Re: Translating Imperatives

From: Ward Powers (
Date: Sat Aug 21 1999 - 09:31:31 EDT

B-greekers all:

At 09:41 99/08/20 -0500, 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.

I have noted Carl's careful response to this, in which he argues the case
for the adequacy of "let" to render the imperative on most occasions.

But Mark, I am strongly with you in holding that "let" can very frequently
be inadequate to render the third person imperative, can tone down the
force of the Greek, and can at times convey the idea of just "permission"
instead of taking on board that an instruction is being given or a command
is being laid down.

One particular passage comes to my mind in particular: 1 Corinthians 7:8-9,
where Paul addresses himself to the AGAMOI and widows. AGAMOI refers to
people who have been married and are no longer thus, i.e., the widowed and
divorced - or if not referring EXCLUSIVELY to such people (which is my
understanding of its use in 1 Cor 7) it at least includes them. In evidence
for this, see three verses further on, in verse 11. (The meaning of AGAMOS
was examined in some detail in b-greek a while back; the correspondence
will doubtless be in the archives.)

The first thing Paul says to such people (verse 8) is, They should remain
as he. [In a number of translations the word "single" (RSV) or "unmarried"
(NRSV, NIV) is introduced at this point - it does not occur in the Greek;
the evidence strongly indicates that Paul had been married and that his
marriage had ended and he did not then remarry.]

But, Paul goes on, if [after attempting to refrain from remarriage, as Paul
did] they "cannot restrain [their] desires" (TEV)/ "cannot control the
sexual urges" (Jerusalem), then GAMHSATWSAN. Third person plural aorist

Just the kind of grammatical situation you were describing, Mark.

The Authorized Version (KJV) translates, "let them marry". So also NASB,
NKJV, Phillips, Lattimore. To me, this translation does sound very much
like simply "giving permission".

The other renderings I found were: "they should marry" (RSV, NRSV, NIV,
Jerusalem, NEB, REB), and "go on and marry" (TEV; similarly, Living Bible,
CEV). This is better. The first of these is pointing out the preferred path
- what they "should" do, and the second is encouraging them to take it: "go
ahead - get married". But is pointing out "should-ness" or a word of
encourzgement to "go on, go ahead" really fully capturing what Paul is
saying when he uses the imperative here?

For myself, I think not. Paul is pointing out the road that they MUST take
when they find themselves in the situation he describes. As I read the
Greek, he is not giving advice; he is giving a command: this is THE way to
handle the situation when a person recognizes that they have a sexual
nature which they cannot control, and the alternative for them is to be
"tortured by unsatisfied desire" (Phillips - others similarly).

So I would translate this: "but if they [find that they] cannot exercise
control over their sexual nature, then they must marry, for it is far
better to be married than to be burning up with sexual desire." Or at least
we should render it, "they are to get married", or "the right thing for
them to do is marry". Or some such.

Now this is just looking at the Greek. I realize that there are other
things people might want to take into account these days. Not everyone can
manage to get married, just like that, not even if Paul says to. And it is
not always wise to marry just the first willing partner you can find. And
again, marrying primarily for the purpose of acquiring a legitimate sexual
partner might not be the best basis for a worthwhile and lasting
relationship. I take it these things are in the background for the
Corinthians too.

But, like Mark says, I reckon we have to do justice to the fact that Paul
has used an imperative here, in addressing the AGAMOI and widows.



Ward Powers			Email:
10 Grosvenor Crescent		International Tel: +61-2-9799-7501
SUMMER HILL  NSW  2130		Australian Tel:     (02) 9799-7501

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