God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

How Much Meaning Do You Want?

At the end of my discussion of anthropos, I concluded that one meaning of anthropos is “man,” and that we see that meaning in Matthew 12:10.

Here I want to suggest that, even so, “man” may not be the best English translation for anthropos. Here’s why.

One of my points before was that Greek makes it very difficult to talk about people without specifying their gender. (English makes it easy in the plural, but equally difficult in the singular. Had I written, “Greek makes it hard to talk about a person without specifying…” I would have been hard pressed to finish the sentence grammatically and elegantly.) Accordingly a Greek text about “just someone” will usually end up looking “masculine.”

Again (see here for the background), we can compare the situation to Modern Hebrew, with its two verbs halach and nasa. The former means “went by foot” and the latter means “went by vehicle.”

Suppose we have a Modern Hebrew text that reads, “Chris nasa to Tel Aviv to start his day.” We have two translation options:

1. “Chris traveled to Tel Aviv to start his day.”

2. “Chris went to Tel Aviv to start his day.”

At first glance, (1) looks like the obvious choice. Nasa means “traveled,” and it is what Chris did. We know he didn’t walk, because otherwise the verb would have been halach.

However, in favor of (2) is the fact that the original Hebrew doesn’t necessarily stress the means of transportation, while the English in (1) does. The Hebrew is as neutral as possible about how Chris got to Tel Aviv, while the same cannot be said for (1). As a speaker of English and Hebrew, I know that (2) is often the best translation of the Hebrew.

To look at the matter another way, imagine starting with an English sentence, translating it first into Greek and then back into English. I think we can agree that if we’re doing things right, the English that we start off with and the English that we end up with will be the same.

If we start with “Someone walked into the room,” we get either “anthropos…” or “gune…” in Greek, but we probably get the former. It stands to reason, then, that when we translate back, we should translate anthropos as “someone.”

At least, sometimes “someone” is the best translation of anthropos. We have a dilemma, because if we start with “a man walked into the room,” we might get the same Greek “anthropos….”

Part of the translator’s job in this case is to figure out whether the Greek text means to emphasize “man” over “woman” (in which case “man” is the better translation) or whether the maleness is incidental (suggesting “person,” “someone,” etc. as the better translation).

It’s pretty difficult to discern these nuances from the text, which is but one of many reasons that translation is hard.


September 17, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , | 14 Comments

Gendered Culture and Gendered Language

In another discussion of gender, John challenges: “Given something like Acts 7:32 ‘I am the God of your fathers [pateres], the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob.’, who would have the burden of proof? Was it the God of Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel? If the one writing this text was of a gender neutral mentality, isn’t that what he would say?”

I think we have to distinguish between gender bias in culture and in language. It’s pretty clear that Acts here (apparently quoting Exodus 3:6, which, curiously, has “…God of your father [sic],….”) only refers to the men. But this doesn’t necessarily tell us what pateres means, because we have two options that are both supported by the text:

1. The word pateres only means men.

2. The word pateres means ancestors of any gender, but in this case only the men were important.

In other words, the specific listing of the men and not the women may be evidence of a gender bias in the language or in the culture (or both). To put it another way, we can admit that the writer was not “of a gender neurral mentality” without coming to a conclusion about what pateres, means.

September 17, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , | 1 Comment