Re: Translating Imperatives

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Fri Aug 20 1999 - 11:42:24 EDT

At 9:41 AM -0500 8/20/99, TAYLOR, MARK D [FND/1000] wrote:
>I have been disappointed with the translation of the imperative in major
>English translations (actually, I usually read the NASB or NIV, I might be
>wrong on some others).
>When the imperative is used as a command, it seems to be usually conveyed
>via "let your ...", which I think implies to most English readers the idea
>of permission, and not of command. I really think most people do not at all
>see this as a command. And "let" is sometimes used with the subjunctive, as
>well, which seems to make more sense. And, of course, there are times when
>"let" is used specifically for permission (Matt 5:40 (NASB) "And if anyone
>wants to sue you, and take your shirt, LET him have your coat also." - using
>AFES). So the English reader is left with confusing information.
>An example of imperative command:
>(NASB) "Let your light shine before men ..."
>An example of subjunctive with "let":
>Hebr 4:16 "PROSERXWMEQA OUN ..."
>(NASB) "Let us therefore draw near ..."
>William Tyndale sometimes translated the imperative as, "See that you...",
>which seems much better. Or maybe something like, "You must..."?
>And in the Lord's Prayer, starting in Matthew 6:9, where the imperative is
>used several times for entreaty, it seems that no attempt is made to convey
>the force to the English reader. Would it be too much to translate it as, "I
>plead with you to ..." or something like that?
> "hAGIASQHTW TO ONOMA SOU" as "Hallowed be Thy name"
> "ELQETW hH BASILEIA SOU" as "Thy kingdom come"
> "GENHQHTW TO QELHMA SOU" as "Thy will be done"
> etc.

Perhaps this is a matter of personal response to a traditional usage in
English, a sense on your part that "let (x) occur" is asking for
permission. I think this is an etymological fallacy, a supposition that an
expression's origin accounts for its usage. But in fact when I say to a
friend, "Let's go right now," I'm not asking his or anyone else's
permission for the two of us to go; I'm saying that he and I should get
going immediately--that is precisely what the imperative does. I think that
the English imperative "let" with an object and an infinitive probably did
originate as a means of softening the harshness of an imperative, but there
is comparable usage in many other languages. Some may remember from a
generation ago, how John Kennedy picked up the chant from the crowds in
Berlin responding to his speech celebrating the spirit of Berliners to
voice (in a thick Boston accent), "Lass sie nach Berlin kommen." Colloquial
Latin in the first century used SINE/SINITE with a subjunctive, NT Koine
shows the similar imperative of AFIHMI + subjunctive, e.g. Mt 27:49 hOI DE
"Let's see if Elijah comes to save him!" Modern Greek has the same AFES as
the contracted form AS with a NA (from hINA) and the subjunctive as an

As for those 3rd person imperatives you cite from the LP, why do you say
they are entreaty? Because they're in prayer? Yes, God is urged that the
Kingdom and His will become a reality; some versions will make that "Let
your kingdom come" or "May your kingdom come." It seems to me that popular
speech always prefers some courteous expression of the addressee's freedom
to refuse the command, even when it is a command. Thus earlier Attic Greek
uses the potential optative with AN: e.g. ELQOITE AN = "you might come" or
as a question, "might you come"--but this is an equivalent to "Please
come"--exactly what French does with a "RŽpondez s'il vous pla”t, where one
normally does not put a comma before "s'il" because "s'il vous pla”t" has
become fused into the ordinary form of the French imperative.

English really has an exact equivalent only for the second-person
imperatives of Greek, and in fact we're sort of hard-put to convey the
urgency of a second-person aorist injunction, TAUTA MH POIHSHiS--how should
we convey this? "Don't ever do that!" or "You MUST not do that!" or "That
you are NOT to do!"

I've always thought the toughest passage to convey into good English was
TON STAURON AUTOU KAI AKOLOUQEITW MOI). How to do it so that it doesn't
sound stilted or unidiomatic? Maybe it SHOULD sound stilted; it is, after
all, an intensely urgent formulation: use "must"? "Whoever wants to follow
me must deny himself and take up his cross and keep following me." use
"should"? " ... should deny himself ..." but that seems to make it a matter
of ethical propriety, as would using "ought to deny himself ..." Does
anyone really miss the point of this imperative in the traditional version,
" ... let him deny himself"?

To sum up: I think colloquial usage in most languages (European languages,
at any rate) shows that speakers are uncomfortable with the harshness of
direct imperatives, and for that reason various types of periphrasis have
become common in them all to soften the harshness of command into a
courteous request to act in the desired manner. But the courteous tone, I
think, cannot really disguise that an imperative is an imperative. As a
child, I always knew what my mother meant when she said, "Wouldn't you like
to go to the store and pick up a loaf of bread?" My wife is much more
direct: "Go fetch us some bread!"--and her putting it thus does tend to rub
me the wrong way.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
Summer: 1647 Grindstaff Road/Burnsville, NC 28714/(828) 675-4243

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