Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

“Say,” or “Begin to Say”? (Luke 23:30)

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Published June, 1st 2020 by Dr. Bill Mounce
How explicitly do you have to translate every word?

One of the constant debates in translation is how explicit to be. If the Greek says "he began to say," and context clearly shows that they are in fact beginning to say, don't you just follow better English style and say "he said"?

Transcript: 

As Jesus was going to the cross, some of the people were weeping. He turns to them and says that they shouldn't weep for him, but they should weep for their children because of the days that are coming. He prophecies that their children will then “say (ἄρξονται λέγειν) to the mountains, ‘Fall on us!’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’”

From a grammatical point of view, it's worth noting that almost every major translation translates both ἄρξονται and λέγειν as “begin to say.” Only the NIV and NLT don't convey the inceptive idea — “to begin”: “they will say to the mountains”; “People will beg the mountains.”

At first glance, it seems that little is loss in English style and something is gained by translating both words. This isn’t what the children have been saying all along, but it is something they will begin to say when “the days” come. Of course, this is a minor point, and the force of “then” certainly conveys the idea that they will start to say something that they previously were not.

But then it occurred to me that this might be some sort of idiom, so I searched for all occurrences of ἄρχω followed by λέγω within one or two words (ἤρξατο ... λέγειν) and found 12 occurrences. Some of them indicate the inception of an action and so the “began” fits the context; the NIV translates both words 5 times (Matt. 26:22; Luke 3:8; 4:21; 7:24; 12:1). For example, “He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’” (Luke 4:21).

In the other 7 verses, an emphasis on beginning to speak feels like an over-emphasis, and ἤρξατο λέγειν feels more like an idiom that means “he said.” And yet, in even these 7 examples, the speaker is in fact beginning to say something.

  • “Then Peter spoke up, ‘We have left everything to follow you!’” (Mark 10:28)
  • “Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him” (Mark 10:32).
  • “Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you” (Mark 13:5).
  • “Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets’” (Luke 13:26).

I guess the real question is whether you need to explicitly say “begin to speak” or do you let context convey the idea? If I had to make a choice, I would probably be a little more explicit than the NIV and NLT and say, “began to say,” although in Luke 13:26 saying “begin” sounds out of place. The NIV’s translation of Mark 10:28 is a great compromise: “Then Peter spoke up.” “Spoke up” means that he is beginning to talk.