God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Do All Men Experience Pain in Childbirth?

If we’re not careful, our Bible translations will wrongly alienate 51% of the English-speaking population, and perhaps offend even more. The issue (which has been addressed frequently — recently by me here and here, by Clayboy, Bill Mounce, and many others) is whether (orwhen) the English word “men” includes both men and women.

In my dialect, the answer is almost never. When I read or hear “men,” the word excludes women.

I’m told by people like Bill Mounce that in other dialects “men” is perfectly inclusive. So I have a question to the speakers of these dialects. Does “men” include the “women” here:

All men experience pain in childbirth.

More specifically, which (if any) of these make sense and mean what they clearly should?

1. All men experience pain in childbirth — women directly and their husbands vicariously.

2. Unlike the animals, all men experience pain in childbirth.

3. Unlike the gods, all men experience pain in childbirth.

4. Because they ate from the wrong tree, God punished men with pain in childbirth.

5a. In a rare alliance in the battle between man and machine, machines help men endure the pain of childbirth.

5b. In a rare alliance in the battle between man and machine, machine helps man endure the pain of childbirth.

6. Man experiences pain in childbirth both vicariously and directly.

7a. Unlike the animals, man experiences pain in childbirth.

7b. Unlike the gods, man experiences pain in childbirth.

What do you think?

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December 7, 2009 - Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , ,

12 Comments »

  1. For me, none of those say what they clearly should. #6 probably comes the closest though if someone said that to me I would likely respond with “I understand the vicarious part, but how does he experience it directly?”

    Comment by Brad | December 7, 2009 | Reply

    • Well, Brad, as I recall, when she was giving birth to our children, my wife gripped my hand with such force that I thought she would break my fingers. 😉

      Comment by Gary Zimmerli | December 7, 2009 | Reply

  2. I can’t imagine saying any of these, but I can see the possibility that the last four could be said. (Your numbering is a bit confusing with two 5s and two 7s)

    Comment by Doug Chaplin | December 7, 2009 | Reply

    • Oops. (“A bit confusing” is being kind.)

      I’ve made it 5a and 5b, 7a and 7b, now, replacing confusion with inconsistency.

      Comment by Joel H. | December 7, 2009 | Reply

  3. Those all sound like very bad tabloid headlines to me.

    Comment by Ryan | December 7, 2009 | Reply

  4. I don’t think any of them sound natural. The synecdoche simply doesn’t work in contemporary English. I come from the back of Texas, which means I’ve been exposed to the most politically incorrect dialect there is. I still find that completely unnatural, except in “church speak.”

    However, Joel, maybe you’re mixing dialects there. I don’t think any dialect of English that would use “man” generically would speak so medically as to say “experience pain.”

    To properly represent such a dialect, maybe a better example would start with “all men suffer from the bearing of children…”

    Comment by Gary Simmons | December 8, 2009 | Reply

  5. Dogs are called alsatians would be just as bad. I think you’re straying from the point that a group noun functions perfectly well (I am British, English and a Londoner) unless there is an obviously more precise group noun.
    Beethoven is a classical composer. Beethoven is a romantic composer while Bach is a classical one.

    Comment by Mark | December 9, 2009 | Reply

  6. What about in this sentence?

    “When God was cursing the first men for eating those pomegranates, (before he had smitten the fruit full of all of those aggravating seeds, rendering them too much work for American men henceforth and forever), he asked for suggestions on precisely what curses to level on men. Adam suggested that henceforth men be forced to be the leader in the home, while Eve suggested that henceforth men experience labor pains, and monthly cramping. And it was so.”

    Comment by bibleshockers | December 10, 2009 | Reply

  7. I think this is a straw man (straw person?) argument. No one argues that “man” ALWAYS is generic, and as always context is the ultimate clue. I never said it was “perfectly inclusive” (whatever that means, I assume you mean “always”). I said that many subcultures are perfectly comfortable using “man” is a generic. Two different things. –Bill

    Comment by Bill Mounce | December 19, 2009 | Reply

    • I think this is a straw man (straw person?) argument. No one argues that “man” ALWAYS is generic, and as always context is the ultimate clue.

      I have two questions:

      1. If context is the ultimate clue, I think I’ve misunderstood your example about the Prius ad (“man and machine”). You were generalizing from that ad to Bible translation, right? Why do you think that the advertising lingo is relevant for Bible translation but other contexts are not?

      2. More importantly, if “human” is generic in every context for every speaker, and “man” is generic only for some speakers in some contexts, what is the benefit of using “man” generically in translation? Why not always use “human” to include as many people as possible?

      Comment by Joel H. | December 20, 2009 | Reply

  8. I said that many subcultures are perfectly comfortable using “man” as a generic.

    And my question is whether, in these subcultures (or dialects), any of 1-7 are felicitous. My guess is that they’re not, but I don’t know for sure because in my own dialect, even “man engages daily in a struggle against nature” is gender biased.

    Some people have claimed that “man” is generic:

    • always, in some cultures;
    • in distinction to the animals (in some cultures?);
    • in distinction to deities (in some cultures?);
    • in distinction to machinery (in some cultures?);

    So I chose examples that, if these claims are right, would be the most likely to work.

    By comparison, some people have claimed (wrongly, in my opinion) that “human” is sexist because it literally contains the word “man.” I would then ask about “unlike the animals, all humans experience pain in childbirth.” Is it grammatical? For me it is, and I believe that this points in the direction of “human” being gender inclusive. If I’m right that “man” does not work the same way (my example [2]), then we have to ask why. Are there dialects in which (2) does work? If so, we have a dialect split. If not, it seems to me that “man” in all dialects is gender biased.

    Comment by Joel H. | December 20, 2009 | Reply

  9. I was just attempting to be humorous in my last post (not my strong point).

    I have a related question…

    Might “new man” in these passages be better translated as “new mankind?”

    Eph 2:15 Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace;

    Eph 4:24 And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.

    Col 3:10 And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him:

    Comment by WoundedEgo | December 20, 2009 | Reply


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