Monday, 22 September 2008

Gender Neutrality and Bible Translation

First, let it be clear that I think it is silly for us to have to change language in order to appease the squeaky wheel.

I think that if someone says, "If any man would follow me, let him take up his cross and follow me," everyone knows that he is talking generically. There is no need to say, "If any person would follow me, let him OR HER take up his OR HER cross and follow me."

However, let me point out that those who claim that gender-neutral translations are inaccurate do so on weak grounds. The complaint is that gender-neutral translations change the wording of the Bible. This simply isn't true.

Here is the crucial question: if the Greek uses a masculine pronoun, does it always mean male only, or can it include both genders? The answer to this is, of course, that it can include both genders.

This being the case, then the question arises, Which pronoun in English is best to use in order to convey the inclusion of both genders?

My answer, as indicated in the first couple of paragraphs above, is that the masculine gender is perfectly capable of conveying the inclusion of both genders. However, if an English translation does indeed use some means of conveying the inclusion of both genders, it does not follow that the genderless translation is inaccurate.

If the genderless translation reads, "If any person would follow me, let him OR HER take up his OR HER cross and follow me," it may be cumbersome and pedantic, but it is nonetheless accurate. The same is true for, "If anyone would follow me, let them take up their cross and follow me."

If we want to criticise NLT, NRSV, TNIV, etc., for something, let us criticise them for being so committed to appealing to the spirit of the day as to produce awkward translations. But we cannot criticise them for producing inaccurate translations.

And let us not forget that even the ESV, which in its sales propaganda criticises these other versions for their gender neutrality, consistently translates the Hebrew phrase for "the sons of Israel" as "the children of Israel"--which boggles my mind given the ESV translation philosophy.


Wayne Leman said...

I think that if someone says, "If any man would follow me, let him take up his cross and follow me," everyone knows that he is talking generically.

Everyone does not know this. If you do careful field testing with those who are part of the set of "everyone", you'll find that many fluent speakers of English today understand the word "man" in this context to refer only to an adult male. I have been field testing for many years and it is an important part of finding out which words to use in Bible versions so that they communicate most accurately to "everyone."

William Birch said...

Thank you for this post! I am an avid TNIV reader, so this issue is close to my heart, so to speak.

It's funny: Check out the ESV footnotes when they use the word "brother" to refer to people. For example, at 2 Thess. 3:1 it reads: "Or brothers and sisters, also verses 6, 13." And at 1 Tim. 2:5 it reads: "men and man render the same Greek word that is translated people in verses 1 and 4." Also, at 1 Tim. 4:6 it reads: "Or brothers and sisters. The plural Greek word 'adelphoi' (translated 'brothers') refers to siblings in a family. In New Testament usage, depending on the context, 'adelphoi' may refer either to men or to both men and women who are siblings (brothes and sisters) in God's family, the church."

Wow! They sure went to great lengths to reference such a simple word that everyone should automatically understand!


Rev. James M. Leonard said...

Thanks for your comment Wayne.

However, I can only surmise that your field test subjects must not understand 99% of 400 years of spoken English language.

Your field subjects must be rather incapable of understanding any English written or spoken prior to 1990 when the political correctness crowd tried to badger English writers and speakers into changing their language.

Do your field subjects need someone to translate Milton and Eliot into PC English? If so, then maybe I could get a job as a PC English translator, because I could translate Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness into PC English pretty well.

I'm all in favour of putting the Bible into a receptor language with as few obstructions as possible. But clearly, the attempt at gender-neutrality frequently creates its own problems, such as, "If anyONE..., let THEM take up their cross...." Now, there's one for you which really reaks.

Rev. James M. Leonard said...

Thanks for your comment, Billy.

I really do like the TNIV, but not so much for its gender-neutral language.

I don't mind the "brothers and sisters" translation for adelphoi either. I just find it unfortunate that we've painted ourselves into this corner of linguistic political correctness.

TrueHope said...

A good NT translation should be as close to the original Greek as possible and avoid ambiguous words whenever possible. When translating to the English language, overusing "man" is probably not a good idea because "man" can either mean adult male or person, depending on the context and on the original Greek.

It's not good when people think that the "man" in John 1:9 is the same word as the "man" in John 1:13.

"That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world." (John 1:9)

"Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." (John 1:13)

TrueHope said...

One other thing that bugs me about the English language is that the second person singular and the second person plural use the same word, making statements like these misleading: "You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again'" (John 3:7). From the English context, not many people would realize that the first "you" is singular while the second is plural.

Other languages do not have this problem.

Rev. James M. Leonard said...

Yes, the inability to distinguish the second person singular and plural is problematic in English.

That's why in my own translation (soon to be forthcoming, no doubt...), I'm using the time honoured "y'all." :)

Rev. James M. Leonard said...

True Hope wrote, "A good NT translation should be as close to the original Greek as possible and avoid ambiguous words whenever possible."

Actually, to borrow an analogy from NIV editor Kenneth Barker, a good translation must be a slave to two masters: 1) the source language (Gk and Heb); and 2) the receptor language (English).

If it's not good English, then it is not a good translation, even if you can see right through it to the Greek.

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William Birch said...

Ahh, I see that has been buggin you as well. Tenacious lil' brats, eh?

They have been on several Arminian blogs lately promoting Calvinism. Must be young and immature, relatively new to Calvinism (maybe in the Cage Stage still).