Coptic Gnostic Seminar: Anecdote of a Jarring Event
In the late autumn of 1993, I was living and studying in Tübingen, Germany, and as part of that study, I attended -- along with Christoph Markschies, Michael Waldstein, Michael Theobald, Jim Kautt, Mr. Quack (unsure about that spelling), and one or two others -- a seminar conducted by Alexander Böhlig on Coptic Gnostic texts. One of these texts was The Apocryphon of John, from the Nag Hammadi Library.
Böhlig had asked me to prepare a long passage from the Apocryphon, so I read through it carefully in Coptic but only roughly sketching out in my mind German and English renderings. I figured that I could translate it readily enough into understandable German even if I were to make errors in doing so.
That didn't work out so well, as I recorded in my journal on November 12, 1993. Some of what I wrote in that entry was an attempt to reproduce the dialogue that took place in German, which I wasn't very good at, I confess. I'll post my entry in all its errors but also translate the German parts parenthetically into English:
My attempt at translating the Coptic of The Apocryphon of John directly into German failed miserably. I tried, but Professor Böhlig could not understand my German -- primarily, I think, for acoustic reasons . . . at least, now, I think so. At the time, I assumed the fault lay [entirely] in my faulty German.I wrote more about what then transpired, but I'll spare you and simply summarize. Professor Böhlig was much more polite after that and offered to help me with my German. Also, some of the other participants afterwards informed me that my German, while not perfect, had been passable enough, but that Böhlig simply had not been able to hear well enough to make out what I was saying. I could forgive him that, for he was over 80 years old. He probably had not heard the others give me 'permission' to switch to English.
I had just finished translating a clause about the entire creation lighting up -- I had used the term "ausstrahlen" (to shine) -- when Böhlig interrupted to ask me what I had done with [the Coptic expression] "o enouoeine" (as I recall). I answered that I was uncertain how one translated the qualitative here, but that the qualitative -- he interrupted again, telling me, rather brusquely, to translate it. So I repeated "Die ganze Schöpfung strahltete aus." ("The entire creation shone.")
"Strahlte" ("Shone"), he said.
I looked about the room, puzzled. "Vielleicht ist mein Deutsch falsch" ("Perhaps my German is incorrect"), I volunteered.
So Markschies inquired what I would say in English.
"The entire creation shone," I told him.
"Richtig" ("Right"), they agreed, and Waldstein suggested I continue in English.
But just to make sure, I said, "Ja, wenn niemand etwas dagegen hat." ("Yes, if no one has anything against that.")
No one objected, and so I began again, in English this time, though I had earlier prepared [if merely roughly] the whole exercise in my head in German as well as in English. I finished three lines, following each of which Böhlig impatiently translated into German. Then, after the third line, he stopped me with these words, "So, Sie haben es alles auf Englisch vorbereitet. Das geht nicht. Hier haben wir ein Seminar auf Deutsch -- Sie haben es night rightig getan. Herr Waldstein, könnten Sie übersetzen?" ("So, you have prepared it all in English. That won't do. Here, we have a seminar in German -- you have not done this correctly. Mr. Waldstein, could you translate?")
After a moment's stunned silence, he began [translating]. For a brief moment, I grew intensely angry, clenched my teeth, and fought back my urge to launch a verbal attack. But I remained angry for another five minutes -- plus I felt disappointed that no one had risen to my defense.
Later, however, I got my "revenge" -- though I remained polite (something I hope that I can always do in the face of rudeness). The end of the second hour had arrived, and we had just come across the form "ker-hote" in the BG text; Codices II and III (as I recall) had the qualitative "ko enhote," and Böhlig suggested that "ker-hote" showed an error somewhere, perhaps in the transcription from the original Coptic, explaining that the form "er," a Construct state, does not occur in the bipartite system. But, of course, he spoke German, using terms I didn't know, and it took me a few minutes to figure out his meaning. When I had it, he was already asking Herr Quack (my transliteration of his name, for which I apologize) -- an expert, one who comes to us from Egyptology -- his opinion on this odd form.
Quack said he could not say, speaking from an etymological perspective, where this came from, even assuming its validity as a form.
I had just opened my mouth to speak when Böhlig switched the focus to the next line of Coptic. I let it pass until that had been finished, then I began to speak, saying, "Wenn wir --" ("If we --")
"Wir haben keine Zeit mehr" ("We have no more time"), he announced.
I glanced at my watch, seeing that the minute hand had already moved a minute or two past 11:00, but I determined to speak anyway: "Ich habe eine Antwort für dieser Problem mit 'ker-hote'" ("I have an answer for this problem with 'ker-hote'"), I announced. "Es ist eine Ausnahme. Wenn es kein 'definite Artikel' gibt, dann kann man dieser Constuctus benutzen, in der erste Präsent." ("It is an exception. When there is no 'definite article,' then one can use this Construct form in the first present.")
For a moment, now, Böhlig grew silent. Then, "Ja . . . ja, das is möglich. Wenn es kein bestimmte Artikel gibt, dann könnte es sein . . ." ("Yes . . . yes, that is possible. When there is no definite article, then that could be . . .")
Nobody else spoke, but everybody knew that I had come out on top.
However, I do still wonder why -- at the moment of that jarring event -- no one spoke up on my behalf. The Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Küng once remarked in his own seminar that Germans lack civic courage. I don't know if that was the reason in this case. Probably not. Most likely, the others simply felt too much respect for Böhlig to explain to him that his hearing was poor.
By the way -- just in case anyone is interested -- the grammatical point at stake in the Coptic discussion was the application of Jernstedt's Rule, which states that in Coptic, an infinitive cannot be used in the Construct form for the first present verbal conjugation. The expression "ker-hote" (from "er-hote," i.e., "to become afraid," with the second person singular pronoun "k" prefixed, thus "you become afraid") uses the infinitive in the Construct form, but this is acceptable because compound verbs are an exception to Jernstedt's Rule (unless the compound verb occurs with the definite article on the noun or if the nominal element is a part of the body, e.g., foot, hand, etc., in which case, it follows Jernstedt's Rule).