Friday, November 13, 2009

Gender Wars!!

In the comments on the last post (perhaps inevitably) the issue of gender language was raised, first by myself in passing, and again by somebody else. I think this problem is probably felt more sharply in English translation than in many other languages, because we have no grammatical gender, but only designate in pronouns according to natural gender (compare with el and la of Spanish, le and la of French, or der, die, and das of German; hopefully all of us Americans can relate to something in that list). In any case, the situation in Greek and Hebrew is different than English. In most languages, if you want to designate a mixed group of natural gender, it is normal to use a masculine plural (ie: los amigos/die Freunde = friends who may be male and female).

In English, however, we only have gender for people and certain animals, and it all lines up anatomically. This is very pleasant for the foreigner who wants to learn English, and quite problematic for the Bible translator, and has created a huge controversy in recent years. In the past, we could also use 'men' for 'people,' but the feminists have changed all that. It seems the feminist are also at work in other languages, and this begins to be a problem elsewhere as well. At least I am happy to report that it is not possible to translate the Bible in a way that will make it complementary to the feminist agenda. It still says that there are differences between men and women.

With these things in mind, I would say that I am generally in favor of these so called 'gender-neutral' translations, in as far as they are faithful to the original languages, which doesn't seem to be a issue in most of them. Anthrōpos (Gk. -person/man) is a fairly gender neutral word, and I think that's how it should be translated in most cases (same goes for adam [Hb. -human/man] and bnē adam [humankind]). Adelphos (Gk. -Brother) has to be translated according to context, I guess, since it could really be either. Same with enashīm (Hb. -men/people), and sometimes īsh [man/person] (Though īsh is usually better to translate as masculine except in some generic cases).

There are words in Hebrew and Greek to designate specifically groups of men, andres and gbarīm, as well as groups of women, gynaikes and nashīm. The very fact that words like this exist illustrate that native speakers did not feel the more general terms expressed biological gender adequately, and the translator needs to be sensitive to that.

At the same time, we must realize that in the ancient world (and today in the east), one would rarely address someone of another gender outside of their family. Gender roles were very clearly defined, and this is something that the exegete and faithful translator must come to terms with, no matter how strange it seems today. But, we still cannot leave it even at that, especially in the New Testament, where some cultural gender roles are clearly subverted, others appear to be upheld, and others are of little direct concern to the authors.

It's not as cut and dry as either side would like to make it. I think those who insist on rigidly translating masculine grammatical forms as masculine are clearly in error in many cases. However, to eliminate antiquated cultural gender distinctions is also a mistake. The Bible is a product of the ancient world, but it also challenges that world.

This is yet another case were a good translator must first be a good philologist, anthropologist, and exegete.

In fact, I think translation must always be guided by exegesis. It's not a sure path to correct understanding, but it's got to be better than translating each verse or clause in an atomistic way. I think this realization is the greatest advance in modern translations over older ones, but we still have a long way to go before it's fully implemented (though I will say that the translators of the NET Bible are quite astute in this area, and those of TNIV, NRSV, and NJPS have also made some good progress).

Anyway, I think next week I should really get back to writing about the Synoptic problem. Translation is BORING!


  1. Anyone that disagrees with your post would be a genuine kynvilltur trúvillingur.

    One NT scholar pointed out that in an epistle like Galatians the new translation was off in several places when it translated adelphoi as "siblings," I think today all would agree that a good translation is exegetial, since the role and importance of rhetorics, social rhetorics and yes, anthroplogiy, is increasingly being recognized.

    In the Free University in Amsterdam you can do a two year master in Bible Translation, it's a cross disciplinary degree, a co-op of the Biblical Studies division and the Anthropology division, which says alot I think.

  2. On the question of gender specfic translations see Professor Bock's paper "Do Gender Sensitive Translations Distort Scripture? Not Necessarily" at also see the NETBible preface where they have a whole paragraph titled What position does the NET Bible take on gender-inclusive language? see
    God Bless
    David Austin
    exec director

  3. Thanks for dropping by David. Keep up the good work over there. You guys are doing a great job!