Tom Pittman's WebLog

2011 November 3 -- Translating Gender

As part of my daily Bible reading, I chose earlier this year to work through the Bible in the original Hebrew and (eventually, when I get there) Greek. Today I'm reading Leviticus, and I see in the English gloss a different pronoun than the Hebrew has in Lev.7:21. The Hebrew pronoun for the person who is to be cut off for uncleanness is feminine, yet no translation, not even the so-called "gender-accurate" translations like NASB, renders it feminine in English. The same is true of the pronoun for the Holy Spirit in John 14:17, which is neuter in Greek, but masculine in every English translation. What's going on here?

The people who complain about gender issues in the recent revision of the NIV Bible -- Wikipedia has a fairly balanced article, and The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood did a reasonably careful criticism -- are either ignorant of good translation principles and languages other than English, or they are hypocrites, or both. Hypocrites because no English translation is "gender-accurate" in the sense that they want, where the gender of the original text is faithfully rendered in English by the same gender. We have two obvious exceptions here. That suggests that these people are really male chauvinists imposing their male supremacism on what God intended otherwise. They only complain when the translator renders a masculine pronoun in some other way into English, and never when the translator renders some other pronoun as masculine in English. Either both substitutions are wrong, or (in my opinion) both substitutions more accurately render the intent of the original text.

The real issue here is faithfully representing, to the best of our ability, the intent of the original author into English. No two languages are semantically identical, so there will always be some subtle nuances that get left behind in translation. The honest translator makes a judgment call.

Gender is an interesting issue. Modern English appears to be unique among languages that distinguish gender, in that for us the gender is ontological, that is, the pronouns must accurately represent the actual sex of the object in view. In most other languages gender is formal, so they assign (often arbitrarily) a specific gender to each lexical noun, and pronoun gender is required to match the lexical gender of the noun, even if that is different from the actual sex of the object or person.

Greek and Hebrew gender is formal, so in the two verses above, the pronouns match the noun gender, which may or may not reflect the underlying person's sex. The Hebrew and Greek words for "soul" are both feminine, so both the Hebrew and its Greek translation both use feminine pronouns in Lev.7:21. The NetBible link here shows the gender for each Greek and Hebrew pronoun. Every honest translator correctly recognizes that "soul" in the original text represents a person, and some of the translations correctly translate it in a gender-neutral way reflecting the fact that both men and women have souls. The King James Bible was translated in a time when some scholars thought male pronouns included also female persons, so let's give them the benefit of the doubt. That is no longer true today, and all modern translations that use "his people" in this verse are simply incorrect. They are wrong by every possible criterion -- including that claimed by the complementarians.

The Greek text of John 14:17 accurately contains a neuter pronoun to go with the neuter noun "spirit"; in other verses the Holy Spirit is referred to as "the Comforter" which is a masculine noun, so a masculine pronoun is used in those verses. We cannot infer the ontological sex of the Holy Spirit from the Greek pronouns, not in this verse nor any other. If in fact the Third Person of the Trinity is ontologically masculine, we must determine it by other means, perhaps by tradition. Because the Holy Spirit is a person, we cannot correctly use a neuter pronoun in English; neuter English pronouns only refer to inanimate objects, never persons (except to insult them). I do not object to the use of the masculine pronoun here, but I do object to the criticism of other more accurate gender-neutral pronouns where the Greek text happens to use a masculine word to refer to a person or persons of unspecified sex.

I personally am not an egalitarian. I believe God made different sexes for different purposes, and we are told some of those purposes in the Bible. But I reject any notions of male supremacy that does not find unqualified support in Scripture.

[Postscript, 2011 December 3] I got to chapter 19 in Leviticus, the chapter that gives the clearest Old Testament rendition of the Golden Rule -- and incidentally also tells us not to do incest nor tattoos and body piercings nor pimp our daughters nor engage in homosexual behavior -- and found a much more scintillating example of formal gender which simply cannot be transferred without adjustment into ontological gender languages like English. Here is Lev.19:8 for example in the (old) NIV:

Whoever eats it will be held responsible because he has desecrated what is holy to the Lord; that person must be cut off from his people.
In the first half of this verse, the Hebrew verb translated "whoever eats" is masculine (not feminine), and refers to either a male or female person doing the eating. The next two verbs, referring to the same person, are also masculine. In the last half of the verse, the subject switches to that person's 'nephesh' (soul) who is to be cut off; this is a feminine noun, so the corresponding verb, pronoun, and possessive are all feminine in the Hebrew -- but rendered in every English translation listed on as masculine (except NLT and NRSV, neither of which use gendered pronouns anywhere in the verse). It would be incorrect English to switch to feminine pronouns for the same person here in the middle of the sentence. Curiously, the Septuagint (LXX, translated by the Jews some 200BC) used plural for the whole second half, and like English, "their people" is gender-neutral in Greek.

[Postscript, 2017 January 4] I'm now almost finished reading the New Testament in Greek, and I just finished Revelation 14, the first verse of which astonished me. John the Dreamer/Revealer saw "the Lamb standing on Mount Zion, and with him were 144,000 women having his name on their foreheads." It doesn't use the Greek word meaning "woman" but only the participle "having" is feminine plural. It makes perfect sense in Greek, because John didn't see persons, he saw souls (which is feminine in both Greek and Hebrew), and the reader is expected to figure that out from the fact that he also saw souls under the altar eight chapters earlier (in Rev.6:9). We tend to think of souls as ethereal and invisible, but in John's dream he can see them. Check it out, not one of the so-called "gender accurate" translations correctly (per their own standards) represent the 144,000 as females, but the participle parsed out for us in the Net Bible Greek rendition is clearly feminine plural. They lucked out, because in English (like Greek) the plural possessive pronoun "their" (in "their foreheads") is gender neutral, so by neglecting to add an English word to reflect the participle gender, they can claim to dodge the bullet. Hogwash.


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