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 21, 2011

Review of Biblical Translation in Chinese and Greek: Verbal Aspect in Theory and Practice, by Toshikazu S. Foley (part 2 of 2: critique)

Foley has written an academic masterpiece that nevertheless could use some improvement in certain areas. To begin with, on the positive side, Foley has established himself as a linguist of the first order. Not only does Foley have an excellent grasp of difficult concepts (including VAT à la Porter), he demonstrates clear proficiency in multiple languages even beyond English, Greek, and Chinese.
Secondly, the sheer amount of research that went into Foley’s book completely staggers the mind. Any author who can reference English, Chinese, Japanese, French, German and Russian sources, all within the space of two pages (70-71) is worthy of respect (and may have even set a record). In addition, when one considers the incredible number of primary and secondly sources that Foley examined, one must acknowledge that Foley possesses both a natural ability as a linguistic researcher and incredible diligence.
Thirdly, certain sections of the book stand alone in value even for those not interested in Foley’s thesis. Foley’s section on the history of Chinese Bible translation, for example, was both interesting and informative. Likewise his translations of John 18-19 and 1 Corinthians 15 would be worth their weight in gold even for those uninterested in verbal aspect theory.
Fourthly, Foley’s book remains, to this writer’s knowledge, the only book to actually apply modern VAT to Bible translation in any language other than English. Obviously a plethora of authors have written on VAT, but Foley’s contribution is that he has made VAT practical—not an easy task! Similarly, regardless of any misgivings about Foley’s adherence to Porter’s version of VAT, at least one has to admit that Foley is consistent in his methodology, especially in his distinguishing between Aktionsart and aspect (whether or not Foley is correct, of course, is a different matter altogether).
Finally, as to Foley’s thesis, at the very least one can declare that he has succeeded admirably in doing his part to bridge the gap between Biblical Greek and Chinese. Foley has without a doubt made a genuinely valuable contribution to the field of linguistics and Bible translation. Indeed, this is somewhat of an understatement; to say Foley has “made a contribution” is akin to simply saying that Payton Manning knows how to throw a football. Beyond merely “making a contribution,” Foley’s work is unprecedented and unparalleled.
Despite my admiration for Foley’s work, some concerns remain. Most importantly, Biblical Translation in Chinese and Greek has no author index, subject index, or glossary of terms (though it does have a Bible verse index and a bibliography). These absences are completely inexplicable for a technical work of this nature. The glossary of terms is especially needed because Biblical Translation in Chinese and Greek deals with multiple languages, and it was quite easy for this reader to forget what exactly a “four character set phrase” or a “ø morpheme” was. The subject and author index also remain a staple for books that will be utilized in research. By neglecting these three things, Foley has rendered his book very “user unfriendly” for the researcher.
Secondly, Foley’s book presupposes from the beginning that the reader has a grasp both of VAT and of Mandarin grammar and syntax (the ability to read Chinese characters would also help, but is not essential). Foley extensively covers aspect in Mandarin, but barely, if at all, discusses Mandarin sentence structure, verb forms, etc. Most readers, like this writer, may be left floundering. Foley is more concerned with laying out the history of Mandarin VAT than he is giving the reader the tools to actually understand it.
Similarly, while Foley does give an all-to-brief overview of Greek VAT on pages 58-63, he spends the rest of the chapter comparing and contrasting the various contributors to VAT rather than actually explaining how it works. His explanation on pages 58-63 does a good job of describing the difference between Aktionsart and aspect, but otherwise its usefulness and clarity is fairly limited. The reader without a preliminary knowledge of Porter’s works may still experience confusion regarding what exactly is meant by “binary oppositions,” for example. Furthermore, it is difficult to see where Foley’s discussion shifts from being “prescriptive” to “descriptive.” In other words, Foley spends too much time discussing various contributors and schools of thought and not enough time explaining his views on VAT and backing them up with clear illustrations from Koine Greek.
Thirdly, Foley assumes his particular version of VAT, but never adequately defends it. Both Daniel Wallace and C. C. Caragounis have mounted significant challenges to Porter’s VAT, and while Foley does cite these two authors, he never responds appropriately to their challenges. Foley’s presentation of VAT, then, leaves many unanswered questions. For instance, on page 192, Foley declares that the “traditional views [of the aorist and present imperatives] are no longer convincing” but makes absolutely no effort to demonstrate what is wrong with the “traditional” (i.e. the Aktionsart) approach. Instead, he simply declares that “the difference between these two tense-forms in the imperative mood is best explained by verbal aspect, which means that the present imperative is a more heavily marked form than the aorist imperative” (192). Yet one is forced to ask whether or not this concept even makes sense for imperatives. It is difficult to imagine the Apostle Paul or any other speaker or writer of Koine Greek stopping to think whether or not to “foreground” or “background” the very urgent and passionate command he is about to give his audience!
Indeed, at times the whole “frontground,” “foreground,” and “background’ paradigm seems rather strained. For instance, on page 336, Foley argues that
the aorist tense-form acts “as the backgrounding device at the discourse level
and occurs 45 times (40%) in the exposition. The present tense-form functions as the foregrounding device, and occurs 45 times (40%) in the exposition. Yet one is forced to ask, however, how the aorist can function at the background level when it is outnumbered by the present tense? Would not the aorist, by virtue of being outnumbered, thereby carry more weight in the discourse? In other words, if there is more “frontgrounding” material than there is “backgrounding” material in a discourse, in what way can the “backgrounding” material truly function as it is supposed to? (this is in contrast to a verb being the “default” or “generic” choice; a generic verb tense still remains a generic tense even if it is largely ignored; in contrast, I would think that a backgrounding tense, though, could only function in the background if it outnumbered the other tenses. Otherwise how could one possibly determine what functions as background and what functions as foreground?)  Also, on page 373, Foley’s argues that in 1 Cor. 15:50-57 the aorist is used to “lay down” certain “assumptions” while the present is used to “call attention to a number of significant details,” yet the difference between the “assumptions” and the “details” seem rather arbitrary. Why, for example, is “the defeat of death (v. 54)” necessarily considered an “assumption” while “thanksgiving to God’s grace (v. 57)” is one of the “significant details”?
         Furthermore, in his zeal for furthering Porter’s VAT, Foley is often too heavy handed in his critique of translations that do not measure up to his standard. He assumes the validity of his particular view of VAT and is fairly dogmatic about it. Thus, for example, in the middle of page 338, he states “such additions are inappropriate, since auxiliary verbs in Mandarin are reserved for the translation of the non-indicative moods in Greek,” and at the bottom of page 362 he declares, “[the particular Chinese expression] is not preferable because four-character set phrases are reserved for translating the stative aspect in Greek.” In both cases Foley would have been better off declaring “x is best [or “should be”] translated by y” rather than “x is translated by y,” and so forth.
         Foley on the Japanese Language
(Mostly irrelevant to the overall review)
         For the following section, I am indebted to my father, missionary John R. Himes, for his assistance (although any mistakes or faulty argumentation is the sole responsibility of this writer)
         While it seems almost unfair to critique Foley on something he barely discusses, nevertheless Foley’s interaction with Japanese verbal aspect demonstrates just how slippery and difficult the concept of aspect is and how easy it is to misrepresent the issue. Furthermore, this writer’s own background as a missionary kid in Japan (who grew up speaking Japanese) compels him to interact with Foley regarding his discussion of Japanese.
         On pages 67-71, Foley describes Carlota S. Smith’s views on verbal aspect. To help him illustrate Smith’s views, Foley uses his own illustration from the Japanese language (he clearly states on 68 n 42, “The example of Japanese is mine”). Foley states,
Smith argues that viewpoint types are realized in many languages by means
of verb inflection For example, the English perfective viewpoint is signaled
by the simple form of the main verb. In Japanese, it is signaled by attaching
the auxiliary verb ta to the main verb . . . the imperfective viewpoint, on
the other hand, is signaled by the auxiliary be + ing in English and by
attaching the auxiliary verb te iru て いる to the main verb in Japanese.”
         In response to Foley, this writer is compelled to point out the following: first of all, neither ta nor te  can be called “auxiliary verbs” by any stretch of the imagination (though iru, by itself, can be considered auxiliary verb). Neither ta nor te could be called verbs in their own right, and both are more comparable to case endings in Greek (or the English -ing) than they are to an English auxiliary verb such as “be” (or to German auxiliary verbs such as “werden,” “sein,” etc.) The Japanese ta and te iru function to indicate tense, much like the Greek case endings. Thus the Japanese [kare wa] hashitta (はしった) means “he ran” (past tense) while [kare wa] hashitte iru (はしっている) means “he is running” (present continuous (As mentioned above, iru may be called an auxiliary verb, but te is not; also, kare = the masculine personal pronoun while wa = the auxiliary verb. The reader should also note that the te form [] nevertheless has a wide variety of uses and is even called a “gerund” by Samuel E. Martin in his A Reference Grammar of Japanese [Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, p 479]; yet the te form is never, to this writer’s knowledge, used as a verb on its own)
         Indeed, aspect does not seem to be a primary feature of the Japanese verb tenses, at least not in the way that it functions in Chinese. Hashitta, for example, would never be used of a present or future action, but hashiru could be either a generic present tense, an infinitive (kare wa hashiru koto ga suki = “he likes to run”; the infinitive, if it could be called that, actually needs an auxiliary noun [koto] here), or future (kare was hashiru = “he will run”). Hashite iru, however, could never be used of a past or future action (except in very rare literary exceptions, e.g. the historical present, just like in English).
         Thus Foley is incorrect when he pairs ta with te iru as the perfective and imperfective, respectively. If anything, ru (as in hashiru はしる) should be paired with te iru; the former is more generic (and, hence, perhaps could be viewed as “perfective”) while the latter might possibly be construed as imperfective (ru is not an auxiliary verb, but rather a case ending). Yet even so, this may be somewhat misleading. At the very least, Foley’s description of verbal aspect in Japanese is unsatisfactory. Unlike Chinese, the past and present (but not necessarily the future) tenses in Japanese are clearly marked with case endings.
         On page 250 n1, Foley notes that in chapters 6 and 7 he will be consulting a variety of Japanese Bibles when working on his Chinese translation. He consults six different versions due to the fact that “the Japanese writing system employs Chinese characters” (called kanji in Japanese) and because “the tradition of biblical translation in Japan has its roots in China.” Yet Foley’s admirable show of multi-lingual scholarship runs the risk of being misleading. While the semantic range of many kanji and kanji combinations are the same in Japanese and Mandarin, many are not. As my father told me in an e-mail, “A rule of thumb is that a fairly simple word (‘new,’ ‘fast’ and the like) will be very close in meaning, but a word with cultural overtones will change meaning as it crosses into Japan,” though he also notes that theological terms generally tend to be the same (but not always; e.g. the word for “Bible” itself). At the least, one can question whether or not Foley’s inclusion of Japanese versions really assists in his translation or whether or not it might potentially be confusing.
         Usefulness for Research
         Despite the fact that Bible Translation in Chinese and Greek is slightly user-unfriendly due to its lack of a subject and author index, Foley’s work still remains an essential work for students of Bible translation. The book remains invaluable both for those interested in Chinese Bible translation and the relationship of Greek verbal aspect to Chinese verbal aspect. Those interested in a history of Chinese Bible translation will benefit from chapter two, whole those desiring a survey of scholarship of either Greek or Chinese VAT will definitely want to read chapter three. However, those hoping for a simple introduction to VAT or for an effective defense of Porter’s and Foley’s VAT will be sorely disappointed.
         Foley’s research and hard work render Biblical Translation in Chinese and Greek an absolutely essential source for those doing serious work in Bible translation. While not without some problems, Foley’s work nevertheless makes an invaluable contribution to linguistic scholarship and, if the subsequent books in this series approach the level of Foley’s work, Biblical academia will be truly blessed.

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