Unbroken Sentences

In reading a text, I usually see its trajectory in the progression of its main verbs. Especially with hypotaxis, the grammatical arrangement of functionally similar but ‘unequal’ constructs, this progression helps the reader to organize the ideas rightly by picking up the main idea and seeing how subordinate ideas support or propel this main idea. I find in translated texts, therefore, that it disturbs logical flow to promote subordinate clauses to the level of main clauses, a practice that destroys the hypotaxis of the original text. Especially for Greek or Latin, this translation practice tends to flatten ideas into a list of propositions without a clear idea structure. The resulting disturbance of logical flow is why I find even ESV and NASB wanting to be slightly tweaked, especially in Pauline epistles written in a more Asiatic style, in order for the right thought hierarchy to emerge.

Instead of hypotaxis, of course, many texts use parataxis, which favors short, simple sentences, with the use of coördinating rather than subordinating conjunctions. When authors have themselves used this structure, they tend to have made the subtle adjustments necessary for an attentive reader to grasp the text’s internal order while also exploring ambiguities. In translation, however, overuse of parataxis is distracting, as it hides the main idea by increasing the number of statements that appear to be primary.

For an exception to the principle of upholding parataxis when the original text uses it, readers may think of Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, known for its long, flowing sentences, sentences often but mistakenly thought to be run-ons. The long sentence of Ephesians 1.3–14, after all, is pretty long: it appears that this sentence must be broken up in English.

Nevertheless, the King James Bible manages in effect to maintain one fine, flowing, majestic sentence, despite the full stops, by using in whom (whom being a relative pronoun) rather than in him. Likewise, William Faulkner wrote quite the mean long sentence in the opening of Absalom, Absalom:

There was a wistaria vine blooming for the second time that summer on a wooden trellis before one window, into which sparrows came now and then in random gusts, making a dry vivid dusty sound before going away: and opposite Quentin, Miss Coldfield in the eternal black which she had worn for forty-three years now, whether for sister, father, or nothusband none knew, sitting so bolt upright in the straight hard chair that was so tall for her that her legs hung straight and rigid as if she had iron shinbones and ankles, clear of the floor with that air of impotent and static rage like children’s feet, and talking in that grim haggard amazed voice until at last listening would renege and hearing-sense self-confound and the long-dead object of her impotent yet indomitable frustration would appear, as though by outraged recapitulation evoked, quiet inattentive and harmless, out of the biding and dreamy and victorious dust.

If long sentences can be maintained in good literary English, I see no reason to object to preserving long sentences in English translations of biblical literature, as long as these sentences are actually in good English (cf. Lk 1.1–4). The logic beneath the sentences is an invitation to know God in all his glory, and this is no less true for long, complex sentences, which demand lots of attention.

Difficulty is no excuse. Especially as we expect readers of holy Scripture to reread these texts multiple times, or at least to rehear them multiple times over the years, the difficulty and the strangeness of the first encounter is no excuse. The Bible, no one can deny, is a hard book, with hard teachings, teachings that alienate men from one another, teachings that only those enlightened by the Holy Ghost can truly listen to. This is an hard saying; who can hear it? And so this difficulty, embedded into a text without error, and so itself without error, has come from God himself.

That the biblical text is strange to our human ears is an argument for God’s transcendence, an argument for us to be still and listen in reverent silence. If the thought’s complex, we must set our minds to hear it: it’s exactly because God’s ways are higher than our ways and his thoughts higher than our thoughts that we cannot afford to ignore that thought from the invisible realm of heaven. Reading a difficult biblical text becomes a discipline of reverent intimacy with God. Where the fantasies are unreal, the Lord calls us to imagine with him; where the thoughts are elaborately structured, the Lord calls us to think with him; where the statements are stark, the Lord calls us to be with him.

The way of knowing God is as labyrinthine, knotty and tortuous as the way of the Cross. Ic eom weig & soðfaestnysse & lyf. Ne cymð nan to þam fæder buton þurh me.

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