Wednesday, August 25, 2004

The Nuance of Language

My spiritual director has been packing up for a transfer to another parish and was unfortunately forced to downsize his library, so he graciously offered to give me a small library of his Latin books, which I graciously accepted. What a gift! Included among the collection is a beautifully bound Nova Vulgata (Editio Minor) in excellent condition, which is an absolute treasure. Latin is certainly more adept at rendering the original Greek, with its linguistic ambiguities and oddities, than most romance languages -- and certainly better than English, which can introduce a few oddities of its own.

Perhaps the verse John 7:49 represents one such oddity, though minor. It occurs in the Greek in such a fashion and is rendered similarly in Latin (both in the Vulgata and Nova Vulgata),
Sed turba haec, quae non novit legem, maledicti sunt!
What is interesting is that you have a feminine singular nominative noun, turba, being used in two completely different senses in the same sentence; It conjugates with both a singular verb form (novit) and a masculine plural verb form (maledicti sunt). This is a form of the syllepsis with turba, which is a collective noun meaning crowd or multitude. The first agreement is grammatically correct, a feminine singular relative pronoun, quae, and a singular (active) perfect tense verb conjugation, novit. The second agreement is correct according to the sense of the collective noun, referring not to turba as a singular, feminine noun, but rather as a group of individuals using a masculine plural (passive) perfect tense verb conjugation, maledicti sunt, as opposed to a feminine singular conjugation, maledicta est. To my knowledge, this is not at all common in romance languages, and though it occurs in English, it isn't always clear, nor are the senses always mixed.

How well do modern English translations from the Greek do? The RSV uses the second plural sense in its translation for the entire sentence,
But this crowd, who do not know the law, are accursed.
while the NAB translates using the first singular sense,
But this crowd, which does not know the law, is accursed.
I suspect that the NAB is counting on us to understand the implicit nuance of the collective noun rather than spell it literally as is done with the Latin and Greek. The Douay-Rheims, which is a direct translation of the Latin Vulgate and is often faulted for containing too many confusing "latin-esque" English expressions, renders,
But this multitude, that knoweth not the law, are accursed.
Both senses! I'm not sure what to make of it. What seems unnatural in English is perfectly normal in Latin.

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