A Mild Case for Inclusive Translation

A Mild Case for Inclusive Translation August 26, 2005

In general, I believe most translations are fine — I can read the KJV and ASV and the NASB and NIV and the NLT and the NRSV and the ESV and even something as paraphrastic as The Message and say to myself, “That was good, it put some words in a new order and it gave nice expression to this Greek term or clause.” And I really mean this: we are not talking about dangerous vs. safe when we are dealing with the major translations available today. We need to keep this in mind.

But, in this short post I’d like to make a couple of comments about “gender inclusivity.” There are many of us today who seem to think this is an ugly ditch into which the insincere are falling, and I think it is worth some time blogging about it. I welcome comments that are conversational and respectful of views not always your own.
The first one is this: there is no translation available that can completely capture what is said in Hebrew, in Aramaic, or in Greek. That is the way translation is: there is nearly always something subtle lost. There is no way to translate Fahrvergnuegen from German to English, and there is no way to translate the Hebrew word ruach (“spirit” roughly) or the Greek term dikaiosune (“righteousness, justice”). But, we do very well today by reading the Bible often and catching what spills out in the translation process — and there are commentaries and Study Notes in Bibles to help us out.
Second, inclusive translation is designed for public reading of the Scriptures. Private study, especially if it is careful and exacting, is best done with a translation that facilitates that sort of study. (And, if you’ve got the time, it is worth learning the original languages.)

Third, the basic theory is this: let us include everyone if possible and let us not offend anyone unless necessary. It is one thing to translate anthropos (“man”) as “everyone” and quite another to translate “sin” as “our stresses in life” — not that I know any translation quite like that latter, but I know some who’d like to see it that way. The “if possible” is not a license but a disposition of a good translator.
Fourth, I want to give a concrete example: in James 1:19 it says in the Greek (now a woodenly literal translation) “Take note of this my beloved brothers” and in 1:20 it says “the anger of man does not bring about the righteousness of God.”
TNIV: 1:19: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note…”
NRSV: 1:19: “You must understand this, my beloved…”
TNIV 1:20: “our anger does not produce the righteousness God desires”
NRSV 1:20: “for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness”
I’ll avoid the “righteousness/justice” issue here.
What we should note is this: the Greek term the first time is adelphos (“brother”) and the second term is aner (“man”). On a scale, this last term refers pretty clearly to “males” whereas other terms move toward the generic (anthropos often being the most generic).

Notice that the TNIV made both inclusive; the NRSV only one. I suggest that both of these, in spite of their differences, meet the “theory” point above. Neither will offend and both will communicate the message of the text. (Don’t jump on me just yet. I’ve got another day on translation theory to go.)
My plea is this: if you think this text is for all of us, if you think the exhortations are for both males and females, if you think it is not just male anger but also female anger that doesn’t bring about God’s righteousness or justice, then an inclusive translation is warranted for public reading. If you think this way, then public reading needs to reflect it. And I believe it is important to translate in such a way that needless offenses are not brought in — if justifiable.
This all leads to one central question: “What does it mean to translate?” I’ll have some comments tomorrow.

Browse Our Archives