Use of the Estonian passive and impersonal by 17th–18th century Bible translators


The first translators of the Estonian Bible had to cope with the fact that the Estonian language expresses passivity and impersonality differently from the source languages. During the long road to the first full Bible, the preferences of the translators changed a lot. An observation of 16 versions of the New Testament (NT) from the period 1632–1739 has revealed a decisive change in the late 17th century. Until then, the most popular construction was saama + passive past participle, and the impersonal forms of the Estonian verb were used modestly. The situation reversed in the 1680s: from that point on, impersonal forms became common and saama-constructions rare. In three versions of the Old Testament (OT) from the same period no such change occurred: all translators used less of passive and impersonal forms in their OT than in their NT. One of the possible explanations seems to be that the translators of the NT relied much more on the previous tradition, which had begun under the strong influence of Luther’s German translation. The versions of the OT, however, were much closer to the Hebrew Tanakh. Some impersonal forms seem to have already been fixed in the Catholic era by the Latin Vulgate.