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Translating the perfect tense
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Berean Patriot (admin)
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February 10, 2022 - 8:33 am

I've been thinking about the perfect tense a lot lately, and mostly what's the most accurate way to translate it.  I'm currently using the "was - and is - ___" format, but it doesn't always work because of the nature of the perfect tense.  

More properly, the perfect tense indicates a completed action in the past which then results in effects that are ongoing into the present.  Here's an article that explain the perfect tense well, and also covers the three basic ways that it's used.  The trouble with the "was - and is - ___" format is that it tends to indicate that the action is ongoing into the present, which poses a problem in some verses. 

For example, Hebrews 4:14 is currently translated this way, which works. 

Hebrews 4:14 Therefore, having a great high priest who has passed through the heavens (Jesus, the Son of God) we should hold fast to the confession.

However, I had originally translated it the following way, which really doesn't work. (I was trying to be consistent with the perfect tense, which obviously doesn't work with the "was - and is - ___" format here.)

Hebrews 4:14 Therefore, having a great high priest who was – and is – passing through the heavens (Jesus, the Son of God) we should hold fast to the confession.

Obviously that has some problems, since Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father, not currently passing through the heavens.  Now, the "has passed" format is more accurate when used as an consummative perfect (see link above), but I do think the "was - and is - ___" format works better for an intensive perfect, (again, see link above)

For example: 

Matthew 8:6 and saying: “Lord, my servant boy was – and is – lying sick in the house; paralyzed and being horribly tormented.

That works better than "has laid down sick".

Additionally, when the perfect tense is used for dramatic emphasis (a dramatic perfect), things get...  strange. 

Matthew 13:46 “And having found one extremely valuable pearl, he left and sold everything – as much as he had – and bought it

There, "has sold" makes very little sense, and "did - and does - sell" makes even less sense.  Currently, it's a simple past tense, which is typically how the aorist is translated.  

So, something is needed to harmonize all these different ways to render the perfect tense.  

This isn't on the translation/about page, but I would like this translation to be a window into the original languages.  I would also like to be transparent, and rendering the perfect tense three different ways conflicts with both goals.  But at the same time, the perfect tense can't be rendered the same way consistently everywhere because English grammar simply doesn't allow for it.  

So here's what I'm thinking: I'll translate the perfect tense in the three ways above, and then add an asterisk (*) to all perfect tense verbs for clarity/transparency.

So we would have:

  • a great high priest who has *passed through the heavens
  • my servant boy was – and is – *lying sick in the house
  • he left and *sold everything – as much as he had – and bought it

I would then change the snippet before each chapter to add something like the following: 

Verbs with an asterisk before them (Example: *sold) indicate the Greek perfect tense.

The snippet is a global thing, so can I change it everywhere in two minutes.  Changing all the chapters would take much longer, but I'm currently going through what's already been translated to tighten it up anyway.  (That's why new chapters have been showing up more slowly)  Thus, I could add this as I go through editing/proofreading, though it will take a while to get them all. 

Thoughts?

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Hellenist Disciple
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June 2, 2022 - 2:58 am

For the perfect tense of the Greek to be indicated in the English, in my opinion the auxiliary verb "have" should be maintained wherever possible, as it performs harmonization in a less obtrusive way than special characters (asterisks, dashes etc.) do. This is how the given verses could be rendered:

 

Hebrews 4:14: Therefore, having a great archpriest to have passed through the heavens (Jesus, the son of God) we must hold firmly to the confession.

The word in this case is not a verb, but a participle, so the emphasis is on the finished result (i.e. here an achievement), therefore "to have done".

 

Matthew 8:6: and saying: "Lord, my servant boy has fallen paralyzed in the house, being terribly tormented".

This is the standard case, therefore "have done" (I don't think that "was - and is -" can carry the fullness of its meaning).

 

Matthew 13:46: And having found one very valuable pearl, leaving had everything sold – as much as he had – and bought it

This is indeed the most difficult case (for more than one reasons), where something has to be sacrificed. Here the perfect tense is not in relation to the time of the narration (i.e. the present of Jesus), but to the time of the narrated events (i.e. the past of Jesus). The use of the verb "have" is still possible, but it should be in its aorist, therefore "had done".

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Berean Patriot (admin)
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June 3, 2022 - 4:10 pm

What I have been doing is similar to the suggestion I made to start this post, except I'm only using the asterisk for the dramatic perfect tense.  That means a verb translated as a present tense ("know" for example) has an asterisk added when it's the perfect tense: *know.  That way, the asterisk is only used when the perfect tense can't really be conveyed another way. 

That's what I've been doing anyway. 

Now, I agree about using "have" whenever possible, though "has" would be the singular form that should be used in -- for example -- the case of Hebrews 4:14. So generally "he has gone" would be singular, while "they have gone" would be plural.  But in concept I agree. 

Using that on Matthew 8:6 results in: "my servant boy has been lying sick in the house", which works well.  You're right that many of the places with the perfect tense rendered as dashes could be rendered as "have/has" with equal accuracy and greater readability.  I'll need to go through and look at them at some point. I'll pay more attention to them going forward (Mark 3 and afterwards). 

Some places simply don't allow for the "have/has" construction at all though.  For example:

John 19:10 So Pilate says to Him: “You don’t speak to me?  Don’t you *know that I have authority to release you, and I have authority to crucify you?”

This presents a problem to use "have/has" though.  For example: "Don’t you have/has know that I have authority" just doesn't work.  It's gibberish.  Changing the form of "know" doesn't really help: ""Don’t you have/has known that I have authority".  Again, it's gibberish.  That's why I went with "Don’t you *know" with the asterisk.  

To Matthew 13:46, The trouble with "had sold" is that's really more pluperfect, not perfect. Yet "has sold everything" doesn't really work because it's a bit gibberish.  However, "*sells" would work there, and I changed it to that. 

It might be possible to consolidate all the perfect tense verbs to either the have/has construction, or the present tense with an asterisk. (i.e. *know).  Hmm.  I'd have to look, but that might be doable and would read much more easily. 

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Hellenist Disciple
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June 4, 2022 - 3:21 pm

If asterisk has to be used, it should be for exceptional cases, not as part of a grammatical rule. Being exceptional, such cases should be relatively rare. And for a particular case to be exceptional, it is not enough to be difficult. In many cases, the difficulty can be addressed with some extra effort of finding an acceptable compromise. The exception should be the last resort, when all other efforts fail, not an escape from the difficulty. I believe that only few cases deserve an asterisk, that many special cases are actually solvable, but they should be decided in a case-by-case manner.

In Hebrews 4:14, I know the difference and relationship between "have" and "has", but I consciously suggested the form "to have", which is justified by the word not being a verb, but a participle (almost like an adjective). The intention of the author is not to communicate what Jesus have done (has passed through the heavens), but what kind of archpriest Jesus is (a heaven-passer, one to have passed through the heavens at least once, no matter when).

In Matthew 13:46, "sells" doesn't fit, because the present tense is not used anywhere, since this is a narration of a past event. "sold" is closer, but they both fail to be a window into the original language. Although it is also a compromise, I believe that "had everything sold" works better, because it contains the verb "have" (pluperfect is actually a special case of perfect, not a different tense).

In Matthew 8:6, the verb is "throw" (compare Mark. 9:42 and 12:43, also Luke 23:19,25 etc.), it has literally nothing to do with either lying or sickness. Now English has the expression "fall ill", but the verse indicates only paralysis. This is the reason that I suggested "has fallen paralyzed", to stay closer to the original. But if it is acceptable to ...throw literacy out of the window, by turning "throw" into "lying sick", then there is plenty of room to deal with the perfect tense too, not needing to introduce special symbols.

Therefore in John 19:10, given that the English verb "know" is problematic, just replace it with "haven't you been aware" (compare 1 Thes. 5:2). since "aware" is much closer to "know" than "lie" is to "throw".

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Berean Patriot (admin)
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June 5, 2022 - 8:58 am

Regarding Hebrews 4:14, pardon me for saying so, but I'm not sure you understand what a participle is.  Participles are verbal conjugations by definition, and thus are still verbs even when being used as an adjective.  For example the participle form of "run" is "running"; so "He was running" (verbal use), and "That's a running trophy" (adjectival use). 

If you prefer to take it adjectivally, then "Therefore, having a great passed-through-the-heavens high priest" would be an adjectival construction.  I disagree about the adjectival construction though, and I think the sense here is clearly verbal. 

Further, adding "to" in front of a verb in English is an infinitive construction, not a participle construction, thus changing the form of the verb, which I avoid as much as is possible. A simple Google search reveals that "passed" is the past participle of "pass", so it's already a participle, and merely needs the tense clarified. (thus "has passed"

Additionally, "having a great archpriest to have passed through the heavens" simply doesn't make much sense.  However "has passed" makes perfect sense and is closer to the original construction.

In Matthew 13:46, my intent was to use the historical present, as in Matthew 26:40, among many, many other places.  (And the pluperfect is definitely different enough to translate differently: https://ezraproject.com/greek-.....explained/)

Regarding Matthew 8:6, Thayer's has the following under definition #1, which is the basis of "lying sick"

passive to lie sick abed, be prostrated by sickness

I definitely have no intention of throwing literalism out the window.  Thus in John 19:10, I'm not happy with "haven't you been aware", since some form of "know" is definitely more literal.

Setting that specific example aside, how would you suggest rendering the perfect tense when it's dramatic or intensive?

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Hellenist Disciple
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June 5, 2022 - 6:37 pm

Suppose that you are totally right. It doesn't matter, cause it is not the first time that you fail in basic respect towards my feedback. I tried to ignore that in previous instances, but seems like this is your style. From a (maybe the only biblical) open-source translation effort, which has made some radical choices not found in any other translation, I would expect a more open-minded look to rare input. But maybe this is the treatment you are used to from others. No worries, I can also play with words.

Concerning the meaning of the verb that your sources define as "lying sick", see Mat. 7:6. While being in that verse, don't take its message too much personally. If you don't get the difference between literal and metaphorical, I am not the one to offer enlightenment, only some insight. If I had done it, I would write "I am the one to have offered". But if you don't make sense of this construct or if you are not aware that Greek participles often have the meaning of English adjectival constructs, so be it, this is not common knowledge. Between Google and Thayer, someone can easily get lost, while still feeling justified. Translating word-by-word or phrase-by-phrase has always been easier (even Google can do it) than taking each statement as a whole, along with its context and all.

End of playing. I still suspect that, when it comes to the principles of the about page (part of which you mention in the opening post), your choices sacrifice overall more than my suggestions. But most importantly, your last question confirms once more that you both read and answer my posts less carefully than I do yours. Nevertheless, I am going to answer your question.

Here is the fact: In ancient languages there are neither dramatic tenses, nor intensive tenses, nor any other subcategories of subcategories. The authors of ancient texts didn't write with the knowledge of any of these constructs, because at their time none of these even existed. All of them are later definitions given by people who tried to close the ancient languages within modeling boxes, based on mere observations. In other words, these definitions are arbitrary. We can talk about the rules of the modern English language (or some dialect of it) all day long, but ancient languages didn't have such rules. Given the richness of some of those languages and the expressive freedom of their users, any such definition is fragile at best. It is good to know that perfect tense can have more than one meaning. But trying to imagine a rule where one didn't exist, is a recipe for failure. So I repeat from my previous post: "they should be decided in a case-by-case manner". If after a big-enough sample you detect some patterns, it could be useful to keep them in mind, but don't repeat others' mistake of forming rules, neither adopt rules formed by others. Just stay faithful to the principles.

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Berean Patriot (admin)
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June 6, 2022 - 11:18 am

I have incorporated your feedback many times, and always try to be respectful.  I apologize if I came across any differently; that wasn't my intent.  (Because of what you said, I'm planning to mostly drop the construction with dashes for the perfect tense, which I said.  You've made many suggestions regarding paragraph headings too which I've taken, and I think there are others too.)

I went back to the About page and realized I hadn't included something.  For a long time now I've been trying to consistently translate words and tenses so this translation can be a window into the Greek.  This is also the reason I'd like to have a basic rule/rules for translating the different tenses, including the perfect tense.  That way, someone can know the Greek tenses without checking the Greek.  That's a principle that I now realize I hadn't communicated. 

That's entirely my fault, and I'm sorry about that. 

I've edited the About page to include this principle. 

Regarding the ancients not having categories of subtenses: I agree.  Yet I still think they are useful to us.  To draw an analogy, medieval sword enthusiasts talk about arming swords, bastard swords, long swords, war swords, side swords, etc.  However, the medieval people themselves simply called all of these a "sword".  Despite that, the classifications are still useful in a modern context to discuss medieval swords. I see the subdivisions of the Greek perfect tense as similarly useful, but mostly as a way to have a more precise discussion.  

Ultimately, I think that language is organized enough to extract rules from, even if the speakers of a language themselves are unaware of the rules.  (I've had this happen often, where someone who speaks perfect English didn't understand what made it perfect English.  For example, no one would say "him talked to he" because they know it's wrong; most people just can't articulate that "he" is a nominative form and "him" is an accusative form like you or I could.

I recognize that sometimes a verse/translation might not fit the rules, but I think the occasional exception isn't enough to completely eliminate the usefulness of rules.  I have rules that work for all the other tenses, and -- a few rare exceptions aside -- they work well.  Thus I'm thinking "why couldn't there also be rules for the perfect tense?"

It seems we are fundamentally at odds on that though, as you said forming or adopting rules would be a mistake. 

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