Re: Translating Imperatives

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Sat Aug 21 1999 - 17:54:36 EDT

At 5:14 PM -0400 8/21/99, Mike Sangrey wrote:
>I was going to ask the question, "Would it be better for me to think of the
>imperative tense as an 'urgentive'?" which of course would coin a word, but it
>would stress for me that the emphasis of the tense is on the urgency and not
>on the commanding nature. Before I asked that question though, I thought I
>better look 'imperative' up in the dictionary. means a command or
>a statement made with urgency. Duh! I had thought it meant command.
>To my ear, "let us..." carries no urgency. If that is common to the English
>ear, then wouldn't "let us" either be a bad translation on the one hand or on
>the other hand the imperative tense has a broader meaning than urgency. It
>seems to me we have one or the other.
>The imperatives in the Lord's prayer can be easily handled by posturing the
>person praying in an urgent but submissive tone.
> Please let your name be hallowed,
> please let your kingdom come,
> please let your will be done...
>Wouldn't third person imperatives be the Greek way of saying "please"?

I don't think matters are quite that simple. As Ward Powers noted, there
are places where the third-person imperative seems much more urgent; I've
pointed to the "If any man wishes to follow me ..." sequence--where I
hardly think we'd want to render it, "please let him deny himself and take
up his cross ..."

I argued myself that "Let + accusative + infinitive" is the standard
traditional English equivalent of a third- or a first-person imperative in
Greek (and Latin); I'm still sort of surprised to read that many persons
honestly feel a note of begging permission in that, but if they feel that,
I would guess this is a matter of a traditional English usage that is
obsolescing. I've only with difficulty shaken off the distinction I was
taught in elementary school decades ago between "I shall" as expressing
simple future intent and "I will" as expressing determination; the
distinction is pretty much obsolete in spoken English now, So is "It is I,"
and standard now, at least in American English, is "It's me." The English
subjunctive has been fading for quite some time now except for sayings such
as "come hell or high water"--where we're probably not even cognizant of
"come" as a subjunctive.

But there's another problem with translating imperatives, quite apart from
the fact that we have imperative modal forms, MH + aorist subjunctive,
future indicatives for imperatives (presumably a Semitism, although
occasionally found in earlier Greek). Assuming, as I gather we're all ready
to assume, that there ARE nuances between NT instances of the same
imperative forms, that some of them express a much greater degree of
urgency than others, I really wonder whether we're likely to come to any
solid consensus about the degree of urgency of all the instances. Do you
trust your eyes, ears, and minds to decide the degree of urgency in each
GNT imperative? I'm not arguing for a single phraseology to translate all
of them, but I suspect that we are confronted here with two very distinct
problems that face each other: a range of nuances in the Greek imperative
expressions themselves, on the one hand, and differing sensibilities
regarding the degree of urgency in existing English (and other target
languages also?) imperative expressions. I would agree that we want our
translations to express what we perceive to be the right degree of urgency
in the Greek imperative, but I suspect we're confronting a twofold problem
in this.

Incidentally, I've just gotten my canned response from Larry Ingram's
mailer to the message I sent shortly ago in reply to Paul Dixon regarding
canned messages!
Now there's something that has just GOT to stop, it should stop, it must
stop, let it stop! So let it stop! hOS ECEI WTA AKOUEIN AKOUETW.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics/Washington University
One Brookings Drive/St. Louis, MO, USA 63130/(314) 935-4018
Home: 7222 Colgate Ave./St. Louis, MO 63130/(314) 726-5649

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