The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

Jan 18, 2011

Review of Toshikazu S. Foley's Biblical Translation in Chinese and Greek: Verbal Aspect in Theory and Practice (part 1 of 2: summary)

Although I have already posted a favorable review on Amazon.com, I felt the need to provide a more extensive view of Foley's work for those who might be interested. The first section will consist of summary; the second section, to be posted later in the week, will consist of critique.

Review of Toshikazu S. Foley, Biblical Translation in Chinese and Greek: Verbal Aspect in Theory and Practice ( Linguistic Biblical Studies 1; Leiden: Brill, 2009).

Toshikazu S. Foley’s Biblical Translation in Chinese and Greek: Verbal Aspect in Theory and Practice, the inaugural work in the new series Linguistic Biblical Studies (ed. Stanley S. Porter), represents a major contribution to the fields of Chinese Bible translation and verbal aspect theory. More importantly, Foley’s work remains one of the few, if not only, attempts to apply verbal aspect theory (hereafter referred to as VAT) to the realm of non-English Bible translation.
While Biblical Translation in Chinese and Greek is not a perfect book and is of less value for those who do not accept Stanley Porter’s views on VAT, it nevertheless stands out as a thoroughly-researched contribution to the field of Biblical linguistics and translation. It excels in attempting to bridge the gap between the theoretical and practical and thus endures as an absolutely necessary resource for those seriously contemplating work in Bible translation.
The reader should heed the following warning, however: Biblical Translation in Chinese and Greek is a highly technical work that interacts with multiple languages (often on the same page) and presupposes that the reader possesses a rudimentary knowledge of VAT and Mandarin Chinese.
The following review will provide an extensive overview of Foley’s work, offer a critique, discuss Foley’s brief interaction with Japanese (not to be confused with his interaction with Chinese), and then finish with an analysis of the overall usefulness of this book.
(Those interested only in the critique should skip to the middle of page 4)
Foley, who received his doctorate at McMaster Divinity College (2008), opens with a brief discussion of “Typographical Conventions.” In this section he discusses how emphasis, chapter breaks, etc. will be rendered with the Chinese font. He also mentions the controversy surrounding the Chinese rendering of the Hebrew Tetragrammaton, concluding that “Nuótá seems to provide a plausible remedy to the current terminological debate for God in Chinese” (xxii). He concludes by stating that he will be using the Mandarin personal pronouns in reference to God rather than divinity pronouns, since the former are more consistent with Biblical Greek and Hebrew.
In chapter one, “Introduction,” Foley sets out the outline and thesis to his book. He laments the fact that much translation work in Chinese has relied on a knowledge of English and Greek with only a rudimentary familiarity with the Chinese verb system. Foley declares, “The obstacles in Chinese Bible translation persist today not because of a lack of interest in the subject, but rather because of a vacuum in the scholarship of direct interaction between Greek and Chinese” (2). In contrast to most works, Foley seeks to facilitate the “grammatical translation of New Testament Greek aspect into Mandarin aspect at the discourse level” (2).
Chapter two provides an extensive overview of the various attempts to translate the Bible into Mandarin Chinese. Foley begins with the early work of the Nestorians, providing a wealth of information both on their literature and on their translation of key theological terms (especially interesting is his discussion of how the Nestorians utilized Buddhist terms in their work). He next discusses the early Roman Catholic work, beginning with Giovanni da Montecorvino in the 13th century but also giving special attention to Jean Basset as “the most significant and influential” translator (17). He next provides a history of Protestant translation work before proceeding to discuss the various styles of translation (classical vs. literary, etc.), the controversy over how to translate the Greek βαπτίζω , the major Bible versions in Mandarin, and Chinese Bible versions by native speakers.
The second section of chapter two provides a brief overview of Bible translation work in general, focusing especially on the contribution of Eugene Nida. He is mildly critical of Nida’s work and argues that “Nida introduces mutually exclusive categories of formal and functional equivalence and by so doing exaggerates the traditional dichotomy between literal versus free translation, a problem that is most conspicuous in his handling of figurative speech” (39). Foley points out that in Chinese (in contrast to English), a literal rendering of “bowels of mercy” (Philippians 1:8) actually makes sense since the Chinese expression Xicháng, which, as a compound, “generally means heart” and is composed of the two Chinese characters for heart and intestines (39). Thus, “in this case, a literal translation of the Greek word into Chinese is actually consistent with Nida’s principles of functional equivalence,” and those Chinese versions (e.g. the TCV) which do not consider the literal expression in Greek are in error (39).
Foley proceeds to discuss various contributions to discourse analysis in Chinese before outlining his own methodology. Foley argues that “Greek aspect can be translated into Mandarin solely by grammatical means” and that “Greek and Mandarin both grammaticalize three aspects: perfective, imperfect, and stative aspects” (48). He then points out some key grammatical and syntactical differences between Biblical Greek and Mandarin. He also argues that ambiguous texts in Greek and Hebrew should be kept as ambiguous as possible (e.g. Acts 24:19, where “the decision of determining the exact conditional type should be left to the reader”). Foley closes with a very brief discussion of the role of the Bible translator, arguing that it “resembles that of a spokesperson of ancient authority, whose voice can only be heard through faithful and diligent study of the biblical texts” (56).
Chapter three provides an overview of VAT in Chinese and Greek. He begins with a brief conceptual overview of VAT, taking care to distinguish it from Aktionsart (aspect being the subjective view of the speaker/writer and Aktionsart being an objective description of the type of action taking place [e.g. iterative, punctiliar, etc.]). He also discusses the concept of “binary opposition” in aspect, where the perfective aspect is paired opposite the imperfective. At this point, Foley begins to focus his discussion on key contributors to VAT in Chinese, especially Carlota Smith, Zeno Vendler, Robert Morrison, and Wang Li.
After reviewing a plethora of scholars and their methodology, Foley briefly discusses the methodology he adopts which “assumes that Mandarin does not have tense, but rather operates on a well-developed system of aspect” (102). The “+ perfective” aspect is paired in opposition to the “- perspective” aspect, and under the latter “the imperfective aspect is paired opposite the stative aspect” (103). Foley also emphasizes the concept of “markedness,” arguing that “the notions of lexical and grammatical markedness are pertinent to Bible translation” (103). Indeed, “foregrounded and frontgrounded prominence are achieved by lexical markedness in Mandarin” (104). Foley further proceeds to explain and demonstrate how exactly Mandarin expresses aspect.
In the second half of this chapter, Foley examines modern contributions to VAT in New Testament Greek. He notes all of the major contributors to the field (e.g. McKay, Porter, Decker, Fanning, Mateos) and provides a more-or-less fair discussion of each, though it is clear from this section that Foley himself heavily favors Stanely Porter’s (and Rodney Decker’s) views, and Foley unapologetically critiques the other contributors through the lens of Porter and Decker. Foley, by his own admission, “follows Porter in his application of the markedness theory to New Testament Greek aspect.” The aorist tense is the least marked (and hence provides the background), the present and imperfect tense provide the foreground, and the most heavily marked perfect and pluperfect act to “frontground” discourse elements (138). Also, the reader should note that for Foley (and Porter), the aorist tense is the perfective aspect, the present and imperfect are the imperfective aspects, and the pluperfect and perfect are the stative aspects.
In chapters four through seven, Foley builds on the previous chapter and makes his most significant contribution. In chapter four, Foley demonstrates how he proposes to translate the three Greek aspects into Mandarin in the indicative mood. The perfective aspect is realized in Mandarin through “four morphologically expressed (single) morphemes and one morphologically unmarked form, the ø morpheme” (146). The imperfective and stative aspects, however, are expressed in Mandarin via “four morphologically expressed tense-forms,” and Mandarin does not demonstrate the concepts of “remoteness or immediacy” that Greek tenses do (160).
In chapter five, Foley discusses the translation of non-indicative moods and conditional clauses from Greek to Mandarin, being careful to point out the differences between the two languages. He takes care to discuss the difference between aorist and present imperatives, the various uses of participles, and the difficulty of translating conditional sentences into Mandarin (pointing out that “translating the nuances between different classes of Greek conditional sentences into Mandarin is only possible by lexical means,” 237). Regarding the classification of conditional sentences in Greek, Foley once again follows Porter’s methodology.
In chapters six and seven, Foley culminates his work with a verse-by-verse translation of John 18-19 (the passion narrative) and 1 Corinthians 15, respectively. In these two chapters (spanning a total of 135 pages), Foley offers his translation (building on the work of his previous chapters) while interacting with a significant amount of Chinese translations (and a few Japanese translations, due to the fact that Japanese uses kanji, or Chinese characters along with its two alphabets). Foley consistently applies his (and Porter’s) version of VAT while paying special attention to backgrounding, foregrounding, and frontgrounding, the readability of his translation, and the need to translate certain terms consistently whenever possible (e.g. Paul’s use of ὤφθη in 1 Cor. 15:5-8). Foley concludes both chapters with an in-depth comparison of his translations with other Chinese translations in regards to verbal aspect.


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  3. Hello,

    Thank you for writing the review. May the Lord further your research and ministry in the days to come.

    Toshikazu S. Foley

  4. Thank you, Dr. Foley. Looking forward to reading any future work you might do on Bible translation and/or Biblical Greek.

  5. Greetings, I'm participating in a round table discussion on biblical translation in Chinese. In case you are interested, my recent study of four-character set phrases will be published in a journal put out by the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Best wishes,
    Toshikazu S. Foley

  6. Thanks, Dr. Foley. I'm definitely interested and I'll keep my eye out for it. Is the journal in particular the Journal of Chinese Lingistics?

  7. Hello, Paul,
    Thanks for taking special interests in the subject. In this link below you will find the poster for the conference.
    My essay will be published by香港中文大學 天主教研究中心, 天主教研究學報, 第二期, 聖經的中文翻譯.”
    Blessings, Toshikazu Foley


  8. Thanks! I'll definitely take a look at it.