Translation Hints

Expressing Greek in English--translation strictly speaking--is a secondary aim. One's principal aim should be to understand the Greek directly as it is read, in the order that the words are presented, without the intervention of English. This requires long practice, of course, but can be cultivated by studying each selection until it can be read in this manner, after you know all the words and their usage.

The procedures explained here are those that seem most effective to me for achieving this end; ideally, they are carried out simultaneously, but can be consciously performed serially while studying a section and gaining skill. First, words should be recognized as verbs, nouns (in the broad sense, including adjectives and infinitives used as nouns), and other words. The cases of nouns must be appreciated; they tell the roles of the nouns in the sentence. One of the great joys of Greek (and Latin) is that the cases permit words to be grouped by meaning and relation, not in an order expressing their grammatical relations. This frees word order for other uses, such as style, emphasis, and poetry. A nominative names the thing under discussion in the sentence; an accusative identifies a noun directly involved in what is said, either as an object or adverbially; datives and genitives mark nouns describing the action, or involved in limited relations, such as objects of prepositions or genitive absolutes. Learn to grasp the relations expressed by case directly, without rearranging the words so that English word order expresses the relations. This is a very satisfying thing to learn.

Verbs have person, number, tense, mood, and voice. Greek uses finite verbs (with personal endings), infinitives, and participles (with noun endings), the latter two much more frequently than in English. Tense and mood, and to a certain extent voice, are rather different from English. Present and aorist are the most popular tenses, and refer more to continuing and completed actions than to English present and past. The verb stem may be quite different in the two tense systems. When any other tense is used, it has a special, important meaning: this refers to the imperfect, future, perfect and pluperfect. These tenses are rare enough that it is worth analyzing every appearance of them, and making sure that you know why the choice was made.

Mood includes indicative, subjunctive, optative, imperative, infinitive, and participle. Subjunctive and optative are the special ones here, like unusual tenses, and again say something important. Most of the meanings for which would, could, should, might, and so on, are used in English are expressed in Greek by verb moods and conjunctions or particles, not by auxiliary verbs. Participial phrases are used in preference to dependent clauses. The shift from indicative to accusative and infinitive expresses hearer beware, which in modern languages generally is subjunctive.

Divide your work into handy sections that you will be able to understand as a whole. Read a section through, noting the unfamiliar words and forms. Look these up in a lexicon, which is not always as easy as it sounds. The lexicon will give hints on meaning, usage, and inflection. Writing these words down, with explanatory notes and related words, is a great help. Now go back to the text, and identify groups of related words that express single thoughts. Good Greek is written in this way, as a series of elemental thoughts that form a sentence when put together. As an example, consider the following sentence from Herodotus, II, 177, which says: "Solon the Athenian, getting this from Egypt, established the law for the Athenians."


The three elemental thoughts are displayed, each understandable by itself, and when put together in sequence make a complete sentence. If you need to, mark the word groups in your text so that you can see them clearly. In Greek, words that go together will be together. If, after a little work, a sentence does not make sense, you may be putting a word or two with the wrong group. When you get it right, everything will be clear.

In the example, we were almost able to preserve the Greek word order, except that we had to put the verb first in the last clause. Even when you are trying for a literal translation, it is necessary to rearrange the order of words. There is no place for conscious memorization in all this. If you follow the procedure, writing things down and reading for comprehension, you will learn rapidly and surely, establishing the proper mental connections. In conclusion, it should be said that the whole value and joy in this is in the journey, not the arrival.

Return to Pharaoh

Composed by J. B. Calvert
Last revised 14 July 1999