Fwd: Re: Translating Imperatives

From: Carl W. Conrad (cwconrad@artsci.wustl.edu)
Date: Sat Aug 21 1999 - 09:09:51 EDT

A message from Mark Taylor on the B-Greek List yesterday generated some
interesting responses. I am taking the liberty of forwarding my reply,
which includes part of his query about translating Greek imperatives into
English and how various alternative English "equivalents" get interpreted
by readers. I wonder if we might get some more feedback from B-Translation
list-members about strategies for handling imperatives in English and other

>Date: Fri, 20 Aug 1999 10:42:24 -0500
>To: Biblical Greek <b-greek@franklin.oit.unc.edu>
>From: "Carl W. Conrad" <cwconrad@artsci.wustl.edu>
>Subject: Re: Translating Imperatives
>Cc: Biblical Greek <b-greek@franklin.oit.unc.edu>
>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
>WWW: http://www.artsci.wustl.edu/~cwconrad/
>B-Greek home page: http://sunsite.unc.edu/bgreek
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Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics/Washington University
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Home: 7222 Colgate Ave./St. Louis, MO 63130/(314) 726-5649
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