Real Questions: What does “the” mean?
Today marks the beginning of a new series on this blog: “real questions.” The more I teach and study the more I’m convinced that there’s nothing like a good question when it comes to advancing the body of human knowledge. A good question benefits both the asker and the asked! The asker (hopefully) gets an answer that assists and clarifies; the asked has the opportunity to reflect, refine, and reconsider. It’s a win win.
What’s more, when the question is asked in a group setting, everyone gets the benefit of multiple answers. It generates something bigger than the sum of the parts. The Q/A turns into a discussion, and everyone benefits. Win win win.
I spend a LOT of time answering questions sent by email, or in student forums, etc. So I thought it’s time to package these up in a manner more fitting the “group setting.” Let’s discuss together! Below you’ll find the first “real question” (moderately altered for clarity and anonymity) along with my original answer (complete with inaccuracies and weaknesses) as a starting point for discussion. In this series I’m going to commit to only “moderate” editing of my answers–cleaning up grammar or adding/removing sentences for context and clarity. The goal is not “the answer” but (and yes I know this is cheesy) “the search.”
The Question: How to Translate the word “The”
So without further delay, here’s our first question:
It has been very interesting in this class to see how flexible the article can be in Greek. The most surprising areas are when the article is used as a pronoun or as a function marker. But I will say that at times the subtle differences were frustrating and hard to translate. I struggled to distinguish (for example) between the “Well Known” usage of the article and the “Par Excellence,” usage (referring to Wallace’s Syntax p. 101). The exercise in the end felt futile. I ended up just translating the word “the” and could not feel the impact of the exercise in my translation. Now, admittedly, that could be my lack of experience in using that table! But I was hoping that maybe you could share an instance where understanding those articular distinctions added some exegetical significance to your thinking on a passage.
Good thoughts! Remember that we Greek Geeks are nerds at heart. We love to classify things. Those classifications are often helpful because they describe the “linguistic logic” of what’s going on. They express in precise terms how the word or grammar is used; that is, the various kinds of things that writers and speakers ordinarily do with words. There is no abstract and independent “system” out there. The “rules” of grammar are really just descriptions of ordinary usage; they’re not really rules at all. That means (to get to your question) that often a grammar will precisely define two different “types” of usage, but in practice those differences aren’t precise at all.
And often they will translate identically. The English article has similar subtleties to the Greek. I passed a restaurant today called “The Burger Joint.” What’s the function of the article there? Is it trying to imply “this is the burger joint you want to be at–the one all your friends are talking about?” (ie, “Well Known”). Or is it, “this is the perfect Burger Joint, the one that defines what every burger joint should be” (“par excellence”). (I literally thought about that question for at least 10 minutes on my drive home). It’s the same word in both cases; the reader intuitively selects one without much thought (unless you’re a grammar nerd). The point: when translating from the Greek, these subtleties won’t always show up in translation. That’s why it probably feels “low impact.” But such questions are worth thinking about because, though subtle, the rhetorical and semantic functions are different in many contexts. The subtlety can be the difference between appealing to the masses on the one hand (well known), or to the elite on the other (par excellence), and if you had a job in marketing, rather than biblical interpretation, those subtleties could cost you big bucks.
So which is it for “The Burger Joint?” Well-known, or Par-Excellence? I suspect there will be a clear winner if you polled most native English speakers.