God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

A Case of Gender Awkwardness

Still with the goal of providing a solid framework for understanding gender and translation, here’s another example from Modern Hebrew.

Modern Hebrew has two ways of expressing the generic “you” of English (as in, “you shouldn’t put your elbows on the dinner table,” which means “one shouldn’t….”). The first is a plural masculine verb with no subject, and the second is the masculine singular pronoun “you” (atah) with the corresponding verb.

So “when you see a zebra…” in the sense of “when one sees a zebra” in Hebrew is ka’asher atah ro’eh zebra… or ka’asher ro’im zebra…, literally, “when you(m,sng) see(m,sng) zebra” and “when see(m,pl) zebra.”

Every Hebrew speaker knows that these expressions apply to women and men equally, even though the grammar is masculine.

However, when only women are involved, the phrasing becomes awkward. For example, “when you’re pregnant [you need more sleep]” should be ka’asher ata b’hirayon, “when you(m,sng) are-pregnant.” But it sounds odd because men don’t (yet?) get pregnant. Unfortunately, the obvious solution of using the feminine pronoun also sounds odd: ka’asher at b’hirayon (“when you(f,sng)…”) most naturally refers to a specific person, not to “women in general.” So the sentence gets rephrased in Hebrew, along the lines of “when a women gets pregnant….”

I’ll have more to say later on the general phenomenon that I think is at work here, but for now I’ll note my suspicion that similar awkwardness might be at play in a some of the gender translation cases we’ve been discussing lately.


September 24, 2009 - Posted by | general linguistics | , , ,


  1. Something occurred to me as I read this post just after your previous one.

    The Hebrew accusative marker et is used to mark a direct object only if it is definite. This is not a phenomenon just of Hebrew: Turkish and Farsi also mark direct objects only if they are also definite.

    I wonder if something similar is happening with the feminine gender, at least in Hebrew and perhaps also in Greek: it is used to mark female referents only if they are also definite, in the sense of being a specific person. In Greek this would explain the anomaly that tis, “someone” or “who?”, doesn’t have a feminine form, also (off the top of my head) the strange phenomenon that adjective with the negative prefix a- also don’t have distinct feminines. Actually the same thing might have worked in English in the past, and allowed generic “he”, but now this usage is not acceptable to many speakers.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | September 24, 2009

  2. […] the exclusion of women. In particular Joel Hoffman has taken the position, here and here (see also this post), that one meaning of anthropos is […]

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

  3. men don’t (yet?) get pregnant

    Thomas Beattie and many like him who shirked a media frenzy.

    Comment by ephilei | September 30, 2009

    • many like him

      Or should that be “many like her”? All this proves is that women can wear men’s clothes, get surgery, change their legal status, and marry women, but that doesn’t change the biological facts.

      Comment by Peter Kirk | September 30, 2009

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