Re: Translating Imperatives

From: Carlton Winbery (
Date: Sun Aug 22 1999 - 21:09:52 EDT

Carl Conrad responded;

>>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.
I think Carl has put his finger on the crux of the matter. In the book
James Brooks and I wrote, we emphasized first that the action of the
imperative was "volitional." By that we meant that the imperative mood
expressed the exercise of one will over another. In a sense it is the mood
that is fartherest from reality, but that is a matter of degree and thus
necessitates careful consideration to the context. We also include a note
to the effect that, "the syntax of third person (as indeed the others)
imperatives is determined by their use in the sentence." Though we do not
see "Let us . . ." as weak, as some do; we do suggest translating some 3rd
person imperatives with "He must . . ."

The question is the degree of "oughtness" one sees being expressed. As Carl
suggested the subjunctive mood can also indicate a sense of oughtness, such
as the 1st person plural subjunctives used to exhort others to join in an
action. I don't think we would be for off to say, "We ought to love one
another." What we should recognize is that we are seeing degrees of
oughtness (urgency if you will) and that there were different ways of
indicating that. I am always aware that when new students come to me
seeking to read the original languages, they will eventually come to the
big disappointment that (tho they excell in the languages Zion and Athens,
they will still have to use the context and make subjective decisions about
what was meant by what was said.

Dr. Carlton L. Winbery
Foggleman Professor of Religion
Louisiana College
Ph. 1 318 448 6103 hm
Ph. 1 318 487 7241 off

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