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 | , , , , ,


  1. Is there a verse that is, to your mind, a perfect example of a text using “man” where the unequivocal meaning is “all people”?

    Comment by bibleshockers | October 3, 2011

    • There’s no perfect example that I can think of, but some instances are close.

      John 4:28 is pretty clear with the plural “men” (anthropoi): “Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the anthropoi…” (NRSV). It seems unlikely that the woman went and spoke to a group entirely of men. And for the singular “man” (anthropos), John 16:21 is pretty convincing: “When a woman is in labor, she has pain… But when her child is born, she [is joyous for] having brought a[n] anthropos into the world” (NRSV). (It helps to know that the Greek for “child” here, paidion, refers to both boys and girls.

      But my point is that the instructions in the poll assume that anthropos can refer to “people in general.” The issue isn’t disputed there. Even so, people prefer “man.” It seems like they are specifically opting for a less accurate translation.

      Comment by Joel H. | October 4, 2011

  2. For me, it’s category confusion when someone defines the referent of ‘man’ as “people in general” and then immediately suggests that ‘man’ is a gendered word.

    Comment by Mike Sangrey | October 3, 2011

  3. The adequacy of the phrasing of the question aside, I believe that two big factors influence the answers to the question:
    — A concern that we not change the Word of God. So any translation solution that appears to be more accurate from a novice’s point of view will always get the nod.
    — A long pattern of people being told by their pastors that literal and “word for word” are the best and that being reinforced by the translations used in the pulpit.

    Comment by Foibled (@Foibled) | October 4, 2011

    • Food for thought… is it the “word” of God or the “message” of God? I mean, LOGOS is usually rendered “word for word” as “word”… but would, IMHO, actually be the “message” (and certainly not “the words”):

      NET Bible:
      Act_18:11 So he stayed there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.

      Was he teaching them “Om”? I think this is an ironic example of the literal subverting the meaning, yes?

      The whole venture of “Bible translation” is a bit quixotic!

      Comment by WoundedEgo | October 4, 2011

  4. Another observation. The survey was done among people who are “Bible readers”. But, what if people who did not understand the literal translations used in their churches and recommended by their pastors had given up reading because they could not understand? So the respondent sample would then contain only those who persevered through lack of understanding until they got enough background to figure out the more literal translation?

    It is also important to note that this survey did not use a methodology where people would be read the same passage in 2-3 different translations and asked what they understood from each. So this survey measures preferences, not which translation actually communicates accurately.

    Comment by Foibled (@Foibled) | October 4, 2011

    • You make a good point. The group may be self-selecting for the kind of people who prefer a certain type of translation.

      More generally, my teacher and colleague Rabbi Martin Cohen, PhD, has taught me that one of the most important questions to ask about historical documents is “who paid for it?” I think that advice applies here as well.

      And Scott McConnell, director of research at LifeWay, acknowledged that “Bible sales do not necessarily follow [the] preferences [we see reflected in the poll].”

      But even granting that the poll was imperfect and biased, I think that these results have something to teach us.

      Comment by Joel H. | October 4, 2011

  5. I think there’s a number of reasons:
    (1) It is natural (and normal) to be curious and inquisitive. Hence to think, contemplate and eventually decide for oneself.
    (2) It forms part of the process of studying the Bible, and haven’t we all been encouraged to do that?
    (3) We don’t want to be perceived as being ‘spoon-fed’. Nor do we want to be seen as intellectually lazy.
    (4) We have been lead to believe that we can figure it out for ourselves – the immediate context usually determines the scope of the word.
    (5) We want to identify as closely as possible with the culture we are reading about. This includes learning about common usage in the given language.
    (6) If those words were good enough for God, or the son of God, they’re good enough for me – particularly if the writer was directly quoting God.
    (7) We believe that political correctness has gone a bit too far, and ‘man’ is more concise than ‘people in general’.

    Therefore, I think that the concept of accuracy is somewhat relative and subjective. It all depends on what one’s ultimate goal is. What does the reader really want to achieve in his reading and study? One who is after simplicity may consider ‘person’ as being more appropriate. But the one who wants to ‘live’ and ‘breathe’ the culture of that period may want to be more open-minded.

    Comment by Robert Kan | October 4, 2011

  6. There is a huge amount of propaganda about why the ESV is supposedly the best choice, put out, naturally, by ESV proponents. This propaganda has an effect, since the vast majority of people will never translate anything in the Hebrew or Greek texts. The ESV propaganda has 2 main thrusts, that other translations (read NIV) are neutering the word of God and that a word-for-word “essentially literal” translation is to be preferred. One needs to reverse engineer what this propaganda claims to see why they are wording things as they do.

    Comment by Donald Byron Johnson | October 4, 2011

  7. There is an unstated assumption that a linguistic barbarism such as ‘humankind’ is ‘more accurate’ than the translation ‘mankind.’ I think that there might be a few verses in Scripture that would benefit from a word such as ‘person’ in place of ‘man,’ and a few more that would be more accurate with ‘children’ instead of ‘sons,’ etc. But the ‘gender-inclusive’ translations do not stop at these few verses. The proponents of gender-inclusive translations have an academic background, In academia, feminism is dominant and its tyranny over thought and language are nearly absolute. Outside of academia, no one says ‘humankind.’ When we look up ‘man’ and ‘mankind’ in the dictionary, we find definitions that are gender-inclusive. The common man has a familiarity with these usages and simply does not agree that they are exclusive because he does not reside in academia and has not been cowed by feminists. Rather than condescend to the common man, academics need to stop claiming that ‘humankind’ is ‘more accurate’ than ‘mankind’ in biblical translation. For a book that will be read by a non-academic reader, ‘humankind’ is jarring and distracting, which makes it a very poor choice of words. (By the way, I spent many years in academia and have a Ph.D. I do not look down on academia in general. But the lack of linguistic freedom in a domain that prided itself on its supposed intellectual freedom stood out like a sore thumb for the 20+ years that I was in the academic setting.)

    Comment by Clark Coleman | October 5, 2011

    • >>>There is an unstated assumption that a linguistic barbarism such as ‘humankind’ is ‘more accurate’ than the translation ‘mankind.’

      Your beef, apparently, is with “academia”, who, in your view, have a feminist agenda, as illustrated as considering:

      “humankind” more accurate than “mankind.”

      You consider both equally inclusive.

      Now, I *think* you agree that we’re talking about inclusive (male and female) objects, yes? If so, in a “careful” sense, they, I think, are right…. “mankind” suggests some shadow of gender, while “humankind” suggests a classification that makes zero distinction between the genders

      My own view is that the writers of scripture were sexist and speciest. That is, that considered dogs to be “animals” while they considered men to be “men.” Women were “men-ancillaries”… never more nor less.

      Comment by bibleshockers | October 5, 2011

    • Clark,

      The best demonstration of the non-inclusivity of “man/men” that I know of comes from Doug “Clayboy” Chaplin, who notes the following: If during services on Sunday morning he asks “all the men here to please rise,” the women will remain seated. I tend to agree.

      I think that sometimes there’s a tension between inclusivity and natural language. For me and many people I know, “man” is not inclusive. On the other hand — again just speaking for myself — “mankind” is inclusive, and “humankind” is awkward.

      I also think it’s important to differentiate between gender inclusivity and gender accuracy. For me, the latter is the goal.

      Comment by Joel H. | October 7, 2011

      • How does the goal of inclusivity relate to the goal of clarity? In your example from Doug Chaplin, the word “man” was used in an exclusive sense, and there was clarity. In many English Biblical texts, the word “man” is used inclusively, and there is clarity. A couple of questions: (1) What verses have a lack of clarity due to masculine pronouns? i.e. the reader is not sure if a statement, command, etc., applies only to men or to men and women alike. (2) Are there any translations that avoid masculine pronouns only in these cases of confusion? If they avoid masculine pronouns when there is no lack of clarity, why?

        Comment by Clark Coleman | October 17, 2011

  8. I wonder if the poll addressed this issue. In John 3:16, which of the following translations would you prefer?

    1. “This is how much God loved the world….”
    2. “This is how much God loved humankind….”

    The second translation conveys the thought, to a large degree, and without gender bias. But this example illustrates the subtle importance of word-for-word emphasis, in my opinion.

    Comment by Robert Kan | October 7, 2011

    • Robert, in John’s usage, “the KOSMOS” is not “everybody on the Earth” but rather “the lost community” and should be translated that way. Never a dull moment in scripture translation! 🙂

      Comment by WoundedEgo | October 7, 2011

    • Robert,

      I don’t agree. I think saying “humankind” instead of “world” (even if you’re right that that better “conveys the thought, to a large degree,”) is a case of providing too much information.

      On the other hand, I also agree with what some people are saying — maybe you among them — that “humankind” is an awkward word.

      Comment by Joel H. | October 7, 2011

      • I’m not reacting to “humankind” (though, as I’ve said, it is repugnant to me because it violates the intertextuality of the text), but am of the opinion that KOSMOS, in Koine, has an established usage that does not mean either the planet or the population in general, but specifically refers to those who are not within the sacred community. To translate KOSMOS as “world” suggests something that it would not have to the original audience of the fourth gospel. For example, though this is a different author, you have “love not the world.” That’s badly translated. It leads to all kinds of confusion. That needs to be cleared up to match the Koine.

        Comment by WoundedEgo | October 7, 2011

  9. Thanks guys. So John (gospel writer) uses “world” in one sense, and John (letter writer) uses “world” in a different sense.

    And Paul uses “works” in the sense of the ‘works of the law’ or the ‘works of one’s own initiative’. And James uses “works” in the sense of the ‘works of obedience’ or the ‘works of faith’ – obedience being evidenced by one’s faith.

    As such, I would put forth that ‘words’ (in general) can be preserved without necessarily causing confusion.

    I would also put forth that we can extend this approach to determine whether a term is potentially gender-neutral or gender-biased.

    Comment by Robert Kan | October 7, 2011

    • Correction – that should be “faith being evidenced by one’s obedience”.

      I would add that Paul also used ‘law’ in two senses – the ‘letter of the law’ and the ‘spirit of the law’, both of which he makes mention. (The concept of making a distinction between ‘moral-law’ and ‘ceremonial-law’ is foreign to Scripture.)

      Comment by Robert Kan | October 7, 2011

      • Actually, Paul used ‘law’ in three senses – the letter of the law, the law of the spirit of life in Christ, and the law of sin and death.

        Comment by Robert Kan | October 7, 2011

    • Right, “law”, as in the US, has one meaning in reference to the government and another in reference to science. The latter is actually better translated “principle.”

      Also, it wouldn’t be “the law of the spirit of life” but rather, “the principle of the breath of life”. That principle is the driving idea in Paul’s writing, where he distinghes, constantly, between the body of flesh from the clay, and the breath of life from God’s nostrils:

      Gen_2:7 And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

      Comment by WoundedEgo | October 8, 2011

  10. So what translation of the Bible do you suggest we use? Or should we all learn Hebrew? Just wondering. I prefer the Amplified Bible myself.

    Comment by reneeproctorwills | October 14, 2011

    • I have some thoughts here: “What’s the best Bible translation to read and study from?

      Comment by Joel H. | October 14, 2011

    • I’m currently enjoying Robert Alter’s translation of some of the wisdom books. They are laid out in verse, good translation and lots of good comments.

      Second to Alter I like The Anchor Bible for the same reasons.

      Then comes the KJV.

      Comment by WoundedEgo | October 14, 2011

  11. Thanks! 🙂

    Comment by reneeproctorwills | October 14, 2011

  12. Part of the problem is that about half of the people I know do indeed use the word “man” for “people in general.” So for those people, there is nothing inaccurate about translating “man” and meaning “people in general.” This is not about preference; it is about usage. These people (understandably) resent it when academicians tell them what words are supposed to mean to them, when (as any linguist knows) words just mean what people naturally mean by them. To convince these people that “man” is inaccurate, you not only have to show that the Hebrew/ Greek means “people in general,” you also have to show that in this particular context the English word “man” does NOT mean “people in general.”

    Comment by Jonathan | October 17, 2011

    • Thanks for stopping by, Jonathan.

      And I agree. This is a matter of dialect, sometimes idiolect. For many English speakers, “man does not live by bread alone,” for example, is a pretty good translation.

      Comment by Joel H. | October 17, 2011

  13. There are many criteria by which we can criticize the translation of a verse of scripture. Let’s look at a typical “non-inclusive” language verse according to several of these criteria: “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?”

    Criterion 1: Clarity. Could a reader conclude that Jesus did not care if a woman lost her soul, that he only cared if a man lost his soul? This possibility seems absurd.

    Criterion 2: Formal equivalence: Could it be claimed that man and anthropos do not correspond? According to English and koine Greek dictionaries, they do correspond (until the feminists gain total control over the dictionaries).

    Criterion 3: Dynamic equivalence: The first century reader of Greek does not have the same reading experience when encountering anthropos as a 21st century reader of English has when encountering “man.” This could be true if you have been indoctrinated to the point where you jerk your knee every time you see words such as “man,” “his,” etc. Solution: Discontinue the mind control program of the feminists. For those who have not surrendered their minds, this criterion is not a problem.

    Furthermore, what if we translate: “For what profit is it to a person if he/she gains the whole world, and loses his/her own soul?” Will this pass the dynamic equivalence test? Will the reading experience be equivalent to a first century reading experience? I think not. How about: “For what profit is it to a person if they gain the whole world, and lose their own soul?” My reading experience will be to recoil in disgust at the singular/plural agreement problems. (And yes, I am aware that isolated examples of this kind of usage can be found in past centuries, but they were not the norm, and we progressed beyond the relaxed grammar and spelling standards of those centuries in the late 19th century, at least.)

    I submit that the concern is Criterion 4: Avoiding academic feminist criticism. This criterion has nothing to do with clarity nor with dynamic or formal equivalence.

    A final comment: When you train your mind to detect and react negatively to masculine pronouns, you will find that you cannot throw a switch and stop doing so when reading the great English literature of the past. You are spoiling your enjoyment of our literary heritage. That is one reason I use such strong language as :mind control” and “Indoctrination.” People are being trained to a Pavlovian extreme.

    Comment by Clark Coleman | October 17, 2011

    • Your comments seem too political to me–surely not all feminist or academic concerns are simply “indoctrination.” A friend of mine from Moody, a pious and sincere evangelical, objected to translations that used “person” in Paul’s letters because, she said, “Paul wasn’t writing to the women in the congregation–he was writing to the men.” I believe that this woman, no less than the feminists who cringe at 19th century literature because it uses the word “man” inclusively, was misled by the inability to distinguish between “aner” and “anthropos”–or the inability to understand that the Greek word for “brother” functions slightly more like “sibling” than she might have guessed. A more dynamic translation will at least try to work around these issues. Accuracy sometimes requires a bit more work in order to keep from being awkward, but surely it is worth the work if someone is going to misunderstand Scripture?

      Comment by Jonathan | October 18, 2011

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