God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Accuracy versus Personal Preference: a hidden choice in Bible translation

The latest round of reporting on the LifeWay Bible-preference poll addresses the theme of gender-neutral translations, with headlines like, “Study: Bible readers oppose gender-inclusive translations” (from the Associated Baptist Press).

What I find interesting here is that the poll specifically explained that some Greek and Hebrew terms refer to “people in general,” and the question was whether these inclusive terms should be translated as “man” or as “humankind” etc.:

“Bible translators have to make choices regarding gender issues. For example, the original Greek and Hebrew often uses masculine words such as those literally meaning ‘man’ to describe people in general. Some translators think these should be translated literally as ‘man’ while others think they should be translated into gender-inclusive terms such as ‘humankind,’ ‘human being,’ ‘person’ or ‘one.’ Which do you prefer?”

The question was, in my opinion, biased, but not terribly so. Describing the translation of “man” as “literal” but not describing the other terms with any potentially positive attribute seems unbalanced; also, the question suggests that the original can be translated “as `man,'” but “into gender-inclusive terms.” Even so, the question specifically told respondents that the point was to convey “people in general.” And only 12 percent wanted the more accurate choice.

Another way to phrase the poll question, it seems to me, would have been: “Some translators try to tell you what the text of the Bible means while others try to give you a text that you will like. Which do you prefer?” Of course, I have no way of knowing for sure what the results of asking such a question would be, but I find it hard to believe that the same 82 percent that opted for “man” would choose translations that are tailored to personal preference.

So why did so many people prefer the word “man” to express “people in general”?

As with the accuracy versus readability, I think these poll results have more to do with culture than with translation, linguistics, or Bible studies.

October 3, 2011 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , | 30 Comments