ambiguity of genitive constructs in Greek

Dave Brunn reports this from the translation into Lamogai (see p. 138ff.):

We have all been told that New Testament Greek is a precise language. That is true in some areas of the language, but it is not true of the genitive construction. The genitive in Greek is commonly used to show simple possession, and in those cases, it is straightforward. But in other contexts, the Greek genitive often has two or more possible meanings. An example of this is found in 1 Thessalonians 1:3 (NASB): “constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” The three genitives I would like to focus on in this verse are

  • work of faith
  • labor of love
  • steadfastness of hope

In Lamogai, a literal translation of these three phrases would sound like nonsense. For example, the phrase “labor of love” would sound like “labor that is possessed by love.” And “steadfastness of hope” would sound like “steadfastness owned by hope.”

Obviously, love cannot possess labor, and hope cannot be the owner of steadfastness. That means in order to translate this verse into Lamogai, the translator needs to dig a bit deeper to find out what these phrases mean. This is where the ambiguity of the Greek genitive comes into play because each of these three phrases has more than one possible meaning.

The first one, “work of faith,” is less ambiguous than the other two. Most commentators agree that this phrase means their work was a result of their faith in God.

The next, “labor of love,” is less clear. It could mean any of these three possibilities:”

    1. They labor because of God’s love for them.
    2. They labor because of their love for God.
    3. They labor because of their love for others.

In Lamogai, it is impossible to come up with a single statement that would include all three of these meanings. The grammar of Lamogai forces the translator to make a choice — just as English grammar forces every English version to choose between “evil” and “the evil one” in Matthew 6:13.

The third genitive phrase, “steadfastness of hope” is probably the most ambiguous of the three. Translators and commentators seem to be split evenly between the following two interpretations:

    1. They were steadfast in continuing to hope for the return of Jesus Christ.
    2. They were steadfast in their Christian walk because of their hope in Jesus Christ.

In other words, either their hope is steadfast (option 1), or else their hope causes steadfastness (option 2). The only way to translate this phrase into Lamogai is to choose one of these two interpretations. It is required by the grammar of Lamogai and many other languages. (…)

On one hand, it might be safer for a translator to leave this phrase ambiguous because we do not know for sure which meaning Paul intended. On the other hand, if hundreds or even thousands of other languages require that an interpretive choice be made, is it wrong to do the same thing in some English versions? If preserving the ambiguity of the Greek genitive were a requirement of faithfulness and accuracy, wouldn’t God have made sure that every language in the world was capable of fulfilling that requirement?

This passage was translated into Lamogai as: “Mu para pe ido Alangalang Ino Jisas Krais re ka kairak mu mu tir.”: “You [plural] are waiting for our [inclusive] Chief One Jesus Christ so then as a result you [plural] stand strongly.” (Source for this paragraph: private communication from Dave Brunn.)

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