What Goes Wrong when we Translate the Grammar
As with words, it makes intuitive sense that a translation should convey the grammar of the original.
But, again, our intuition leads us astray.
Here’s an example of what can go wrong if we try to mimic the grammar of one language when we translate it into another.
English and French
With rare exception, adjectives in English come before the nouns they modify. So in English we have “the good man,” not “the man good.” For this reason, when the Greek mneuma (“spirit”) and agion (“holy”) are combined to form the Greek mneuma agion, the English translation is not “spirit holy” but rather “holy spirit.”
Most adjectives in French go after the noun. So from un homme (“a man”) and americain (“American”) we have the French un homme americain, or, in translation, “an American man,” not “a man American.”
French is sometimes like English. The French word for “good” is bon, and we see how it’s used in the French phrase un bon homme, which becomes “a good man” in translation. The obvious (but, I think, wrong) reasoning is that we don’t change the order because the French word order makes sense in English.
Every so often English allows adjectives to follow the noun, as in, “he is interested in all things American.”
And every so often, French allows both word orders: pauvre means “poor,” and we find both un pauvre homme and un homme pauvre in French. The first one naturally becomes “a poor man.” But what about the second? Should we try to make it “a man poor”? That exact wording doesn’t work. But maybe “a man who is poor” is better? At least that one mimics the word order.
Similarly, we have both un homme ancien and un ancien homme. The first one can’t be “a man ancient” — that’s not English — so the obvious choice is “an ancient man.” And it turns out that that’s the right translation.
But what about un ancien homme? Based on what we just saw — “an ancient man” is, after all, grammatical in English — it would seem obvious that the translation should just be “an ancient man.” But that’s wrong, because un ancien homme means “a former man,” that is, someone who used to be a man. (It’s a potentially odd concept. Another illustration comes from chateau ["castle"]. The French un chateau ancien means “an ancient castle,” but un ancien chateau means “a former castle,” for example, a restaurant or museum that that used to be a castle.)
What’s going on is this: Adjectives in French sometimes change meaning depending on whether they appear before or after the noun. The naive strategy of looking only at the words and their order has led us astray. Even the first French example above, with un pauvre homme and un homme pauvre, is problematic. Both French phrases translate to “a poor man” in English, but with different meanings: the first one means “a pitiful man” while the second means “a not-rich man.”
So we see that the grammaticality of the mimicked word order is no guarantee of a successful translation.
More generally, there’s a common intuitive strategy among Bible translators of mimicking the word order of the Hebrew or Greek in English, unless the English isn’t grammatical. We now see that that doesn’t work. Sometimes the word order will be grammatical and still wrong, and sometimes the correct translation involves changing the word order.
More generally yet, we see that what one language does with word order, another does with vocabulary.
And even more generally than that, we learn that translating the words and grammar separately doesn’t work. They have to be translated together.