Styles of translation – an example from Isidore of Pelusium

A friend has been typing up the Greek text of letter 212 of Isidore of Pelusium for me.  This is one of the fragments of Eusebius of Caesarea’s Gospel Problems and Solutions, so I have a translation of it.  The friend commented on the style of translation adopted, versus a more literal approach. 

Your translator did a nice job making a loose translation that is quite faithful to the intent and meaning of the letter.   …  I don’t think the translator was too loose.  For an academic translation, which is usually more literal, it does toe the line a little bit, but it does make a far more interesting and pleasant read.   Here are two passages that I translated literally.  Mine are in [normal text], your translator’s are in italics.

Τὸ γὰρ ἀδύνατον καὶ ὄν καὶ δοκοῦν, ὅσον πρὸς τὴν τῶν ἀνθρώπων ἀσθένειαν, φημὶ, κατορθώσας, ούκ ἄν περὶ τὸ δυνατὸν ἐξησθένησεν

He accomplished, I say, something both apparently and actually – as far as human weakness is concerned – impossible; so he would have shown no weakness in a matter that was possible.

For, I say, having accomplished what both is and seems impossible, as much as concerns the weakness of man, he would not be weak concerning what is possible.

Τὸ μὲν γὰρ θᾶττον ἀναστῆναι, ἔγκλημα οὐκ εἶχε

An early resurrection was irreproachable.

For a swift resurrecting does not have reproach. [Infinite changed to a participle]

For to resurrect swiftly does not have reproach. [Adjective changed to an adverb]

He adds:

I added an alternate translation of the last bit.  Basically there is an infinitive acting like a noun that is modified by an adjective.  In English we either have to make the infinitive a participle or the adjective into an adverb to be grammatically correct.  We can’t say “For to swift resurrect does not have reproach” but that is what the Greek says.  I guess what I am saying here is that either of my two translations I gave are equally literal in their own way. 

Now there are those who quibble about how “literal” is a meaningless and a subjective term, but I think that being able to reconstruct the original language from a translation is a fairly objective standard.  Irenaeus’ Against Heresies has a loose Latin translation and a very literal Armenian translation.  The Armenian can potentially be used to reconstruct the Greek.  The Latin can’t really.  It doesn’t mean one is necessarily better than the other, it just means one is more literal.  I would be interested in what more professional people think of my “literal” translation.  Maybe they have better suggestions!

Any such suggestions would be welcome, as would opinions on the version in Italics.

1 Response to “Styles of translation – an example from Isidore of Pelusium”


  1. Roger Pearse

    A comment emailed to me:

    The thoughts on translation technique, pertaining to Isidore of Pelusium, were interesting. Here are some further ruminations. I thought the translator’s version was very good; I wouldn’t describe it as “loose” so much as idiomatic. I agree that “literal” does exist, at least speaking relatively; and that “literal” does not always mean “better”–if it doesn’t read comprehensibly in the target language, it’s not much of a *translation* at all! The comments on the translation, even as they went to a more “literal” version for some aspects, concurrently added more faults…(As always, translation is an essay in compromise!) E.g., “he would not be weak” is not right since it is a contrary-to-fact past condition; “he would not have been weak” would solve that, but “to be weak” is a state, and the verb is an aorist indicative, which depicts the thing more as an action, so “he would not have shown weakness” would be a better reflection of that. Similarly, θᾶττον is a comparative, so “early” is better than “swift”; and as your friend says, this construction (article + adj. + infin.) is not grammatical English, so no literal translation is in fact possible. (Further, θᾶττον is a neuter form, so could well be working as an adverb to start with.) The “most literal” translation–”the quicker to resurrect did not have a reproach” would fall under the stricture mentioned earlier: it’s not even a translation!