1Cor 4:1 — probing translation processes and resources

Following the sharing of my 1Cor 4:1-5 translations, I’d like to explore a bit.

In one sphere, I have submitted to certain translation principles and goals — principles and goals that I support with heart and with gusto — by altering some wordings.  I do think additional considerations are sometimes germane, so I’d like to float some other thoughts here.  This is “thinking out loud” as part of my learning process, mostly; it is not intended to be paradigmatic or prescriptive for anyone else.

Considerable concern¹ has recently resulted from my rendering of the Greek word ὑπηρέτας | hupēretas in 1Cor 4:1.  Let’s investigate this word as an example.

This word hupēretas  is a compound noun.  The first part is, etymologically speaking, a preposition that means “under”; the second part is from a derivative of eresso, which means, roughly speaking, to row.   (See forthcoming comments on etymology and semantic change.)  This word (like most other words to be translated from one language to another!) has no single equivalent, but a range of possible meanings, including those shown below:

  • rower; underling, servant, attendant (Liddell-Scott-Jones, A Greek-English Lexicon)
  • officers, attendants of magistrates, officers who execute penalties; a king’s attendants, servants, retinue, the soldiers of a king (Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon)
  • under-rowers, subordinate rowers of Christ (Robertson’s Word Pictures)
  • general idea of “service” (Moulton & Milligan, Vocabulary of the Greek NT)
  • servant (Louw-Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the NT Based on Semantic Domains)
  • an under-rower, subordinate rower; anyone who aids another in any work; an assistant.  A closely related verb, hupēreteō, is to act as rower, to row; to minister, to render service (Thayer’s A Greek-English Lexicon)
  • steerer who follows orders as a free person, not a slave (“Little Kittel,” Theological Dictionary of the NT)


While good translation-scholarship, as I understand it currently, will gravitate to certain principles (vis-a-vis choice and use of lexical resources, for example), those principles may not represent the whole picture as one seeks to understand and translate a text for one or more audiences and purposes.

Given my relative inexperience, it’s probably too bold of me to question lexicographers’ choices for specific passages.  By that, I mean that when Thayer (or Liddell-Scott, or whoever) suggests that a given meaning we’ll call “(b)” is the meaning that should be attributed to a word in a given, ancient text, I sometimes wonder what the choice is based on.  Word usage often falls into patterns, and grammatical constructions across a corpus of literature can give strong clues as to the contextual meaning of a word.  In other instances, though, the intended/original meanings might be more elusive.

My growing-but-elementary understanding has begun to put certain lexicons in a more “trusted” category; this trustworthiness stems, in part, from broader scope.  Case in point:  the current Bauer, Dänker, Arndt, & Gingrich or Moulton & Milligan lexical works are considered more trustworthy than some other works because they have taken into consideration a greater number of discovered usages of a given word from more literature, both secular and sacred.

But there is still opinion involved.  Informed opinion, and perhaps extra-informed opinion, but opinion nonetheless.  Based on grammatical construction and extra-biblical literature, a lexicon might suggest that (b) is the best meaning for textual instance #14.  For my part, I wonder whether such a suggestion might turn out to have been a trifle hasty.

Essentially, I wonder whether a lesser reference tool might get a thing right, while the more currently academically accepted lexicons may be found to have missed the boat (rowing reference intended), in their attempts to be more circumspect.  The percentage of likelihood in any given case is not the point here; rather, it’s just that the possibility exists that Robertson or Kittel or Thayer might “get” Paul’s mind in 1Cor 4:1 more than, say, Moulton & Milligan or BDAG (Bauer et al).

Like music-making, linguistic translation is both science and art.  They both involve principles and empirically derived data as well as judgment calls, taste, and aesthetic sensibilities.  One might well be admonished to go with the science when the art appears to conflict, but. . . .

In the next post, I’ll further consider the place (value?) of etymology and will also set up a hypothetical dialogue with Paul, intent on uncovering what he meant by hupēretas in 1Cor 4:1.

¹ “Furor”  was my first word-choice here, but that was too strong a word, inasmuch as it implies a whole horde of people wrangling.  I also rejected “angst” above, but that has certainly been present.  The “concern” is, I suppose, primarily in my head, despite an indication or three to the contrary.  In some senses and in some private instances, I have been misunderstood.  I have apparently not done very well in my attempts to be actively engaged in dialogue.  My own soul is somewhere between grieving and recovering.  There are actually ramifications for my potential work in and for the Kingdom.

Brian Casey, 2/18-23/2015


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