At work today one of my colleagues had received a particularly hasty email from a customer. The sentence was somewhat difficult to parse, and could be read in two ways. But we worked out what it meant. And then — for, unusually, my current colleagues know who I am — he asked me this:
When you’re translating an ancient text, how do you deal with ambiguity?
It’s a very good question, isn’t it?
The first point that struck me is that mostly ancient authors wanted to be read, and to be understood, and consequently wrote in order to avoid ambiguity. A word might have two meanings, but the rest of the sentence would be so phrased as to rule out all but one choice.
I think that here is rather less ambiguity in ancient texts than we might suppose, as we translate them. Isn’t it the case that, in the majority of the situations where we find ourselves with ambiguity, it is because we can’t work out what the thought is, that the author is trying to express?
I remember wrestling with a translation of the 6th century Syriac scientific author, Severus Sebokht, On the Constellations. The subject matter — “climates” and stars and so on — was unfamiliar, and I found myself in the dark, sometimes, where a sentence could have more than one meaning, word for word. But the real problem was that I simply didn’t know enough about the subject to choose the right possible word meaning.
When we find a word that could be translated several ways, we usually find that the context decides which word that should be. By “context” we mean that the word is part of a sentence, and the sentence part of a paragraph, and the paragraph is devoted to putting forward a train of thought. All this naturally tends to reduce the possible multiple meanings of a word, or a set of words. The author probably did not intend to be ambiguous, after all, although, with some of the more allusive Byzantine writers, you do wonder!
When we do find a word which is clearly ambiguous in the original, how do we handle it? In this case we must consider the possibility that the ambiguity is deliberate, and therefore needs to be conveyed to the reader in English. The best solution is to use an English word that has the same dual sense. Habeo in Latin has a considerable range of meanings beyond have, own; and have itself can carry more than one meaning in English. But in most cases we will not find a convenient equivalent. In that case we must resort to footnotes; translate the meaning that is most important, and indicate the overloading in a footnote. Indeed even when a single ambiguous English word can be found, it is probably best to indicate in a footnote that the ambiguity is in the Latin or Greek.
For footnotes, of course, exist primarily to allow the translator to anticipate the criticisms of the reviewer — “surely any schoolboy would have known that blah blah…” — and prevent such captiousness. Whether such preventative footnotes are of use to the general reader may sometimes be doubted.
A further element reducing ambiguity in ancient sentences is the language itself. English is a weakly-typed language, to borrow a computer idiom. A word may be a noun or a verb, and little or nothing in the form of the word itself indicates its grammatical purpose or position in the sentence. But Latin and Greek were more strongly typed.
In English you can reverse the position of words, and it alters the meaning. “Sextus killed Marcus” and “Marcus killed Sextus” are not equivalent statements, not least from the point of view of Marcus and Sextus.
But in Latin this is an impossible problem. “Sextus Marcum occidit” and “Marcum Sextus occidit” are of near identical meaning, differing only in emphasis. Consequently the scope for ambiguity is reduced.
But of course ambiguity does not disappear simply because of grammar! The second word anyone learns in Latin, amas, has two different meanings — the second person singular indicative active of the verb amo meaning “you love”, as in amo, amas, amat; but it is also the accusative plural of the noun ama, the fireman’s buckets. “amas amas” is a perfectly legal Latin sentence — “you love the fireman’s buckets”. It is not clear, perhaps, which amas is which! But even so, the meaning is unambiguous.
In short, translation does not have a special problem with ambiguity. The author may be ambiguous; the language he writes in may assist or obstruct him; but surely the real cause of ambiguity is between the ears of the author, not in the mind of the translator?