Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

In the beginning was the Word

᾿Εν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ Λόγος, καὶ ὁ Λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν Θεόν, καὶ Θεὸς ἦν ὁ Λόγος.
Οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν Θεόν.
πάντα δι᾿ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἓν ὃ γέγονεν.
ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν, καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων.
καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει, καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν.

I posted Luke 2:1-14 last year and the year before, and felt like a change this year: the opening words of the Gospel of John provide a theoretical rather than historical underpinning for the Incarnation. This is not the description of the Nativity that starts Matthew and Luke; this is an attempt to unify logic and emotion, to bring the λόγος of the philosophers into the same conceptual universe of the θεός of the believers. It is almost impossible to express the inexpressible; the evangelist has a go at it here, and I doubt if his formulation will ever be improved on.

It has particular personal resonances for me because it gave me my first real introduction to the idea that other languages could open up complex concepts which you will never get if you stick just to the one translation (or even just the one language). For this, as for many insights into how we can and do use words, I am deeply grateful to the incredible Charles-James N. Bailey, who bravely attempted to teach me New Testament Greek back in 1979, and started with this passage. I have, on a few occasions since, experienced the thrill of intellectual discovery, of insights opening up that I hadn't considered possible. But my first such experience was to encounter the poetry of John 1:5 in the original:
καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει, καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν.
kai to phōs en tē skotia phainei, kai hē skotia auto ou katelaben.
And the light in the darkness shines, and the darkness it not has-taken-in.

That last "taken-in" is my own humble attempt to gloss the Greek κατέλαβεν (from καταλαμβάνω), a verb which means varyingly "to seize", "to grasp", "to comprehend", "to catch", "to overtake", and even "to detect". The contrast is clearly meant to be with φαίνει in the first half of the verse: but the word chosen by the evangelist to describe the struggle between light and darkness, as seen from the perspective of the dark, defies any simple translation. That was when I fell deeply in love with languages, and the subtleties of meaning that cannot be translated between one and the other.

For a published translation, you can use only one word, of course. I find "comprehended", "apprehended", "overcome", "overpowered" in various English translations, but none of them really gets the original Greek. I think that the French "saisie" and Dutch "begrepen" are nearer the mark (not so sure about German "erfaßt"). With some difficulty I have tracked down an Anglo-Saxon version: "And þæt leoht lȳht on þȳstrum ; and þȳstro þæt ne genamon." Somehow that is rather satisfying, as "genamon" is the past participle of both "niman", "to take forcibly, hold, seize, catch, take away, grasp, pluck up, carry off, take away" and "geniman", "to grasp, comprehend".

Anyway, all of that aside, I wish everyone a happy and relaxed day, especially if, like me, you are celebrating it.
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