Re: Translating Imperatives

From: Edgar M. Krentz (
Date: Fri Aug 20 1999 - 21:47:55 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.
>>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.

Carl Conrad gave good comments, but I want to add a bit to what he says
below: The imperative is the mood of urgency. Urgency dominates its usage.
There are at least three freqquent uses. (1) Command, as you describe it
above. (2) Prayer or petition. Because prayer expresses urgency, the
imperative is the grammatical mood proper to prayer. Because we have no
third person imperative in English, we use the jussive forms "Let ...." (3)
As in English, so also in Greek, the imperative is used to grant permission
to do something in response to a request. It is the flip side of usage 2.
When my teen aged son used to ask for the car for Friday each night,
beginning with Monday, on Wednesday or Thursday I would say "Take the car,
Matt," not giving him an order but granting his request. (4) Occasionally
it can even be a substitute for a conditional clause: "Destroy [imptv] this
temple and in three days I will raise it up" does not give an order

Your problem arises from the fact that teachers of elementary Greek usually
stress that imperative = giving orders. Check out any good grammar of
either classical or NT Greek and see the wide variety of uses.

This is not meanto to correct anything Carl said in what follows. In German
a pastor says, "Lassen uns beten" to introduce a prayer. He is not asking

>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
>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.

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Edgar Krentz
Professor Emeritus of New Testament
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
1100 East 55th Street
Chicago, IL 60615
Telephone: (773) 256-0752; Dean's Office: 773-256-0722
Office: [preferred for anything professional]
Home: [Tel: 773-947-8105]
 "I grow older, learning all the time."
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