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.

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  • Trish

    Thanks for making things so clear with attention to proper qualification when necessary.

  • No need to argue. Couldn’t agree more. In fact, if I did agree any more, I’d be you (wink). Thanks!

  • Scot, thanks for another helpful post on Bible translation. I have linked to it. Again, I tried using Trackback, but, for some reason, your new blog is not accepting Trackback pings.

  • Sorry for another comment about your Trackback, Scot. I was surprised to see, after my comment (#4), that my Trackback was successful. I tried two different Trackback pingers and both gave me error messages when attempting to ping your blog. From now on, I guess I will disbelieve the error messages, and walk by faith not by sight. 🙂

  • Scot,
    How would you respond if someone made the following arguments:
    (1) If one thinks “thou shalt not covet his neighbor’s wife” also applies to a wife not coveting her neighbor’s husband, then you must translate “wife” as “spouse.”
    (2) If one thinks that the parable of the prodigal son equally applies to prodigal daughters, then translations for public reading must reflect this?

  • Gloria

    Being a woman I just thought that I should look at scriptures that said ‘man’ and think of the general principle that God was trying to get across to everyone. Am I being too simplistic?

  • Shelley Hyde

    In my experience I’ve found that much of the inclusive language discussion is politically driven. It is important to remember that all translation is interpretation, and you have illustrated this with your examples.

  • Justin,
    I detect less than a conversational question here: it seems forced with “must”. Maybe it is me. Sorry if so.
    This is not about what one has to do or what one cannot do — but about degrees of interpretation in textual translation when one is concerned about the public. Justin, you know enough to know that while we can sometimes be quite literal, there are often times when we cannot. Interpretation is always involved. How many translations use “gods” for Elohim? (To appeal to majestic plural, or something like it, is what I’d do, too, but it is interpretive.) Yhwh for Yhwh? (To use LORD is an interpretive tradition, not straightforward translation.) These things are interpretive, too. It is an issue of degree, not either/or.
    On the first one, that is precisely what Mark did do to Jesus’ teachings on divorce in Mark 10 (cf. the male only approach in Matthew). And, while the law was framed for males (clearly reflecting such a culture), if you think that it applies to both (and every sermon on this that I’ve heard does), then I’d not have much problem — for a public reading of the text. I’m not bothered, let me assure you, by a strict literal translation either — because usually the sermon will democratize the text. Which amounts, don’t you agree, to a similar thing? Let me be clear here so I’m not misunderstood: I’m happy with fairly literal translations, but they require interpretation and application and extension.
    And, the growth (yes, explosion) of intertextuality within the Bible (Fishbane, Kugel, et al) shows this sort of thing is always going on in the Bible. Our readings of texts are interpretations — translations partake in that. The parable of the vineyard is obviously, in the Gospels, the adaptation of Isa 5 under the influence of the interpretation we now find in the Targum to Isa: it is about Temple. Jesus, too, read an interpreted Bible.
    Second, the parable is not about being prodigal as a male or a female — it is about God’s attitude toward sinners who repent. It is a story that plays on laws about sons rebelling and about inheritance laws; the son flaunts the law; uses the law to his advantage: but when he repents, God forgives.
    So, I think your first example is a good one; the second one doesn’t really help us that much. But, it all comes back to one major issue: what is our purpose? And then it comes down to: How much interpretation do we permit? Not, if we will interpret.
    If we have to engage at length on this, perhaps by e-mail?

  • Shelley,
    Is your comment an affirmation or a criticism of the examples I give? Where do you stand?

  • Pat

    Thanks for your evenhanded comments. I wish the Web offered more of this sort of discussion of the issue. Some of the Web sites devoted to this issue (even a few which are sponsored by a fairly major Christian periodical) conduct themselves in such an indecent manner and with such a naive level of certainty it is embarassing for the Church. It is unfortunate, too, the way some scholars have conducted themselves. Again, thanks for adding a dose of sanity to the discussion.

  • “And, if you’ve got the time, it is worth learning the original languages…”
    I have a few hours free this weekend, should I hit Greek or Hebrew first?

  • Ah, Michael, were it so easy. Babel doesn’t make Bible easier!

  • Ted Gossard

    Good thoughts, thanks.
    This is a special interest of mine- Bible translating.
    The TNIV is a victim of the popularity of the NIV. People don’t understand the need to revise translations. And they buy what well meaning people like James Dobson and others have to say. So I guess the TNIV is taking a hit (unnecessarily, I think) in today’s “culture war”.

  • Ted Gossard

    Scot, by the way, I like very much your new blog site. I don’t think I’ve seen a better one- and maybe none as good.

  • Pat,
    I don’t understand why some have to be “attackers” instead of just conversing. We can disagree, and the easiest way to do that is (1) to state our differences clearly and (2) to ask questions of the other person. But, some have to score points and try to win and prove the other person wrong. Sad, what I saw so many do on Emergent-US — and that has nothing to do with “what” was said but “how” what was said was said.
    It is easy to get caught up in cross-fire — and I do myself sometimes — but we need to work at conversing.
    We need more French salons of a former era to show other show others how to “discuss.”

  • Trevor Jenkins

    Scot you say “inclusive translation is designed for public reading of the Scriptures”, however, many of the translation committees producing inclusive versions say that their work is not for public reading.

  • Trevor,
    Which committees say this?

  • a. gender inclusive translations remove male references, but they very often leave in female references, such as ‘daugher of Jerusalem’ and ‘daugher of Zion.’
    b. gender inclusive translations systematically remove from Sacred Scripture the teaching that men and women are intended by God to have different roles in society, the family, and the Church. The reason that Paul addressed his words to ‘brothers’ is that he was addressing the community of believers by addressing their male leaders. Changing the text by adding ‘and sisters’ or by dropping the word ‘brothers’ denies the teaching that the Church is intended by God to be led by men.
    c. Revelation 22:19-20 warns against adding or subtacting words (and meaning) to Scripture. Gender inclusive translations drop the word ‘brothers’ or the word ‘sons’, or else they add the word ‘sisters’ or substitute ‘people’ for ‘sons’.
    d. you want to avoid offending people, but you end up offending God.

  • Scott,
    Do you really think it is practical to try to be a faithful translator of the Bible while worrying about offending people in our modern culture of political correctness? I am thinking about all the rules that have been imposed upon people for the sake of avoiding offence, especially in academic environments, and collectively known as “speech codes.” Clearly the inclusive language rules are connected with this phenomenon of political correctness, and this cultural phenomenon is not ideologically neutral. But by adopting the principle of “avoiding offence” you seem to allow biblical translation to become subject to this culture of political correctness. How would you avoid this in principle?

  • Michael,
    I’ll spell your name correctly if you do mine.
    I dwell amongst that crowd, and I’m not a “pc” kind of person.
    By avoiding offense I’m talking about the standard issues we see in translation theory: “brothers” if it is inclusive can become “brothers and sisters” or some such equivalent.
    But this issue is much bigger than pc.

  • I think you’ve been very frank about this inclusive language issue, Scot, and I thank you for that. But you know your statement here in regard to “brothers” (adelphoi) is less problematic than the example of “man” (aner) which you have been using in your posts. And I don’t think these should be lumped together. It would be better to make distinctions between words that are ambiguous in the Greek and words that are clearly male-oriented. I suppose that these distinctions are often neglected (and sometimes denied) by advocates of inclusive language, because the inclusive trend has become something like a bandwagon, in which distinctions, warnings and criticisms are generally unwelcome. No doubt some of the criticism has been unjust. But I think you should make these distinctions.

  • Michael,
    Thanks for this.
    We probably disagree on inclusive translation, but would you agree that sometimes “aner” can be inclusive or generic? And, when it is, that it would be fair to translate inclusively?

  • In the pedestrian way that I read texts, it doesn’t seem to me that there is any gender-neutral sense for aner. A case can be made for paraphrasing it in a gender-neutral manner by going to a higher hermeneutical level, going beyond lexical semantics proper. But that has to do with English paraphrasing and communication theory, not Greek semantics. I have written an article about this: Confusion of Semantics with Linguistic Pragmatics in the Defense of the TNIV. Rhetorically, my article has some sharp anti-TNIV polemic that you would probably find unpleasant. But in it I have seriously tried to explain the word-study errors (fallacies of semantic analysis) that I see happening in all the arguments for a gender-neutral aner. It seems to me that disagreement about this does not come from a simple difference of opinion about the weight of the evidence, it arises from various methodological problems that need to be cleared up.

  • Mike,
    No chance that in James 1:20 “aner” means “human” as opposed to “male”?

  • Scot,
    I don’t think it’s very helpful to discuss whether or not there is “no chance” of a gender-neutral meaning, because probabilities are what count, not mere possibilities. Don’t you agree that the probability of a gender-neutral sense for this particular word is very low? It is, after all, the normal word for “adult male” as opposed to “woman.” But it could be used in statements that also apply to women.
    Here’s my discussion of some of the occurrences in James 1, from my article:
    Regarding James 1:7-8, I will venture to say that aner is probably used with the meaning “a grown man” because James wants to contrast the connotation of manliness in aner with the unseemly weakness of the grown man who doesn’t know his own mind, being “of two minds” and “unstable” like an adolescent. Arthur Carr in his commentary on James (Cambridge, 1896) points out that the word akatastatos (unstable) in 1:8 is ‘used of youthful fickleness’ by Polybius (p. 15; he gives the example of Polybius’ description of a young king having an “unstable character” in his Histories, 7.4.6). And if the saying “an aner of two minds is unstable in all his ways” was proverbial, we can easily see how James would use the word without any intention of being referentially ‘inclusive’ or ‘neutral.’ As for James 1:12, the use of aner there is appropriate to the subject because James is talking about a man of tested character, a man of experience who has endured under the hardships and trials of life. It is suitable to use the word for an adult man in this context, although obviously the statement in general applies to women also.
    I could make similar observations about verse 20.

  • Michael,
    Fair enough. I have often complained of the either/or options. I was asking the question without that sort of distinction in mind.
    But, consider this:
    I agree that aner usually means “male, adult.” Having said that, it can also be a representative human being. And in 1:20 of James there is a clear contrast between God and “humans” (as I take it) or “males” (which is possible, I grant). But, which is more likely: human anger vs. God’s justice or male anger vs. God’s justice? I see a real advantage here is seeing “human” rather than “male.” And, if one goes with “righteousness” and it pertains at all to our final standing, then the so-called divine/human dialectic would be even sharper.
    Still, I grant your point. I’ve observed that James likes aner, and nearly every commentary (Moo, who is conservative on such issues) sees James’ use of aner as more “generic human” rather than “adult male.”

  • Ron Conte said:
    gender inclusive translations remove male references, but they very often leave in female references, such as ‘daugher of Jerusalem’ and ‘daugher of Zion.’
    Ron, it may just be splitting semantic hairs, but my understanding is that gender inclusive translation do not remove any male references, that is, references to males. Men are still called men, boys are called boys. Both are referred to by the English masculine pronoun “he.” God the Father is referred to with the English masculine pronoun “he.”
    What gender inclusive language translations do is use gender inclusive language when the biblical text referents are gender inclusive. There is no masculine reference remove.
    Do you have any examples you might be thinking of where masculine reference is revised to gender inclusive language in any Bible version?

  • Shelley Hyde

    Sorry I haven’t responded in a timely manner; classes began last week, and I am just now returning to blogging. I think your posts on this issue have been helpful, and my reference to political motivation was a critique of some of my circles that fear that anything inclusive leads to radical feminism. The inclusive language discussion in my circles (TEDS, conservative evangelicalism, and the PCA) often “head south” and do so quickly. I think that often conservatives (I am generalizing) are somewhat unaware of of how some women hear their sermons. I tend to be aware of these things but not in an ultra-sensitive way. When I bring them up in conversations with men, I find that often they did not notice the exclusive language. I think that many of the changes in some of the revised translations have been helpful, although as with all translation, sometimes it is difficult to make a decision. Thanks for addressing this issue.

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