God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Translation Challenge on Men, Women, and People: Who is an anthropos?

In light of my last post, I thought it might be helpful to move beyond theory to actual translation. How would you translate the Hebrew ish and the Greek anthropos in the following passages?

  1. Genesis 2:24 [Hebrew]: “Therefore an ish leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife.”
  2. Genesis 2;24 [LXX]: “Therefore an anthropos will leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife.”
  3. Deuteronomy 17:5 [Hebrew]: “You shall bring out the ish or the woman who has committed this crime…”
  4. Deuteronomy 17:5 [LXX]: “You shall bring out the anthropos or the woman who has committed this crime…”
  5. Genesis 4:1 [Hebrew]: “…I have acquired an ish…”
  6. Genesis 4:1 [LXX]: “…I have acquired an anthropos…”
  7. Numbers 5:31 [Hebrew]: “The ish will be cleansed of sin but that woman will bear her sin.”
  8. Numbers 5:31 [LXX]: “The anthropos will be clear of sin but that woman will bear her sin.”
  9. Matthew 4:4 [Greek]: “The anthropos does not live by bread alone.”
  10. Matthew 12:12 [Greek]: “How much more valuable is an antrhopos than a sheep.”
  11. John 16:21 [Greek]: “When a woman is a labor she is in pain … but when her child is born, she no longer remembers the pain because of the joy of having brought an anthropos into the world.”
  12. Romans 3:4 [Greek]: “Every anthropos is a liar.”
  13. 1 Corinthians 7:1 [Greek]: “It is good for an anthropos not to touch a woman.”

My answers are as follows:

  1. Genesis 2:24 [Hebrew]: man
  2. Genesis 2;24 [LXX]: man
  3. Deuteronomy 17:5 [Hebrew]: man
  4. Deuteronomy 17:5 [LXX]: man
  5. Genesis 4:1 [Hebrew]: person*
  6. Genesis 4:1 [LXX]: person
  7. Numbers 5:31 [Hebrew]: man
  8. Numbers 5:31 [LXX]: man
  9. Matthew 4:4 [Greek]: people**
  10. Matthew 12:12 [Greek]: person
  11. John 16:21 [Greek]: person
  12. Romans 3:4 [Greek]: person
  13. 1 Corinthians 7:1 [Greek]: man

Do you agree? Disagree? Why?



(*) Rabbinic tradition actually understands the word ish here to mean “fully grown man,” as though Cain skipped over childhood and was born a malicious adult. In the context of that tradition, I might prefer “man” as a translation.

(**) A quirk of English grammar — at least in my dialect — doesn’t allow the general definite singular with the word “person.” Even though “the wolf is a mighty animal,” e.g., refers to all wolves, “the person” cannot refer to all people. So we’re forced into “people” here.

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September 24, 2013 - Posted by | general linguistics, grammar, translation challenge, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , ,

23 Comments »

  1. To help keep things on topic here, please start your comments with either (a) a quick note that you agree with all of my translation choices; or, more interestingly, (b) where you disagree and why. Then feel free to add more comments.

    Thanks.

    Comment by Joel H. | September 24, 2013 | Reply

  2. και ψυχαι ανθρωπων απο των γυναικων αι ουκ εγνωσαν κοιτην ανδρος πασαι ψυχαι δυο και τριακοντα χιλιαδες

    And thirty and two thousand persons in all, of women that had not known man by lying with him.

    Definitely persons but all female. However, this is adam in Hebrew. There isn’t strict equivalency between the languages.

    Comment by Suzanne McCarthy | September 24, 2013 | Reply

    • This (Numbers 31:35) is actually nephesh in Hebrew and psyche in Greek. But before we expand the data set, what do you think of the translations I offered?

      Comment by Joel H. | September 24, 2013 | Reply

      • I think it is a usage problem in English that we can’t say “the person” or “the human” in very many contexts. In German Mensch works well and is a meaning equivalent if person, but stylistically acceptable in more contexts.

        Comment by Suzanne McCarthy | September 24, 2013

      • Nephesh adam. Nephesh by itself is a living creature not necessarily human. I don’t accept your designation of nephesh meaning “person” or “human.”

        Comment by Suzanne McCarthy | September 24, 2013

  3. Are you restricting data to translations of ish, or to the LXX and NT?

    Comment by Suzanne McCarthy | September 24, 2013 | Reply

    • The LXX and the NT, just to get things started.

      Comment by Joel H. | September 24, 2013 | Reply

  4. Joel, I would not disagree with your translation choices. That is because translation is not just about finding the closest meaning equivalents word by word, but about using words and phrases which are natural in the language in the context. Anyway I find it very hard to suggest translations of LXX independent of the underlying Hebrew, especially when both are presented to me, so I would not propose different renderings of LXX. I’m not so sure about 1 Corinthians 7:1 now, as I meant to discuss on the other thread: the point could be that the Corinthians were teaching that no one, not even a husband or another woman, should so much as touch a woman – a teaching which Paul of course rejects.

    I think you have Matthew 12:12 the wrong way round!

    Comment by Peter Kirk | September 24, 2013 | Reply

    • “I think you have Matthew 12:12 the wrong way round!” Eeek. Talk about getting the details right and missing the point! I’ll fix it.

      Comment by Joel H. | September 24, 2013 | Reply

    • “Anyway I find it very hard to suggest translations of LXX independent of the underlying Hebrew.”

      I agree, and it’s a persistent problem. The LXX has so much data, but it’s all of dubious value.

      I don’t have the broader knowledge of Greek texts that some others here do, so I wonder: Is the LXX the only place we find an expression like “an anthropos or a woman” (LXX Deut. 17:5)? Does the phrase, or something like it, occur somewhere else?

      Comment by Joel H. | September 24, 2013 | Reply

      • an expression like “an anthropos or a woman” (LXX Deut. 17:5)

        I think in Hebrew Genesis 2:22 is analogous. The LXX translator transliterates, then, and the Hebrew common gender noun becomes Αδαμ, out of which comes γυναῖκα, that is returned back to Αδαμ. So, in the first place, the Hebrew of Genesis 2:22 is not so very unlike what is LXX Deut. 17:5.

        Robert Alter translates the Hebrew of Genesis 2:22 into English as:

        … and the LORD God built the rib He had taken from the human into a woman and He brought her to the human.

        Similarly, Everett Fox has this:

        YHWH, God, built the rib that he had taken from the human into a woman / and brought her to the human.

        So is Αδαμ or “human” better in this context, where “woman” is clearly part of “Adam” or “human”? I’m speaking now of the common gender sense of the initial Hebrew phrase we can transliterate as ‘adam. And so to find another Hebrew word for “woman” (i.e. isha) is not so different from finding τὸν ἄνθρωπον … ἢ τὴν γυναῖκα in LXX Deut. 17:5, where the anthropos also is of common gender (if specified as male by the context).

        Comment by J. K. Gayle | September 24, 2013

  5. I can’t disagree with your translation choices for the LXX and the NT here. Each instance where you’ve decided on “man” can also be read, in the Greek, as “person” (in the sense that a non-divine human is the referent, who happens to be male as the context bears it out.).

    Comment by J. K. Gayle | September 24, 2013 | Reply

    • So what part of the English “person” makes it unsuitable as a translation for anthropos in the cases where I’ve chosen “man” as a better translation?

      Comment by Joel H. | September 24, 2013 | Reply

      • I’m not qualifying your translation (using “man”) as worse or better (than “person”). The Greek, with its common gender for anthropos, simply does not demand “man”; the context makes clear the gender of the referent. Now, let me leave a comment, a question, a challenge below.

        Comment by J. K. Gayle | September 24, 2013

      • “So what part of the English “person” makes it unsuitable as a translation for anthropos in the cases where I’ve chosen “man” as a better translation?”

        Stylistic and historical. Person is a Latinate word. Originally “man” meant a “human being” and “wer” meant a man. But language shifts, and “wer” disappeared. So “man” had to take the word “man” and “person” was a late entry. Engish is a little disabled on the gender front.

        Comment by Suzanne McCarthy | September 24, 2013

  6. My question is how you might translate Demosthenes’s Against Neaera (59):

    ὡς γὰρ εἰσῆγεν ὁ Φράστωρ εἰς τοὺς φράτερας τὸν παῖδα ἐν τῇ ἀσθενείᾳ
    ὢν τὸν ἐκ τῆς θυγατρὸς τῆς Νεαίρας,
    καὶ εἰς τοὺς Βρυτίδας
    ὧν καὶ αὐτός ἐστιν ὁ Φράστωρ γεννήτης,

    εἰδότες οἶμαι οἱ γεννῆται τὴν γυναῖκα
    ἥτις ἦν, ἣν ἔλαβεν ὁ Φράστωρ τὸ πρῶτον,

    τὴν τῆς Νεαίρας θυγατέρα,
    καὶ τὴν ἀπόπεμψιν τῆς ἀνθρώπου,

    καὶ διὰ τὴν ἀσθένειαν πεπεισμένον αὐτὸν πάλιν ἀναλαβεῖν τὸν παῖδα,
    ἀποψηφίζονται τοῦ παιδὸς καὶ οὐκ ἐνέγραφον αὐτὸν εἰς σφᾶς αὐτούς.

    Here’s the translation by Norman W. DeWitt:

    For when Phrastor at the time of his illness sought to introduce the boy
    born of the daughter of Neaera to his clansmen
    and to the Brytidae,
    to which gens Phrastor himself belongs,

    the members of the gens, knowing, I fancy,
    who the woman was whom Phrastor first took to wife,

    that, namely, she was the daughter of Neaera,
    and knowing, too, of his sending the woman away,

    and that it was because of his illness that Phrastor had been induced to take back the child,
    refused to recognize the child and would not enter him on their register.

    Should he have translated anthropos as “woman”? Or would “person” have worked just fine?

    Comment by J. K. Gayle | September 24, 2013 | Reply

    • I think the question here is not how to translate anthropos, but rather he anthropos (as opposed to the standard ho anthropos). [Normally, the Greek word anthropos, being grammatically masculine, takes a masculine determiner, even when it refers to women. Here we find the feminine, in the form of the feminine genitive tes {anthropou}.]

      In my opinion, the combination of feminine determiner and anthropos suggests “woman” as a translation, though my choice would have been “sending her away,” not “sending the woman away,” for reasons that are too complicated for me to describe fully here. (For one thing, he gune three lines up is apparently different than he anthropos, and the translation should reflect that difference if possible.)

      Normally (as you know) grammatical gender and real-world gender don’t have to match. This is why we can have the grammatically feminine ancient Hebrew word nephesh, which means “person” (of any gender); or, for that matter, the modern French personne, which is also grammatically feminine even though it refers equally to men and women.

      To continue the modern French, we don’t have to change la personne (a feminine determiner with a feminine noun) into le personne to make it compatible with men. That’s because grammatical gender is divorced from real-world gender. Similarly, in modern Hebrew, the word horeh, is grammatically masculine and refers to a parent of any gender. Hebrew doesn’t have m/f determiners, but we see a similar pattern with adjectives: whether it’s a father or mother, the adjective modifying horeh is masculine.

      If ho anthropos were the same as la personne in French or horeh in Hebrew — that is, if it were totally gender neutral — I think we would similarly expect ho anthropos for the woman here. But that’s not what we have.

      As you have pointed out many times, the masculine ho anthropos can refer to a woman. So why did the text have to use he anthropos here? Or, to look at it differently, if he anthropos is a common word for “woman,” why don’t we find it in the NT?

      All of which is a long and rambling answer that, yes, I think “woman” is a reasonable translation, but I’d be careful extrapolating from this feminine anthropos to the otherwise identical masculine noun.

      (There are, by the way, other Greek words that work like this, among them “goddess.”)

      Comment by Joel H. | September 24, 2013 | Reply

      • Or, to look at it differently, if he anthropos is a common word for “woman,” why don’t we find it in the NT?

        This is my point. Nobody who understands classical / koine Greek makes this mistake. Nor do we want to make the mistake of considering ‘ho anthropos … a common word for ‘man’.”

        But you do implicitly bring up the point of markedness. Is it a function of syntax? Might it be a remnant and perpetuation of male supremacy sexism? In Kouzina Katrmadou’s essay, from which Suzanne today captures a chart for the beginning of her post, the author discusses the MG word πιλότος; she, the author, is talking about how “Common-gender nouns need syntactic agreement…. e.g. /pilotos/ ‘pilot’ (masculine but lately also feminine [because of women pilots] — /pilotina/ has not caught up yet).” She goes on to say: “Such nouns show their gender through agreement: the semantic gender of the noun takes a morphological form in the article, adjective, etc. that accompany it.” Notice, I could have called Katrmadou “authoress.”

        And we could reflect the Greek of Demosthenes this way:

        that, namely, she was the daughter of Neaera,
        and knowing, too, of his sending
        the she-human away,

        This Greek is marked. The gender is syntactic, yes. And yet, it’s saying so much more. Yes, you point out how often I believe can read “ho anthrpos” meaning “woman” already. We shouldn’t have any problem agreeing that the context (as much as the Greek article on the noun) gives the gender of its referent. There is no reason a writer of the NT couldn’t have so marked the common gender noun anthropos.

        Comment by J. K. Gayle | September 24, 2013

  7. We can see the translation problem in Gen. 4:1. What were the options? Not aner, which really does mean adult, so what other word was available. In the NT clearly an anthropos was a baby male or female.

    Comment by Suzanne McCarthy | September 24, 2013 | Reply

  8. The LXX translates ish and adam as anthropos. I just don’t think the translators saw any other options. The NT uses anthropos predominantly as human except in one instance. But could that be a quote, a hebraism? It doesn’t sound like typical Greek. So much hangs on one example.

    Comment by Suzanne McCarthy | September 24, 2013 | Reply

    • The LXX translates ish and adam as anthropos. I just don’t think the translators saw any other options.

      The other option was transliteration. In Genesis 2:22, for example, the LXX translator sounds out the Hebrew with the Greek alphabet as Αδαμ.

      When we jump over to the NT, especially to 1 Cor., and then especially to 1 Cor. 15, then this all gets very interesting. In verses 19 – 22, there’s a question about what is meant by anthropos when discussed in relation to Adam and Christos. Could it ever mean “man” (i.e., “not woman”)? And then there’s something similar elaborated more and further in verses 32, and then in 45-49. Is the male gender meant here semantically, saliently?

      Comment by J. K. Gayle | September 24, 2013 | Reply

  9. “I think the question here is not how to translate anthropos, but rather he anthropos (as opposed to the standard ho anthropos). [Normally, the Greek word anthropos, being grammatically masculine, takes a masculine determiner, even when it refers to women. Here we find the feminine, in the form of the feminine genitive tes {anthropou}.]”

    Anthropos has always been one of a long list of words of common gender. It is not a masculine word, but takes either the masculine or feminine article. Did you look at the graphic on my blog? The masculine ho anthropos does occur more often and refers to the generic human. However, in words of common gender, the masculine is not considered “the standard” and the feminine somehow “not standard.” They are of equal standing. This is seen among the gods too, the male ho theos and the female he theos are used all the time.

    As long as you classify anthropos as a “masculine” word, it is hard to interact with the lexicons or ancient Greek literature.

    Comment by Suzanne McCarthy | September 24, 2013 | Reply

  10. οἷον τὴν ἄνθρωπον ἣν λέγουσι τὰς κυούσας ἀνασχίζουσαν τὰ παιδία κατεσθίειν,

    (A bestial creature) … resembling a woman who is said to rip up those who are pregnant and eat their children.

    Comment by Suzanne McCarthy | September 24, 2013 | Reply


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