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How to translate the inchoative imperfect

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How to translate the inchoative imperfect

Postby huilen » Wed Apr 23, 2014 7:37 am

I have noted that all the translations of Homer that I have checked always translate the inchoative imperfect as if it were an aorist. Here is an example from Od. 7.1-5:

ὧς ὁ μὲν ἔνθ᾽ ἠρᾶτο πολύτλας δῖος Ὀδυσσεύς,
κούρην δὲ προτὶ ἄστυ φέρεν μένος ἡμιόνοιιν.
ἡ δ᾽ ὅτε δὴ οὗ πατρὸς ἀγακλυτὰ δώμαθ᾽ ἵκανε,
στῆσεν ἄρ᾽ ἐν προθύροισι, κασίγνητοι δέ μιν ἀμφὶς
5ἵσταντ᾽ ἀθανάτοις ἐναλίγκιοι, οἵ ῥ᾽ ὑπ᾽ ἀπήνης
ἡμιόνους ἔλυον ἐσθῆτά τε ἔσφερον εἴσω.


So he prayed there, the much-enduring goodly Odysseus, while the two strong mules bore the maiden to the city. But when she had come to the glorious palace of her father, she halted the mules at the outer gate, and her brothers [5] thronged about her, men like the immortals, and loosed the mules from the wagon, and bore the raiment within;


I would translate, instead:

So he prayed there, the much-enduring goodly Odysseus, and the two strong mules began to bear the maiden to the city. And when she was coming to the palace of her father, she halted the mules at the outer gate, and her brothers began to throng about her, men like the immortals, and to loose the mules from the wagon and to bear the raiment within;


What do you think? Do you know any translation that translates the inchoative imperfect literally?
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Re: How to translate the inchoative imperfect

Postby Paul Derouda » Wed Apr 23, 2014 8:21 am

This sort of thing always has to decided according to context; my native language is not English, but perhaps using systematically expressions like "began to", "set out to" would make the English translation too heavy.

So he prayed there, the much-enduring goodly Odysseus, while the two strong mules bore the maiden to the city.


In this case, I don't think the first imperfect φέρεν is really inchoative; rather, it shows that the action of the mules is simultaneous with Odysseus' prayer. So its force is really brought out by while. You could emphasize it even more by translating "while the mules were bearing the maiden".

With the rest, I more or less agree with you. But again, I think this a question of choice – how much do you want emphasize the fact that the Greek has an inchoative imperfect (a beginning of an effort – compare it to the inceptive aorist, which shows an instantaneous change of state, e.g. δακρύσας "bursting into tears"). You can never get every nuance into a translation, the translator has to decide what is most important in each individual case to keep the translation readable.

I think the newer revised Loeb translation is very good at bringing out this sort of nuance every time when it has some importance.
Last edited by Paul Derouda on Wed Apr 23, 2014 8:23 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: How to translate the inchoative imperfect

Postby Paul Derouda » Wed Apr 23, 2014 8:21 am

What translations are you using, by the way?
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Re: How to translate the inchoative imperfect

Postby huilen » Wed Apr 23, 2014 8:35 am

This sort of thing always has to decided according to context; my native language is not English, but perhaps using systematically expressions like "began to", "set out to" would make the English translation too heavy.

Hehe, I admit that they may be a little weary for the ear.

In this case, I don't think the first imperfect φέρεν is really inchoative; rather, it shows that the action of the mules is simultaneous with Odysseus' prayer. So its force is really brought out by while. You could emphasize it even more by translating "while the mules were bearing the maiden".

Thanks, I still have problems with this use of the imperfect.

I think the newer revised Loeb translation is very good at bringing out this sort of nuance every time when it has some importance.

I will check it. I was using the translations that offers provides perseus together with the text:
http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/tex ... 3Acard%3D1
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Re: How to translate the inchoative imperfect

Postby Paul Derouda » Wed Apr 23, 2014 9:06 am

I think that translation (by Murray) is the Loeb translation, but it was revised in the 1990's, and that's the unrevised version. The new version is by far the best literal rendition of the Odyssey into a modern language I have come across, and I have seen at least 15 translations. The old version (which I haven't used myself, so I don't know for sure) is probably just as good in bringing out the meaning of the Greek, if you don't mind the "thee" and "thou" language, but the newer is probably much easier to read.
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Re: How to translate the inchoative imperfect

Postby Qimmik » Wed Apr 23, 2014 12:35 pm

This may be just my own impression, but I think the imperfect is often used in epic narrative to paint a picture. The imperfect shows what is happening more vividly than the aorist--in this respect, it's more akin to the historic present (which doesn't occur in Homeric epic). It places the reader/listener immediately at the scene of the action. So in English a string of imperfects like these probably are accurately translated by the English past tense, and not as inchoative verbs.

The only aorist in Od. 7.1-6 is the one verb that would really be impossible to render as an imperfect, στῆσεν. "She stopped at the gates." This verb has to be punctual. The rest of the verbs are imperfect, including ἵκανε.

my native language is not English


Why do you persist in perpetuating this obvious lie, Paul?
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Re: How to translate the inchoative imperfect

Postby Scribo » Wed Apr 23, 2014 2:01 pm

I know right? Paul's English posting is better than mine ma ton kuonta.

First off there is no inchoative aspect hard-coded into any of those verbs so you are under no obligation to try and translate them as such. Moreover when a hard coded inchoative appears it may carry such a meaning as, e.g, βάσκε "get going!" but more often than not it has a sense of "accustomed to X" e.g δόσκον < δίδωμι "was accustomed to give", μαχέσκετο < μάχομαι "used to fighting".

Always bow to context.
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Re: How to translate the inchoative imperfect

Postby Paul Derouda » Wed Apr 23, 2014 3:25 pm

Qimmik wrote:This may be just my own impression, but I think the imperfect is often used in epic narrative to paint a picture. The imperfect shows what is happening more vividly than the aorist--in this respect, it's more akin to the historic present (which doesn't occur in Homeric epic). It places the reader/listener immediately at the scene of the action. So in English a string of imperfects like these probably are accurately translated by the English past tense, and not as inchoative verbs.

I think that's one way to see it. Sometimes I think the imperfect is used of events that seem punctual, but imperfects turn these individual actions into a series of connected events.

Here's what Monro says in his Homeric Grammar (p. 64-65):
"The Impf. appears sometimes to be used in a description along with Aorists for the sake of connexion and variety (i.e. to avoid a series of detached assertions)" (italics mine)


So it's always the context that matters.

As for my English, you are very kind. But on an internet forum, you can take your time when writing, look up words and reformulate your phrases when they don't work out. You wouldn't believe how bad I am in realtime. Improving my English is actually one reason I write here.
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Re: How to translate the inchoative imperfect

Postby Qimmik » Wed Apr 23, 2014 4:09 pm

One suggestion: while the textbook explanations of Greek imperfect vs. aorist aspect are generally valid, the interplay of aspects in the texts is, in my experience, more subtle and varied. I don't think you should worry over each apparently anomalous use of the imperfect or aorist. In most cases, the meaning isn't in doubt, and I would recommend simply observing how the aspects are actually used, rather than spending a lot of time puzzling over them. Eventually, you will develop a feel for the differences (but there will always be a few surprises).

It's also possible that sometimes metrical convenience plays a role in the choice, or the poet is simply using a prefabricated formula. After all, dactylic hexameters are not easy to compose in Greek--even with the aid of writing. The strict patterns of longs and shorts go against the grain of Greek prosody; iambic verse is much easier. So you have to cut Homer some slack if sometimes he (she?) doesn't do exactly what the textbooks insist s/he ought to do.
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Re: How to translate the inchoative imperfect

Postby huilen » Wed Apr 23, 2014 8:00 pm

Qimmik wrote:This may be just my own impression, but I think the imperfect is often used in epic narrative to paint a picture. The imperfect shows what is happening more vividly than the aorist--in this respect, it's more akin to the historic present (which doesn't occur in Homeric epic). It places the reader/listener immediately at the scene of the action. So in English a string of imperfects like these probably are accurately translated by the English past tense, and not as inchoative verbs.

This interpretation of the imperfects would satisfy me, if they were not intermingled with the aorists in such way (that is what despairs me above all). However, I remembered now that I had a similar astonishment reading old Spanish ballads, where historical present and imperfective tenses are usually intermingled with perfective tenses, and many times the aspectual value of a verb prevail and go in detriment of it's temporal value. I have never explained myself the large assortment of nuances and subtleties that they obey, and I could even so enjoy the Romancero Viejo. So I know Qimmik is right in his last suggestion (I will try to leave my obsession, I promise).


Paul Derouda wrote:"The Impf. appears sometimes to be used in a description along with Aorists for the sake of connexion and variety (i.e. to avoid a series of detached assertions)" (italics mine)


Scribo wrote:First off there is no inchoative aspect hard-coded into any of those verbs so you are under no obligation to try and translate them as such.


I agree that variety could be the goal or the wished effect of this association of the aorist and the imperfect, the same way that they are probably there for metrical purposes (which is why poetry is poetry, I suppose). But even so they are not arbitrary, and I would like to understand in each situation why they were chosed (in this particular case I had thought that they were inchoative, but I understand that they are not inherently inchoative).
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Re: How to translate the inchoative imperfect

Postby Paul Derouda » Wed Apr 23, 2014 8:34 pm

huilen wrote:This interpretation of the imperfects would satisfy me, if they were not intermingled with the aorists in such way (that is what despairs me above all).

Think about it the other way. Think about the imperfect simply as the counterpart to the aorist. The aorist always represents a single event. Bam and it's already over. Click, the lights are on. Click, they are off. There's no in-between. So instead of thinking "why is this an imperfect?", ask yourself "why not an aorist?".
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Re: How to translate the inchoative imperfect

Postby huilen » Wed Apr 23, 2014 9:34 pm

It worked for me in this case, I read again the passage and it has quite sense to me the use of the imperfect and of the aorist in this case. But I am still thinking that I would translate all the imperfects, except the second, with an inchoative verbal periphrase (at least in Spanish), specially the last ones, that group of actions that take place not one after another, but as a blurred group of actions that occurred altogether, vagely, and at an indefinite time. If I translate them with the past, this bustle that the brothers made around Nausicaa is lost, and they turn a sequential chain of actions. Don't you think?
Thus Odysseus prayed. -> aorist
And the mules bore the maiden to the city. -> imperfect
When she came to the palace -> imperfect
she halted the mules at the gates -> aorist
and her brothers thronged upon her -> imperfect
loosed the mules from the wagon, -> imperfect
and bore the clothes within -> imperfect

Thus Odysseus prayed.
And the mules began to bore the maiden to the city.
When she was coming to the palace
she halted the mules at the gates
and her brothers began to throng upon her,
loose the mules from the wagon
and bore the clothes within.
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Re: How to translate the inchoative imperfect

Postby Qimmik » Wed Apr 23, 2014 10:29 pm

Isn't ἠρᾶτο, from ἀράομαι, also imperfect, not aorist? So all of the verbs in this passage are imperfect. except στῆσεν, which is aorist.

None of these imperfects seem to me inchoative--there's no particularly reason here to focus on the beginnings of the actions. These verbs are, as Paul says, imperfect to connect a continuous narrative. This is simply a narrative of a sequence of actions. Only στῆσεν in this sequence requires the aorist, emphasizing the character of this verb as a single, instantaneous event in the context of a connected series of actions; the rest of the verbs are imperfect to connect them together in the sequence.

Verbal aspect is a particularly tricky feature of language. The aspectual contrasts of one language rarely map precisely onto those of another language, and it's often difficult for individuals who aren't native speakers of a particular language to acquire an infallible sense of the aspectual distinctions inherent in that language. I know this from having struggled with aspect in Russian, where aspect plays a very important semantic role; I get it right maybe 75-80% of the time. But there are always situations where native speakers of Russian instinctively use a different aspect than the one I would have anticipated, and the textbook explanations, as I understand them as a native speakers of English, sometimes mislead me.

When you write that the translation you quoted translates the imperfects as aorists, I don't think that's quite right. English doesn't have an aorist--it has a preterite (or past) tense, which happens to correlate semantically in part with the Homeric aorist and in part with the Homeric imperfect--as it does here. I think the quoted translation is perfectly acceptable.

In English, at least, translating all of these imperfects (and other imperfects throughout the Odyssey) with expressions such as "began to" would not only quickly become tiresome, it would not accurately convey the meaning of the verbs in question. Again, I think it's important not to allow oneself to put too much weight on textbook rules in the face of the text itself.
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Re: How to translate the inchoative imperfect

Postby huilen » Thu Apr 24, 2014 6:08 pm

Qimmik wrote:Isn't ἠρᾶτο, from ἀράομαι, also imperfect, not aorist? So all of the verbs in this passage are imperfect. except στῆσεν, which is aorist.

You're right, it is also an imperfect. That helps, the second imperfect has more sense for me now.
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Re: How to translate the inchoative imperfect

Postby Paul Derouda » Fri Jul 18, 2014 8:30 am

A continuation of the endless imperfect debate we have had on different threads...

I found a new, interesting interpretation of the "inchoative imperfect". It's from Albert Rijksbaron's The Syntax and Semantics of the Verb in Classical Greek, 3rd edition - the book seems pretty good, as much as I've read, not too long (200 pages) and tries to make things seem not more complicated than they are.

On p.17-18 Rijksbaron calls this imperfect "immediative imperfect". I quote the best bits:
The immediative imperfect (also called 'imperfect of consecutive action') expresses the idea that the state of affairs ["state of affairs" is technical jargon for "action"] was realized straight away following another state of affairs. Some examples: [I omit 2 of 3 examples]
(34) διαλαβόντες δὲ τὰς οἰκίας ἐβάδιζον ('They apportioned the houses amongst them, and were gone', Lys. 12.8 )
[...]Thus, (34) could be paraphrased by: '(No sooner had they apportioned the houses than) they were on their way". [...] We are placed, as it were, right on the middle of the state of affairs.

Note 1. Sometimes this use of the imperfect is called 'inceptive' (also in the 1994 edition of this book), but this wrongly suggests that it is especially the initial stage of the state of affairs that is relevant. To be sure, the close union of the imperfect state of affairs with the preceding one often implies that the former began immediately after the latter, but to express the 'beginning' of a state of affairs Greek had other means at its disposal, notably the ingressice aorist [...].


In the note, the author seems a bit too categorical, as in other examples he himself does not refrain from translating this sort of imperfect with "set out to" (I forget the page number). But in general this seems a good explanation to me.
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Re: How to translate the inchoative imperfect

Postby huilen » Wed Jul 30, 2014 3:44 pm

Thanks Paul, this interpretation of the imperfect is very clarifying.

Sometimes this use of the imperfect is called 'inceptive' (also in the 1994 edition of this book), but this wrongly suggests that it is especially the initial stage of the state of affairs that is relevant.


I feel totally agree with this, I've never feel really comfortable with the inchoative imperfect, and now I see it more clearly: it was precisely that emphasis in the beginning of the action what sounded wrong. Though it is true that the action denoted is just started, the emphasis is more in the immediacy with respect to the previous action rather than in the fact of its beginning.
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