Re: Translating and Inclusive Language

From: Edward Hobbs (
Date: Tue Sep 09 1997 - 19:00:55 EDT

Jim Vellenga is doing us a service by his analysis of the possibilities for
translating Greek 3rd-person imperatives. And he is coming up with some
interesting suggestions.

I'll gloss a few of his comments below; but more centrally, let me make a
few observations about the problem involved.

        (1) Languages differ in what they make it easy to say. Changes in
ia language through history alter the possibilities for expressing some
ideas. The disappearance of the optative in the Koine, for example,
progressively limited the possibilities for expressing "iffier" ideas and
conditions. [NB: "Iffier" is not a new technical word; I may have just
made it up.] The gradual disappearance of the subjunctive in modern
English is somewhat analogous.
        During my sabbatical leave at MIT over 20 years ago, Noam Chomsky
responded to my worrying over this by saying that when humans need to
express something, they will find some way to do it, even if (for example)
lack of an optative mood makes doing so clumsy or roundabout.
        Hence, if we want to tell modern Americans what a Greek sentence
which includes a 3rd person imperative means, in modern English, we will
find a way to do it. But that does not mean that we have a 3rd person

        (2) If we abandon what we learn from our translations into English
of such forms, and focus solely on the meaning of the Greek, we will
discover that the recipient/hearer of the 3p-imp is not being given any
command at all, GRAMMATICALLY. Of course there is a rhetorical purpose in
addressing people thus, and the PRAGMATICS of the speech is such as to
invite action by the addressees, in many cases. But that is different from
the grammar. To illustrate this distinction, take the following example:
Chomsky walked into the room, and said after a few minutes, "It's
rather warm in here, isn't it?" Based on the grammar, I could have said,
"Yes, your hesitant observation is correct--I have just checked the
thermometer, and it is above 80 degrees." But instead, his sentence was a
preface to his removing his sweater, and then going to the window to open

Jim's analysis (quoted below) is of the pragmatics of the situation. But
they do not closely follow the GRAMMAR.

Jim wrote----->>>>>>>

I don't have a mechanism for systematically identifying all
the 3d pers. impv.s in the NT, but I did go over a number
of them from the passages I'm more familiar with, and it
appears that they are used mainly in two ways:
  1) to give directions (suggestions?) to a subset of the
     hearers, where the subset is identified by the context,
  2) to give direction to a hearer or hearer about the
     handling and/or treatment of a third entity, but
     not to give direction to the third entity itself.

Case 1 can be approximated in English by informal English
such as
  "If anyone's hungry, come to the table"
  "Buyer beware!"
  "Visitors please use other door"
<<<<<<<<-----------------------------end of quote from Jim V.

Notice that gramatically, these are English 2nd person imp's:

        Visitors! (vocative)
        [YOU MUST] use other door, please.

        BUYER! (vocative)
        Beware! [YOU MUST] beware!

        If anyone [among you] is hungry.
        [YOU] come to the table.

Remember John Kennedy's speech in Berlin, looking over the wall into East
Berlin: Toward the end, every example was punctuated with (first in German
and then in English) "Let him come to Berlin!" The dramatic way he said
this line, his shouting of it into the microphone, and the roar of the
crowd each time, made it obvious that he was issuing a command, a vigorous
command. But his GRAMMAR was not; he said "[You must] give him permission
to come to Berlin."

Of course we can TRANSLATE about anything in Greek into English. But there
are things which are sometimes lost, in ANY translation--hence it pays to
study Greek! That is the real thrust of what I was trying to say.

"Dynamic equivalence" translation probably would aim at getting the
pragmatics into the translation, more than the grammar. But about that, I
am only guessing.

Edward Hobbs

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