Always Choose the Stronger Word and Beware of False Friends: A Translator’s Memories of Martin Hengel (1926-2009) and John Bowden (1935-2010)


As a way of marking Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it seemed appropriate to attempt my first post in the category of “reflections”. For the most part, these will be related to German New Testament scholarship, though I may deviate from this plan now and then. In this post, I will simply share a few memories that I have of Martin Hengel and John Bowden, two of which bear directly on the task and challenges of translation.

Martin Hengel

Although I participated in one of Hengel’s block seminars during my studies in Tübingen, it was only later, during the time of my PhD, that I had the opportunity to speak with him at greater length. Two memories have stuck with me from these conversations.

As someone who struggled deeply to complete his PhD, I remember especially well the helpful advice that Hengel gave me about writing a PhD (even if I can’t remember if we were speaking in German or English or the extent to which my resulting memory reflects his words or my paraphrase of what he said):

1) Sit down and write your dissertation;

2) Make a selection of the most important works from the secondary literature, and give priority to the full range of relevant primary sources;

3) The real art of a scholar resides in the ability to improve what s/he has written.

(For further reflection on these points, see my discussion of them in the PhD section of my document “A Roadmap for Aspiring New Testament Scholars”.)

My second memory comes from a series of discussions that I had with Hengel concerning my translation of his contribution to Graham Stanton’s Festschrift, The Written Gospel, namely “Eye-Witness Memory and the Writing of the Gospels.” I had dutifully completed my first draft translation, marking in workmanlike fashion the many passages and words for which I sought his advice. Coming to the first word in question, I tentatively asked him whether he thought this word or that word was more appropriate for his purposes. Leaning forward slightly, he said to me: “Always choose the stronger word; this, you see, is a polemical essay” (since I can’t remember if we were speaking in English or German, I remain very uncertain about the extent to which this represents an exact quotation of what was actually said). This exchange, I think, captured well one of the most striking features of Hengel’s character: he was a fighter, at least when it came to convictions that he held deeply. And I think that much good came from this polemical forcefulness, even if I also think that it sometimes became unwieldy and unhelpful. For me, however, it also shed some light on the task of translation. In short, the translator should make at least some attempt to capture the tone of a work, which may indeed mean “always choosing the stronger word”.

For further reflections on Martin Hengel’s life and work, see esp. my translation of his essay “A Young Theological Discipline in Crisis” in Earliest Christian History (cf. e.g., Larry Hurtado 1 and Michael Bird) and Roland Deines’ heavily documented essay in this same volume. See also e.g. Roland DeinesJohn Dickson, Larry Hurtado 2David Neff, Daniel B. Wallace, and The Telegraph.

For my other blog posts on Martin Hengel, see here.

John Bowden

I remain uncertain of the exact occasion when I met John Bowden, but I believe that it was at the commemoration of Martin Hengel’s 80th birthday in Cambridge. Two points have stuck with me from our conversation, and I hope that I will succeed in passing them both along, especially the first!

At the outset of our conversation I said something like, “It’s a great honor for me to meet you Dr. Bowden”. Unfortunately, I pronounced the “Bow” in “Bowden” as if it rhymed with “Now” or “Cow”, whereas it actually rhymes with “Snow” or “Know”. And accordingly, he responded by saying something like “It’s Bowden not Bowden, but that’s ok, you get to say it wrong once, but only once.” And I have been correcting people’s pronunciation of his name ever since.

After this somewhat awkward start, we then had a very enjoyable conversation about translation. Among other things, he shared with me how he had begun by translating words as the unit of translation, and then moved on to sentences, and then to paragraphs (I am mostly still on words, I’m afraid). But it was another tip that made a deeper impression on me, namely his warning that “false friends” are the greatest danger to the translator, by which he meant that there are sometimes words that are the same (or similar) in two different languages but have rather different meanings. For example, the translator may make a slip and translate “Art” as “art” (instead of “kind/sort/type”) or “sensibel” as “sensible” (instead of “sensitive”). For it is one thing to say that your friend is sensibel (sensitive) and quite another to say s/he is sensible (vernünftig), though s/he may, of course, be both.

For further reflections on John Bowden’s life and work, see e.g., Robert Morgan, Robin Baird-Smith, Jim West, Mark Goodacre, and The Telegraph.

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For two interviews with me about the Baylor-Mohr Siebeck Series, see Clifford Kvidahl and Michael Hölscher.

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German Mondays: Thank you for making it to the end of this blog post! In an effort to provide a sense of regularity and predictability for this blog’s readership, I plan on writing a new post each Monday. So hopefully I will ‘see’ you again in a week’s time. Best, Wayne.