Knowing Your Grammar Is Important!

By Dr. Benjamin Shaw

Knowledge of the vagaries of vocabulary is only one of the tools a translator must have as he approaches the translation of a text. The translator must also have an intimate knowledge of the grammars of two different languages - the language he is translating from and the language he is translating into. All languages, even languages that are closely related, have differences in grammar. Some of these differences are big and some are small. An example of a small difference would be the fact that in most Romance languages (Spanish, for example) an adjective follows the noun that it modifies. In English, the adjective precedes the noun it modifies. Thus the Spanish rio grande means "big river." The Spanish word rio (river) is a noun modified by the adjective grande (big). In turning that phrase into English, the translator has to follow the grammar of English, rather than the grammar of Spanish. Thus, the translator of rio grande would not write "river big" but "big river." Otherwise he has an English phrase in Spanish syntax (syntax is the part of grammar that deals with the relationships of words to one another in phrases, clauses, and sentences).

An example of a bigger difference in grammar is the fact that in many languages the various verb forms have a built-in pronoun subject. This is not the case in English. In English, a separate subject word (either a noun or a pronoun) must be provided for each verb. For example, the Latin amo, means "I love." It can’t mean "you love," which would be amas. But in English, the same word "love" can take a different word as a subject. Thus "love" could be paired with I, you, we, and they. Or it could be paired with "John and Nancy," indicating a compound subject. In Syriac, as in Latin, a pronoun subject is built into each finite verb form. But if a specific noun subject is intended, that noun is provided, and the "built-in" pronoun is ignored. An example in Latin would be Paulus amat. Literally speaking, that would come over into English as "Paul (he) loves." In translation, of course, the now unnecessary "he" is dropped and the result is "Paul loves."

The biggest difference in grammar is often in the area of syntax. In English, the normal syntax for a sentence is subject-verb-object, such as: "John threw the stick." The subject is "John," the verb is "threw," and the object (the recipient of the action of the verb) is "the stick." In Semitic languages such as Hebrew and Aramaic, the ordinary word order is verb-subject-object. For example, Genesis 1:1 is (in Hebrew/Aramaic word order): "In the beginning created God the heavens and the earth." For the most part, the syntax is the same as English, except for the fact that the verb "create" precedes the subject "God." In order to turn this into proper English, the translator must switch the Semitic word order to the English word order. If he doesn't he will, in a certain sense, be literally correct, but he will cause unnecessary confusion to the reader.

Sometimes, however, a Semitic sentence will not follow the usual word order. It may put the subject first (as in English). It may put the object first. Or it may put the subject after the object. This kind of variation in the word order is usually done for the purpose of emphasis (putting the object first would usually indicate that the object is, for some reason, being emphasized). The difficulty here for the translator is the decision as to whether or not it is possible to show that emphasis in English without making the translation too cumbersome. For example twice in Genesis 1:28 the subject "God" follows the object "them." This probably indicates something like, "and them (that is, man) God blessed, and to them God said." But English translations don't commonly do it that way, resulting in the English reader missing the emphasis.

Author's Bio: Dr. Shaw was born and raised in New Mexico. He received his undergraduate degree at the University of New Mexico in 1977, the M. Div. from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 1980, and the Th.M. from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1981, with an emphasis in biblical languages (Greek, Hebrew, Old Testament and Targumic Aramaic, as well as Ugaritic). He did two year of doctoral-level course work in Semitic languages (Akkadian, Arabic, Ethiopic, Middle Egyptian, and Syriac) at Duke University. He received the Ph.D. in Old Testament Interpretation at Bob Jones University in 2005. Since 1991, he has taught Hebrew and Old Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, a school which serves primarily the Presbyterian Church in America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, where he holds the rank of Associate Professor.

Copyright Statement: Article from 'Aramaic Thoughts', Week of April 23 - 29, 2006, Copyright 2002-2006 © Benjamin Shaw. 'Aramaic Thoughts' articles may be reproduced in whole under the following provisions: 1) A proper credit must be given to the author at the end of each story, along with a link to  2) 'Aramaic Thoughts' content may not be arranged or "mirrored" as a competitive online service.