God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Son of Man and Other Fixed Phrases

Even gender-accurate translations retain “son” and “man” in the phrase “the Son of Man,” presumably because it has become a fixed phrase. They do this even though most people recognize that anthropos (“man”) means “humankind” in the phrase, and that uios (“son”) is at least potentially inclusive, even if it refers to a specific male.

Any translation other than “Son of Man” — I think the translators think — would sound jarring or, because it was unfamiliar, would not convey the already-established sense that people automatically hear in “Son of Man.”

I understanding their reasoning, but I don’t agree with it.

Essentially, their point is that a phrase is currently mistranslated, but because it has been mistranslated for so long, it’s too late to change it. But isn’t this the same thing as saying that the translation is knowingly propagating an error?


September 22, 2009 - Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , ,


  1. Hi,
    I think semiotically “The Son of Man”, referring (arguably even in Daniel) to Christ should be approached more cautiously in terms of inclusive language than the more general biblical phrase “son of man” which is not always specific in its reference and might therefore more easily be rendered as “child of humanity”. That does the trick in terms of inclusivity but it is rubbish because it will always be in the shadow of the original.

    The same thing happened with 1 Kings 19 12. Gentle whisper (NIVI) or sound of sheer silence (NRSV) will always be secondary to “still small voice” (KJV) because of the last line of Dear Lord and Father of Mankind. I don’t know much Hebrew but I do recall that none of these three options fully encompass the “small thin silence” of the original.

    Where a phrase has gained weight through cultural incorporation (as with the sparrow) we ought to tread carefully before discarding it, though of course “The Son of Man” does wield doctrinal significance as well!

    Comment by Tim Goodbody | September 22, 2009

    • My general question is precisely if well-known wrong translations should be retained.

      Beyond that question, there are issues of fact. Which best translates the Greek: “Son of Man,” “Child of Man,” “Son of Humanity,” “Child of Humanity,” “Human Son,” “Member of Humanity,” “Human,” etc.?

      Similarly, I think my own “thin whisper of a sound” captures the Hebrew better than “still, small voice.” But there are two questions: Am I right? And if so, what does that mean for future translations?

      (Incidentally, I tend to think that uios tou anthropou, literally “son of the man,” need not be translated the same way as uios anthropou, literally “son of [a] man.” And I’m okay with “son” for uios, but I’m not convinced that “the anthropos” is “man” in modern English. But, again, whether I’m right or not, there are still two issues, one factual and one theoretical.)

      Comment by Joel | September 22, 2009

  2. For the title, how about “The Human Being” or “The Human One”?

    I would agree that huios anthropou in for example Hebrews 2:6 doesn’t need to be translated the same, because it is a different expression and does not refer directly to Jesus anyway. But then “a human being” works well there except that there is an issue over the “him” or “them” at the end of the line.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | September 23, 2009

  3. […] Joel thought such an approach might be valid for familiar phrases, but even then he wouldn’t consider it acceptable. […]

    Pingback by Coming Back to English Generics « ΕΝ ΕΦΕΣΩ | September 24, 2009

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