Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The problem of translating discourse structures from Greek to Mongolian

Mongolian and Koine Greek have a lot of similar features, not least a heavy inflectional system for nouns (Mongolian verbs inflect for tense/aspect, but not for person or number). Similarly, the syntax of clauses is not so problematic. While Greek word order is probably more fluid than Mongolian (which defaults to SOV), there is enough flexibility in both to not be a problem.

But it's not at the clause level that translation becomes difficult, it's at the sentence level. That might seem odd, but both Greek and English tend to have the ability to either (a) shift subordinate clauses around, either fronting or following, (b) tend to introduce subordinate clauses with a conjunction and then have the clause follow. This means that Greek, especially in complicated sentences, will often have a series of subordinate and co-ordinate clauses that run on from each other, giving a certain flow of thought. Mongolian, however, tends to line up its subordinate clauses prior to the main clause, and the marker of the subordinate clause tends to be a verbal-suffix, so that to translate a long Greek sentence accurately means to start with the last of the (nested) subordinate clauses, and string them along in reverse order until you finally reach the main clause.

This causes havoc for verse-by-verse translation, when a Greek sentence runs over 4-5 verses. You can only maintain a verse-by-verse structure in the Mongolian by using additional pro-words to substitute in for clauses and concepts, and you need to cut up sentences. I think Mongolian translations should consider abandoning verse numbers, but the ramifications of that for wider discourse and interaction with Christian thought and scholarship are going to be painful.

It also creates a discourse problem - where information is fronted and delayed in Greek is not where it would be fronted or delayed in Mongolian. I don't know how that would translate into Mongolian preaching, I'm not at the point, but I'm at the point of realising what kind of a problem it is.

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