself through all its rigours. It does make a handy volume to go through and make one’s own grammatical notes, because the grammar is laid out very clearly through units and numbered sections, and the contents page tells you where to find everything. This is very pleasing to see (if you’re going to have a grammar-based approach, a really clear contents is critical, in some ways more important than a good index).

Would I recommend it? No. It’s like Wheelock’s Latin, but less forgiving.

That said, if you want an old-school, master-all-the-forms approach, H&Q is attractive if only because they lay it out so well. The text lacks up-to-date linguistics, but the exercises are also a smorgasbord of traditionalist training, if that’s what you’re after.

Reading Greek: a review

A short foreword: I thought, thanks to a suggestion, that I’d start blogging my way through reviews of introductory materials in Greek and Latin. I don’t pretend to thoroughness or rigour, just my thoughts on textbooks and readers I’ve dealt with in some way or another. I’ll alternate between Greek and Latin as best I can for the duration of the series. I’m also open to requests.

No further ado required:

Another product of the late 70s, Reading Greek appeared as a joint project (a second edition, much improved, appeared in 2007) under the auspices of the Joint Association of Classical Teachers. It aimed to produce a reading-method text via a “continuous, graded Greek text, adapted from original sources”, and then accompany this with grammar explanations, and exercises. In the first edition, this was done in two volumes, with running vocabulary notes put into the second volume, the first being the main text alone.

The text itself is a tour-de-force. It has nineteen sections, with various subsections, and moves quite rapidly from a heavily adapted ‘framing’ story, to more lightly-adapted material drawn from classical texts (primarily 5th century Attic material, but not entirely). The spread of material through the nineteen section suffers from being uneven (some sections are shorter, others longer), and on the whole moving to too complicated Greek too quickly (a problem with most readers). The removal of the vocabulary to a second volume was a mistake, rectified in the second edition which (a) moved the vocabulary to the same volume, and (b) fixed another glaring problem, the linking device. The first edition had ‘connected works’ marked by a ‘linking device’, and then listed those words as a group in the vocabulary. This was fine in principle, except using the article this way made the vocab a mess.

The grammar presentations in the first edition are cramped, and not particularly user-friendly. They are followed by the usual Grammar-Translation exercises. The formatting in the second edition improves some of the first issue – grammar is presented more readably and with better formatting.

My own experience with RG is really using it as a post-introductory refresher for reading. I haven’t taught from it, and I probably wouldn’t choose to do so. A graded reader is a great idea, but it needs to be incredibly well-formulated if it’s to meet fundamental pedagogic needs, and those require very careful sheltering of vocabulary and scaffolding of grammatical structures, and a ton of repetition. RG doesn’t accomplish this, because it chooses (for some good reasons) to use as much original classical Greek text as it can. This is commendable (students do need to grapple with original texts early, and not with merely ‘composition Greek’), but at the same time difficult (most of our literature that classical Greek students aim to read is ‘high literature’, they need ‘easy’ Greek for pedagogical reasons).

For these reasons, I wouldn’t recommend RG as a primary book for introductory learners. I think it makes a great supplementary reader for introductory learners at least into a second semester, or as a great source for post-introductory learners who should be getting some more extensive reading in. For this purpose, the second edition text + vocabulary book by itself should be sufficient.

There are some follow-on volumes that tackle (1) Homer, Herodotus, and Sophocles, and (2) Euripides, Thucydides, and Plato, as well as a (3)rd Anthology volume. I haven’t read my way through any of these but if I do I promise to give them their own review.

Is over-interpretation a product of grammar based instruction?

I don’t know if it is, but I suspect that it might be. (You’d need a fairly wide-ranging study to establish it)

This past week I’ve been marking some exegetical papers by new second-year Greek students, and as they struggle to turn their grammar-heavy first year knowledge and nascent syntactical analysis into meaningful comments, one of the things that struck me is how repeatedly students would draw theological or other significant conclusions from grammatical features. Very often without warrant.

Partly it might just be the pressure to say intelligent things about grammar that contribute to meaning and fill up one’s word count. But my suspicion is that, having been taught to analyse the grammar of a single language for a single, highly important (for theological reasons) corpus, they are awash in a sea of significant ‘signs’, and so everything has meaning! But not just regular meaning, deep theological truths are concealed in the choice of tense-form, aspect, vocabulary, etc..

I think I am of a different school of thought – grammatical minimalism. I certainly do think that grammar is a very useful way to analyse a text, and it’s a helpful set of meta-jargon for discussing linguistic choices. And some grammatical choices do encode ‘significant’ meaning. But on the whole I’m reluctant to press these points. Restraint and caution are the order of the day. What does the text say? What does it mean? Let’s allow the firmness of our conclusions to rest on the strength of their evidences, and not build castles in the air.

For, in the end, this fanciful grammaticalisation of meaning is the historico-grammatical equivalent of unbounded Allegorism. And equally irresponsible.

Semi-regular rant on Greek language pedagogy

(I’m mostly in the midst of doing a lot of thesis writing, but thought I could take some time out to ride a hobby horse).

  • Knowing a language isn’t a qualification for teaching a language.

We usually think that knowing something is a pre-requisite for teaching it, and generally that’s true. But it’s also not a sufficient pre-requisite. Plenty of people know skills or competencies which they do not have the ability to teach very well. This is why teachers get trained. So they know (a) how to teach as well as (b) the material they will teach.

Why would you think a language was any different? Monoglots Anglophones are particularly susceptible to this delusion: “Oh, you know Spanish, teach so-an-so.” If you’re a monoglot L1 English speaker, have you tried to teach English? It’s not that easy.

Why then do we think that merely being a successful student of Greek or Latin or X-language turns one into a qualified teacher of the same?

  • Having a PhD in Greek linguistics or in New Testament studies indicates almost nothing about how well you can teach Greek.

Most seminaries use their New Testament faculty to teach Greek, on the theory that they’ve studied a lot of Greek and did PhDs with Greek. But following on from point 1, this is only incidentally related to knowing how to teach Greek. This guarantees that the methodologies used in seminary-based education for Greek will continue to passively reproduce ‘they way I was taught’ from generation to generation. Which is not best-practice in the field at all.

  • Knowing a language and knowing about a language are two fundamentally separate things.

Anyone who gets to the end of a grammar-translation based program ought to realise this. Knowing about a language – whether in the terminology of (traditional) grammars or in the jargon of the discipline of linguistics, is not the same as possessing a communicative ability in the language to read/write/listen/speak directly in the language. They are two separate things, and they are acquired separately. Most speakers of an L1 do not develop any significant ability to speak about the grammar of their own language, unless taught it explicitly and formally. Students whose primarily educational content is a grammatical description of their target language should end up with an ability to analyse and interpret it, but any genuine acquisition of the language is incidental, and sometimes accidental.

  • The cost of pursuing acquisition doesn’t mean surrendering analysis.

One of the arguments I most commonly hear against communicative-based approaches to language acquisition for languages such as Greek is that it means students will not learn to do the kind of linguistic analysis that is currently taught. That would only be true if a program were designed exclusively to provide language acquisition and deliberately avoided any meta-language discussion. There is no intrinsic reason why students could not be taught meta-language skills in addition to actual language acquisition. Nor, if we are honest, would it be that problematic or time-consuming to teach them to do so.

  • The cost of pursuing acquisition doesn’t mean “too long, too slow, too little.”

Another of the objections I commonly hear, is that while communicative-based approaches may be possible, they would take too long and too much time to reach their destination, time which programs and students don’t have. To which I have several replies. Firstly, this is largely untested for classical languages – there are so few programs running full-blown communicative-based pedagogies that evaluating whether it actually takes too long is not seriously possible. Assuming that it would is bad research methodology. Secondly, I suspect this is not a concern at the pedagogy of language level, but at the curriculum design of seminaries level. If students and programs don’t have time to actually teach Greek as a language, that’s a decision at the level of what’s important for seminary graduates, and a wrong one in my view.

  • There is a point to pursuing acquisition.

The third common objection that I hear and feel like rambling about today is that there is simply no point or value in developing a communicative ability in Greek. Honestly, I find this baffling. I would never feel like someone whose English corpus was limited to 20,000 Leagues under the sea, and their ability to understand it was limited to sentence diagramming and word by word glossing, was someone who ‘knew English’ and could reliably understand English-language texts. For every modern language we expect Acquisition, not Grammar-Knowledge. Ancient Languages are not categorically different.

  • We do ourselves and our students a disservice by perpetuating Grammar-Translation

The overwhelming consensus in Second Language Acquisition theory and applied linguistics is that G-T is a poor method, and it produces sub-standard results. It’s not best-practice, and we’re kidding ourselves if we think that it is. Continuing to teach generations of students Greek, Latin, insert-other-ancient-language-here via Grammar-Translation, when collectively we know better, is a dishonesty, and the cognitive dissonance should cause us mental discomfort. Demand something better from yourself and for your students.

The Acts of (Paul) and Thecla: a romance about chastity

This past week I’ve been leading a small group (quite small!) through the 2nd century text, ‘The Acts of Paul and Thecla’. It’s a very interesting text which relates the story of how a young betrothed woman in Iconium meets Paul, becomes entranced by the teaching of Christ, goes through various trials, and emerges as an independent Christian teacher and leader.

One of the very intriguing features of the text is that it is essentially an ‘Ancient (Christian) Novel’, drawing on the structures of other ancient novels of the same period, but refracted through a Christian lense. That creates a very interesting dynamic, because ancient novels are, by genre, romances involving a pair of paramours who go through various trials to be united at the end. The Acts of Paul and Thecla is similarly constructed, so that it is a romance between Thecla and Paul. But with a twist! Already by the time of this text a strong strand of early Christianity is placed on sexual chastity, and particularly virginity and abstinence. While Thecla and Paul are depicted in romantic terms, they are in a romance that is united primarily by a devotion and affection for Christ. The sexual undertones are employed to depict the triumph of chastity, and the threats to Thecla repeatedly center around threats to her virginity. In this way the text artfully (re)combines what appear to be two disparate motifs (romance and perpetual chastity) into a romance about chastity in which the narrative climax and resolution is not the sexual union of the two protagonists, but the tension and danger of sexual threat to the female protagonist, and the conquest of that threat and the victory of virginity.

There’s much, I’d say, to find theologically problematic, even disturbing, in this novel, but that’s no reason not to read it. As I keep saying, our knowledge of ‘Koine’ as a language, and our understanding of early Christianity, are only ever enhanced by stepping outside the Canonical Garden.