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.

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September 17, 2009 - Posted by | translation theory | , , , ,

14 Comments »

  1. Accordingly a Greek text about “just someone” will usually end up looking “masculine.”

    Is that really how it looks in Matthew’s Greek text? I’ve plugged the Greek and some Hebrew back into my English translation here, to get a better look:

    http://speakeristic.blogspot.com/2009/09/when-sheep-dont-need-sex-more-wordplay.html

    Comment by J. K. Gayle | September 17, 2009 | Reply

  2. I don’t think it’s hard at all, when anthropos is used. I don’t think I have ever seen any cases where this Greek word is used “to emphasize “man” over “woman””. I don’t think cases of anthropos paired with gune have that emphasis. Do you, and if so, why?

    Comment by Peter Kirk | September 21, 2009 | Reply

    • I think I wasn’t clear. I meant that anthropos emphasizes “man” in contrast to “woman.” My understanding is that sometimes anthropos means “person,” sometimes it means “man,” and sometimes it specifically means “man and not woman.”

      Comment by Joel | September 21, 2009 | Reply

      • That is what I understood you to mean. But I dispute that anthropos EVER “specifically means “man and not woman.”” Do you have any evidence to back up this claim, apart from the examples of anthropos paired with gune which I don’t think prove your point?

        Comment by Peter Kirk | September 22, 2009

  3. But I dispute that anthropos EVER “specifically means ‘man and not woman.'” Do you have any evidence to back up this claim, apart from the examples of anthropos paired with gune which I don’t think prove your point?

    Proof is a pretty heavy burden. I have what I think is convincing evidence.

    I went through much of the story here, and I think I’m in solid ground when I conclude that when anthropos is used for a specific person, that person is always male. In the contexts when the word was used to mean “man,” I think it follows that it meant “man and not woman,” even if the degree of emphasis depended on the context (as I discuss above).

    I would turn the question around: Do you have evidence — from any language — that a word exists that specifically refers to a man but cannot not have connotations of “man and not woman”? (I’m not even sure what it would mean for a word to mean “man” but for it not to mean “man and not woman.”)

    Comment by Joel | September 22, 2009 | Reply

  4. Joel, you are being very slippery here in moving from “emphasis” to “connotations”. I can accept that anthropos has “connotations” of maleness but not that there is any kind of “emphasis” on maleness.

    Consider this kind of example in British English: “The postman brought me only one letter this morning”. Now it is probably true that I would not use the word “postman” if I knew that a woman had brought the letter. Actually I don’t know that it was a man who brought it today, but our regular deliverer is a man. But the gender of this person is entirely irrelevant to my meaning. The word “postman” in this kind of context may have connotations of maleness, but it is entirely lacking in emphasis on maleness. If I really wanted to emphasise maleness, I would rephrase like “It was a man who brought the post this morning – only one letter”.

    As for your last sentence, I still dispute that anthropos means “man”, except in the gender generic sense, man and not animal or not god. Consider especially Suzanne’s examples of feminine anthropos. It is probably entirely accidental that among the 552 occurrences of this word in the New Testament there are none in contexts like Acts 12:22 where the referent is female – and in fact only five, three of them quoting the same LXX verse, in which there is a clear contrast with “woman” (Matthew 19:5,10, Mark 10:7, 1 Corinthians 7:1, Ephesians 5:31). Then of course there is 1 Peter 3:4.

    Compare how theos is used 1325 times in the NT but only once as the feminine he theos in reference to Artemis, Acts 19:37 (contrast he thea in verse 27, also the only NT occurrence – and the masculine plural in verse 26 also referring to Artemis). This is enough to prove that theos is not a male word despite the existence of the alternative thea.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | September 22, 2009 | Reply

  5. 1. Your example of “postman” is interesting, because the word (at least in my dialect) has two uses, one in which “man” is emphasized. I might say that “the postman is late today,” having no idea if what I have now learned to call the “mail carrier” is a man or a woman. But, equally, if I were talking about hypothetical discrimination in the postal service, I might observe, “of course they let him leave early — unlike Julie he’s is a postman.”

    2. I think you are right that the data in the LXX and NT support two conclusions. Either (a) anthropos cannot be used for a woman specifically; or (b) it can but it just happens not to. My question is why the lack of evidence leads you to believe (b) and not (a). I choose (a) because I’ve never seen a language where a word that can be used to contrast with “woman” can’t also stress “man” by itself. Further, I have a larger context of these general/specific words (like nasa and halach in Hebrew), and they all pattern essentially the same way. Lacking any evidence to the contrary, I’ll believe that anthropos behaves like all of the other similar words.

    3. I still haven’t seen any convincing evidence from extrabiblical sources to support anthropos referring specifically to a woman. Did I miss one?

    4. The use of feminine determiners on otherwise masculine nouns like anthropos and theos complicates the issue even more, but it leads me to believe that — at least in certain ancient Greek dialects — the masculine determiner with the masculine noun is only used for men. (I believe one of the examples came from poetry, though, and it’s always hard to learn about language from poetry. Just imagine someone learning English by studying E. E. Cummings.)

    Comment by Joel | September 23, 2009 | Reply

  6. Joel, I choose your (a) because of the evidence from extra-biblical Greek. There was not a special language used only for the NT and the LXX. They were written in a language used over a huge area and spread of time, rather like English today, and of which quite a lot has survived in various works of literature as well as theology, and in many papyri and inscriptions.

    Didn’t you read Suzanne’s post with six clear examples of anthropos used of a woman, plus more mentioned in comments? You commented on this post, so I suppose you read it. All this evidence taken together shows that anthropos could be used of an individual woman, especially when contrasted with a god or an animal – and yes, with feminine grammatical gender. I accept that this usage was not common and may not have been available in all dialects. But the evidence does seem to suggest that the only reason that this usage doesn’t occur in the biblical texts is that the Bible nowhere compares an individual woman with a god or an animal.

    As for your comment

    I’ve never seen a language where a word that can be used to contrast with “woman” can’t also stress “man” by itself.

    – I really think you need a lesson on markedness in language. Start with this from Wikipedia:

    Markedness is a linguistic concept that developed out of the Prague School. A marked form is a non-basic or less natural form. An unmarked form is a basic, default form. For example, lion is the unmarked choice in English — it could refer to a male or female lion. But lioness is marked because it can only refer to females. The unmarked forms serve as general terms: e.g. brotherhood of man is sometimes used to refer to all people, both men and women, while sisterhood refers only to women.

    I’m not quite sure about the second example, but I would suggest that anthropos works rather like “lion” in English, specifying the male only when explicitly contrasted with “lioness” – and that “lion” can never be used to stress maleness. And all that in the absence of a specifically male term for a male lion, whereas Greek has aner available when maleness needs to be stressed.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | September 23, 2009 | Reply

    • I guess we’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one.

      Comment by Joel | September 23, 2009 | Reply

      • Joel, have you looked at Suzanne’s evidence? Or are going to continue to disagree because you refuse to consider the evidence which clearly disproves your position, at least your contention 3.

        Comment by Peter Kirk | September 23, 2009

  7. Peter: I have looked at Suzanne’s examples. I still don’t see anthropos with the masculine determiner used for one woman.

    If I’ve missed something, please, post it here.

    (I’ll address the use with the feminine determiner soon.)

    Comment by Joel | September 23, 2009 | Reply

  8. That’s not what you said. You wrote:

    3. I still haven’t seen any convincing evidence from extrabiblical sources to support anthropos referring specifically to a woman. Did I miss one?

    No mention in that paragraph of “with the masculine determiner”. I accept that when anthropos is used “referring specifically to a woman” it has feminine grammatical gender.

    As you say, this “complicates the issue even more”, in ways which we could discuss and are probably related to feminine being the marked gender and masculine the unmarked one. We clearly see this in plural usage, if not of anthropos then clearly of adelphos, in which the masculine is used of mixed groups. I would contend that the same is true of singular usage, certainly in indefinite contexts like Matthew 18:15-17 where the singular adelphos is gender generic.

    But your point 3 as originally written is disproved. You may like to rephrase it.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | September 23, 2009 | Reply

  9. […] I had to correct Joel for the following demonstrably false statement which he made in comment 5 here: 3. I still haven’t seen any convincing evidence from extrabiblical sources to support anthropos […]

    Pingback by Gentle Wisdom» Blog Archive » Anthropos, gender and markedness, part 1 | September 25, 2009 | Reply

  10. What about the Greek word, aner? In refernece to 1 Timothy 3:1….are we speaking of the masculine form of the word man or the gender neutral form meaning anyone?

    Comment by lilbirdie29 | May 26, 2017 | Reply


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