ISSUES AND PRINCIPLES OF SYNTACTIC EQUIVALENCE
Wednesday, August 8, 1992
One of the principles drilled into me by Thomas Lambdin (whose Introduction to Biblical Hebrew
represents the best grasp of Herew syntax I am aware of) is that the syntax of a language is as
distinctive as its vocabulary. This dictum has been central to my own efforts to translate all the way
into English instead of partway only--to find how English, left to its own devices, accomplishes
particular linguistic tasks. I want to try, partly for my own sake, to start discussing this from
somewhere near ground zero, my ground zero in this case being the definition of a sentence I learned
in grammar school.
"A sentence is a group of words containing a complete thought." While I can appreciate the intent of
this, I now find it woefully inadequate. I am no longer sure that I have ever had a complete thought,
and if I have, it has surely been something that words could not "contain". I would much prefer a
definition such as "A sentence is an utterance which fulfills all the syntactic expectations it
creates." To take a simple example, "I like ice cream" is a complete sentence because the subject
expects a verb, which occurs, the verb expects an object, which occurs, and the object expects nothing
more. "I like ice cream and" is incomplete not because the thought is less complete, but because "and"
creates an expectation which is not fulfilled.
I would look at syntax, then, as comprising the ways a language creates expectations and the ways a
language identifies the satisfaction of those expectations.
From here, I'll focus mainly on the declarative sentence. I hasten to insist that this is only one
among many kinds of sentence, and that I start there not because it is necessarily central or basic,
but because it seems simplest. It is certainly the most frequent kind in Swedenborg's theological
I would suggest at the outset that the declarative sentence tries to proceed from the known to the
unknown, the known being roughly the subject, and the unknown being roughly the predicate. In the
extreme case of a definition, the only thing known about the subject may be that a particular word or
name exists, and that may not have been known until the word was uttered. "A spile is a tubular device
inserted into a hole drilled in a (maple) tree, to direct the flow of sap into a receptacle."
I've used spiles made of metal, of sumac branches, and of clothespins. That is, the word "spile,"
technical and precise as it is, still denotes a general category of objects, a mental boundary around
a variety of things that can be used for a particular purpose. I would see this particular kind of
categorization as "nominalization," meaning roughly the establishment of a transtemporal class of
phenomena. That is, "spile" suggests no particular locus in time.
As soon as I want to say something about a spile, or about spiles in general, though, I find myself
obliged (in both English and Latin) to specify a "when." Out of all the myriad ways in which phenomena
may be seen to exist or to happen or to behave, I select another category. "Commercial spiles are made
to fit snugly into a 5/8" hole." I like this example because there is a particular irrelevance to the
tense. As a literalist, I might better say that they were or have been made. Certainly the present
tense here is meant to be very broadly construed, to be heard as a habitual present of indefinite
duration. The point is that even when time is not particularly relevant, this class of expression
requires that we specify it. These are our "verbs," so called, and in declarative sentences they are
used predicatively, as steps into the unknown.
It is a central Swedenborgian principle that no two phenomena can ever be precisely alike. In a way,
this means that the variety within any category we may establish is potentially infinite, or to put it
more negatively, that there is an infinite imprecision to our categories. We have therefore what I
would regard as secondary functions, adnominal and adverbial. Out of all the objects that fit the
definition of a spile, I can narrow the field by using what we usually call "modifiers." In the last
example, I limited the statement to "commercial" spiles. I could have narrowed this even further with
the "possessive adjective" "my," or I could have insisted on the precision of the boundary by stating
that "All commercial spiles" are so made, or qualified the boundary with a "most" or a "some." I
"modified" the infinitive in the description of commercial spiles by specifying that they are made to
fit "snugly" into the 5/8" hole. I could in fact have limited the adverb with a "very" or a
"fairly"--if I had the technical knowledge, I could presumably specify the precise tolerances
This leaves us with two primary categories, nominal and verbal, and two secondary ones, adnominal and
adverbal. If we lump together the traditional conjunctions and prepositions into a general category of
"connectives," I think we have a grammatical category for virtually everything we find in Swedenborg's
theological writings. Clearly, there will be subcategories in every instance, but the exploration of
these would take us far afield.
It may be a mistake, but I'm going to assume general agreement that the primary functions involved in
syntax can be identified as nominal, verbal, adnominal, adverbial, and connective. I would stress
immediately, though, that I find it necessary to identify these as functions rather than as kinds of
words. That is, a phrase or a clause can be just as much a "noun" or "verb" or "adjective" or "adverb"
as a single word can. This is vital as we look at syntax in terms of incompletion and completion,
since there will be a "subcompletion" to a group of words serving a single function, a subcompletion
which contributes to the overall completion but does not by itself constitute it.
When we say that a given language has a limited number of syntactic devices, we are saying that it can
tolerate a limited number of kinds of incompletion. English, relying heavily on word order, does not
like to wait very long for the subject of a sentence. Still, there are some fairly substantial things
we can put first, such as temporal or conditional clauses. English, unlike German, can put between a
preposition and its noun only modifiers of that noun. Because syntactic connections in Latin are
signalled by formal inflections, Latin has a far wider range of forms of sequential incompletion than
English does. A Latin sentence can leave several "sub-assemblies" incomplete: English must usually
complete each one before proceeding to another on the same level.
There are both similarities and differences. English and Latin can both build noun phrases out of
nouns and adjectives. In English, virtually all adjectives precede the nouns they are limiting. In a
familiar title, for instance, "Angelic" creates the expectation of a noun, which in fact follows
immediately--"Wisdom." However, when Latin puts Sapientia first, there is only the broadest
expectation, if any, that this will be made more specific in some way.
In the earlier Arcana Coelestia, though, there is a greater difference, an initial ambiguity which
quite defies English translation, since Arcana could itself be used adjectivally. In fact, are we
quite sure that Swedenborg meant "Heavenly Mysteries" (or whatever) and not "Hidden Heavenly Things"?
If we are sure, then is it because we are confident that his Latin, unlike our English, prefers to
lead off with the noun and then add the limitation, or do we have some theological grounds for our
choice? In dealing with the phrase Divinum Humanum, we seem to have assumed that the adjective comes
first. What are our grounds for this?
Let's proceed with the title. We are immediately faced with a further limitation. That is, we are told
that out of all the Arcana Coelestia imaginable, this work will be concerned with a limited class, a
class is specified by an adnominal or adjectival clause. This structure is clearly signalled by the
relative pronoun, and it has its own "subcompleteness"--subject, verb, and predicate modifiers. At
this point the syntactic signalling systems of Latin and English begin to diverge a bit. English wants
the verb to precede the predicate modifiers. We cannot say with any fluency, "which in Sacred
Scripture or the Word of the Old Testament are."
Why not? In this particular instance, the [compound] prepositional phrase can still be only
predicative. I can only suggest that the subject pronoun "which" creates an expectation that the verb
will follow forthwith, and that therefore anything that intervenes will be modifying that verb. We
could readily say, "which in Sacred Scripture or the Word of the Old Testament are universally
present, if woefully unrecognized." That is, to follow "which" with "in" creates a misleading
expectation, an expectation which has to be abruptly revised when the clause is completed with "are."
We are not dealing with a "better" and a "worse" here. The clause is equally incomplete whether the
word that follows "which" is "in" or "are." Underlying the Latin-English discrepancy is the familiar
fact that Latin signals many syntactic relationships by means of inflection, while English depends
heavily on word order. If the predicate of the relative clause had been a noun, following Latin word
order would have been disastrous. If Swedenborg had intended " . . . which are revelations," and we
translated this as ". . . which revelations are" would make "revelations" the subject and an
understood arcana coelestia the predicate, instead of the reverse.
If I had to put my main point in a single sentence, it would be this. Different syntactic systems
tolerate different kinds of incompletion. Further, in every language there are almost certain to be
different levels of style, ranging if you will from highly colloquial to highly formal. The highly
formal will normally tolerate more complex syntactic structures than will the colloquial. English
poetry does things with word order that are quite impermissible in prose, and the style of an academic
paper sounds pompous if two people are discussing plans for a picnic.
In fact, I suspect that of all the languages into which the writings may be translated, English is
among the most problematic. We do have available a self-consciously Latinate vocabulary and style. A
Japanese cannot look at the word spiritualis and leap immediately to the obvious "spiritual." The
Japanese must try to decide what spiritualis means, and I suspect correspondingly must also work with
syntactic structures unrelated to those of Swedenborg's Latin.
It is not a question of the Japanese translator having to make more decisions than the
English translator. It is rather a question of the Japanesetranslator having to make more
conscious decisions, being able to take much less for granted, and as far as I am
concerned, that is a good thing.
The title of Arcana Coelestia presents a few more problems, but I want to mention them only briefly.
The relative clause is followed by the participle detecta, agreeing in number, gender, and case with
Arcana Coelestia, but separated from them by the clause. In fact, the title is much more closely
parallel to those of the other exegetical works, Apocalypsis Explicata and Apocalypsis Revelata, than
our usual abbreviation would suggest. That is, the heart of the title is Arcana Coelestia Detecta.
For us, the separation by word order has obscured the intimate association signalled by inflection.
The actual structure of the title is simple, but the capacity of Latin to signal connection by means
of grammatical agreement is lacking in English, its place being taken by contiguity. We don't have a
handy way getting all this information into a title as concisely as Swedenborg did. There are also
problems concerning the definite article--in view of Swedenborg's repeated statements that he can give
only a fraction of the inner meaning, Potts' "The Heavenly Arcana" strikes me as theologically
unsound, and the issue arises again in quae in Genesi.
However, I need to proceed to that most familiar of constructions, the quod-clause. It is with this
clause that, for me, the issue of word-groups filling syntactic functions comes to sharpest focus.
Swedenborg was often talking about concepts, concepts best expressed in sentences, and the
quod+subjunctive clause is a marvelously simple and flexible way of nominalizing a sentence so that
you can say something about it. As I've noted elsewhere, it is altogether fitting and proper that the
first word of his published theology should be "Quod."
"I can see that you're getting bored with all this." That is a perfectly normal English sentence,
normal enough that in the present context it did not necessarily sound like an example. The verbal
phrase "can see" does not require an object, but it can take one. That object must be nominal, and
could be a single word--"I can see that." As it is, the nominal, object function is fulfilled by a
clause, "that you're getting bored with all this." This is a substructure with its own subject, verb,
and predicative phrase: that is it has its own set of expectations and completions. The first of these
expectations is created by the connective "that," which is not the same word as the demonstrative
"that." They are spelled the same but are differently accented, and they function very differently.
"That all this is no news to you may be the case." This, in the present context, does sound like an
example. We don't like to put a noun clause before the verb in normal, "mid-level" speech. We see the
construction from time to time in relatively formal written material, but rarely hear it in
This does not, however, mean that we do not like to use nominalized sentences as subjects of
sentences. It means that we have different ways of doing so, and I would point to three, in no
particular order of preference.
First, we may precede the clause with an appositional noun. "The fact that it is pouring rain outside
will probably discourage you from taking a tour of the grounds." "The notion that the universe was
created from nothing is inherently absurd." I would note that if we use this device to translate one
of Swedenborg's quod-clauses, we are obliged to be more precise, or at least more explicit, than he
was. That is, we are obliged to choose whether the clause belongs in the category of fact, idea,
notion, opinion, suggestion, or some "other." This may be clear enough from the context to afford us
some assurance, but it should not be taken for granted.
Second, we may use our odd anticipatory "It." "It is quite clear to thoughtful people that we are
essentially spiritual beings." I think of this as an odd construction because the immediate
grammatical subject is an "it" which has no particular reference until we complete the clause that
defines it. Formally, the sentence has two subjects.
Third, we may use a noun phrase, centering in a verbal noun with objective and/or subjective
genitives. "The existence of God is the central tenet of all religions." Here the equivalent clause
would be "that God exists," and the subject-verb relationship would be represented by the subjective
genitive. "His emphatic acceptance of my suggestion caught me by surprise." The equivalent clause
would be "That he emphatically accepted my suggestion." Now we have a subjective genitive and an
objective genitive, with the difference between them being signalled by word order. We also have the
transformation of the adverb "emphatically" to the adjective "emphatic," necessitated by the shift
from finite verb to verbal noun.
Each of these devices has its limitations. In the case of the first, it is the necessity of choosing a
category of fact, idea, or the like which may require being more specific than the Latin text
warrants. In the case of the second, it works only where the predicate is simple and brief. We would
not normally say, "It follows from the fact that there are large puddles along the sides of the road
that it must have rained recently." In the case of the third, we have only limited or indirect means
of signalling tense. Verbal nouns share with other nouns an essential timelessness, and one of the
useful flexibilities of quod-clauses is that there is a full range of tenses to draw on.
I may close with a few random observations. First, Swedenborg can use noun clauses as subjects or
objects of verbs or as objects of prepositions. In the construction causa quod . . . , the following
noun clause is effectively in the genitive. When a quod clause is the subject of a passive
periphrastic, it is treated as neuter singular. In general, if we regard these clauses simply as
nouns, with number, gender, and case assumed but unmarked, we find that the syntax of Swedenborg's
expository prose is remarkably simple.
Our task is complicated rather than simplified by the fact that Swedenborg chose to use what strikes
me as a kind of generic European word-order. This means that we--and our students--can all too easily
fall into the habit of relying on word order as a primary indicator of connections, as we (which
includes me) seem to have done in translating Quod Divinus Amor et Divina Sapientia sit substantia, et
quod sit forma. We can even follow his word order fairly slavishly at times without becoming
completely unintelligible. Swedenborg was quite capable of taking full advantage of Latin's
flexibility in regards to word order, a feature that presents particular difficulties to speakers of
non-inflected languages. I would take his actual usage as one of the clearest possible indications
that simplicity was very high on his list of priorities, and would urge that we as translators are
therefore advised to give it equal value.