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Foley, Toshikazu S.


Biblical Translation in Chinese and Greek. Verbal Aspect in Theory and Practice.


Leiden/Boston: Brill 2009. XXIV, 449 S. m. Tab. 24,4 x 16,8 cm = Linguistic Biblical Studies, 1. Geb. EUR 155,00. ISBN 978-90-04-17865-6.


Buist M. Fanning

Foley’s monograph, written as a doctoral dissertation at McMaster Divinity College in Canada, combines three fields of study—translation theory, Mandarin verbal aspect, and New Testament Greek verbal aspect – with the goal of providing guidance for »gramma­t­ical translation of New Testament Greek aspect into Mandarin aspect at the discourse level« (2). This review will focus primarily on the book’s contribution in the third area: New Testament Greek verbal aspect and its discourse functions.
The book is a detailed analysis reflecting research in a wide range of sources. Its discussion of the history of Bible translation into Chinese and issues of translation in general is informative and valuable. But F.’s argument is flawed in one of the central areas in which he seeks to make a contribution, that is, his discussion of aspect theory in linguistics and in New Testament Greek grammar. The stated rationale for his work (2.58.383–84) is that responsible translation of the New Testament into Mandarin must take into account recent linguistic studies about how verbal aspect should be understood. Yet in two important areas F. presents not the current state of aspectology but a narrowly held view, and his arguments against the linguistic consensus are often based on misunder­stand­ings or misrepresentations of opposing views.
First, F. insists that verbal aspect must be kept completely separate from Aktionsart, and that any discussion of the relation be­-tween the two is an improper confusion of categories. This is his reaction to the widely accepted approach of working with verbal aspect at two levels, distinct in sense but closely related in function. One level is to define what grammatical aspect itself brings to an utterance: it is a viewpoint feature reflecting the subjective choice of a speaker to focus on certain elements of an occurrence and not others (e. g., an external, summarizing view vs. paying attention to the internal details of the occurrence). The other level is to observe how this subjective viewpoint interacts in predicable ways with various procedural characteristics inherent in lexical features of the verb, in the verb phrase, or in its wider context (e.g., states, processes, accomplishments, punctuals, etc.; these were set forth in widely cited studies by Z. Vendler and A. Kenny). Working with the interactions between these two levels is the method used by a number of influential aspectologists (C. Bache, P. Bertinetto, R. Binnick, B. Comrie, Ö. Dahl, J. Forsyth, S. Rothstein, C. Smith, N. Thelin, H. Verkuyl) as well as by recent writers on ancient Greek verbal aspect (C. Campbell, R. Decker, T. Evans, K. McKay, C. Sicking, P. Stork). F. is dismissive of this approach but he does not discuss its relative merits or demerits; he merely labels it as a »conflation« of things that should be kept separate ( 132). He does not ack­nowledge the point that this view incorpor­ates both a distinct sense for aspect itself and a concern for how it interacts with closely related actional characteristics. In fact, at one point he cites Bache and Bertinetto for the idea that the two must be treated separately (60–61), which is not their approach at all. The larger issue is that examining such interactions is essential for finding the contextual significance of aspect in specific texts. It is only natural that in seeking to understand one element of a verb’s meaning we would pay attention to related features and see them in their larger connections with each other. This certainly is valuable for translation, and his treatment is the poorer for peremptorily avoiding it.
Second, a major goal of the book is to specify the role verbal aspect plays in discourse structuring and prominence. In this F. follows the tripartite system of S. Porter (presented in his 1989 Verbal Aspect and a number of essays since then). The aspect roles are as follows, in increasing order of prominence: the aorist (i. e., perfective) as background, the present (i. e., imperfective, including present and imperfect tense forms) as foreground, and the perfect and pluperfect as »frontground«. This proposal is problematic in a number of ways. It runs counter to the position of most linguists who have addressed the question of aspect in discourse. The stand­ard view is to reverse the first two: aorist as foreground in nar­rative and imperfect as background (see E. Bakker, K. Callow, C. Campbell, T. Givón, J. Grimes, P. Hopper, S. Levinsohn, S. Runge, C. Sicking, S. Wallace). This would not be objectionable if F. had presented such disagreements openly and evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of both positions in arguing for his conclusions. But instead he relies implicitly on Porter for his treatment and does not seem to be aware that a contrary view is widespread. F. (129) cites Wallace’s essay indirectly but misrepresents it as supporting his own position.
In addition, F. believes these discourse roles are valid every­where with no regard for differences in genre (narration, description, argument, exposition, etc.) or verbal form (indicative, subjunctive, infinitive, participle, etc.). But this is certainly too broad and insensitive to contextual usage. Even Porter’s most recent essay on the topic (2009) suggests different discourse functions for the aspects between narrative and non-narrative genres, and the standard approach is to take this even further (see R. Dooley and S. Levinsohn, R. Longacre, C. Smith, S. Wallace). Yet F. treats the narrative and non-narrative portions of John 18–19 as well as the exposition-argument of 1 Cor 15 without differentiation.
Finally, the »frontground« role for the perfect is not found in discourse studies at all apart from work produced by Porter and those who have worked closely with him. At a theoretical level the perfect aspect described by Porter and F. as »stative« – should be expected to fall at the other end of the scale of prominence. Accord­ing to many linguists from Wallace (1982) onward, stativity occurs in the list of linguistic features that characterize background, while processes and events are expected to characterize foreground. Also in regard to actual Greek usage, perfects and pluperfects almost never occur in the narrative framework of indicative verbs; they occur predominantly in sections of speech or in embedded uses in re­lative clauses or as participles or infinitives. From the outset then they are unlikely to have a prominent role in the narrative. This is true of almost all the perfects discussed by F. in John 18–19. The perfects that do occur in the narrative clearly provide subsidiary details as background to the main story (18:; 19:19.20.41). A few that occur in speech are certainly prominent (19:30.35), but patterns for non-narrative should be analyzed separately. In published arguments for perfect as »frontground« in narrative, Porter and others (including F.) have worked primarily with examples of perfect participles, because these are embedded occasionally in narrative passages to describe participants. This is problematic, because description of participants is, in the nature of the case, more likely to be a background feature rather than a part of the foreground of significant events. This critique applies to perfect participles discussed by F. in John 18:; 19:
In light of these problems, his recommendations for translating Greek aspect into Mandarin should be reconsidered.