God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Translation Challenge on Men, Women, and People: Who is an anthropos?

In light of my last post, I thought it might be helpful to move beyond theory to actual translation. How would you translate the Hebrew ish and the Greek anthropos in the following passages?

  1. Genesis 2:24 [Hebrew]: “Therefore an ish leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife.”
  2. Genesis 2;24 [LXX]: “Therefore an anthropos will leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife.”
  3. Deuteronomy 17:5 [Hebrew]: “You shall bring out the ish or the woman who has committed this crime…”
  4. Deuteronomy 17:5 [LXX]: “You shall bring out the anthropos or the woman who has committed this crime…”
  5. Genesis 4:1 [Hebrew]: “…I have acquired an ish…”
  6. Genesis 4:1 [LXX]: “…I have acquired an anthropos…”
  7. Numbers 5:31 [Hebrew]: “The ish will be cleansed of sin but that woman will bear her sin.”
  8. Numbers 5:31 [LXX]: “The anthropos will be clear of sin but that woman will bear her sin.”
  9. Matthew 4:4 [Greek]: “The anthropos does not live by bread alone.”
  10. Matthew 12:12 [Greek]: “How much more valuable is an antrhopos than a sheep.”
  11. John 16:21 [Greek]: “When a woman is a labor she is in pain … but when her child is born, she no longer remembers the pain because of the joy of having brought an anthropos into the world.”
  12. Romans 3:4 [Greek]: “Every anthropos is a liar.”
  13. 1 Corinthians 7:1 [Greek]: “It is good for an anthropos not to touch a woman.”

My answers are as follows:

  1. Genesis 2:24 [Hebrew]: man
  2. Genesis 2;24 [LXX]: man
  3. Deuteronomy 17:5 [Hebrew]: man
  4. Deuteronomy 17:5 [LXX]: man
  5. Genesis 4:1 [Hebrew]: person*
  6. Genesis 4:1 [LXX]: person
  7. Numbers 5:31 [Hebrew]: man
  8. Numbers 5:31 [LXX]: man
  9. Matthew 4:4 [Greek]: people**
  10. Matthew 12:12 [Greek]: person
  11. John 16:21 [Greek]: person
  12. Romans 3:4 [Greek]: person
  13. 1 Corinthians 7:1 [Greek]: man

Do you agree? Disagree? Why?



(*) Rabbinic tradition actually understands the word ish here to mean “fully grown man,” as though Cain skipped over childhood and was born a malicious adult. In the context of that tradition, I might prefer “man” as a translation.

(**) A quirk of English grammar — at least in my dialect — doesn’t allow the general definite singular with the word “person.” Even though “the wolf is a mighty animal,” e.g., refers to all wolves, “the person” cannot refer to all people. So we’re forced into “people” here.

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September 24, 2013 Posted by | general linguistics, grammar, translation challenge, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

On Anthropos: Men, Women, and People

Anthropos

More:

Following up on the brouhaha I seem to have started, here are some more thoughts on anthropos. Everyone agrees that, in various forms and contexts, anthropos is sometimes gender neutral (meaning something like “person”) and sometimes specifically masculine (meaning something like “man”). Can we tell when the word is used which way?

I think the answer is yes.

What Are We Looking At?

Singular/Plural

To get started, we note that words that are gender-specific in the singular are frequently gender-neutral in the plural. Examples from modern languages are very common, and two from Modern Hebrew will illustrate the point. (I pick Hebrew just because I know it so well. We could just as effectively use many other languages.)

The Hebrew words student and studentit both mean “[university-level] student.” The former is for men and the latter for women. Native speakers never say “he is a studentit” or “she is a student.” The plurals for these two words are studentim and studentiot. The former is gender-neutral, while the latter is limited to women. So the following are grammatical: “Those two men are studentim.” “Those two women are studentiot.” “The man and the woman are studentim.” In other words, even though a student must be a man, studentim need not just be men.

Furthermore, in some contexts studentim can be used for women only. That’s because it’s gender-neutral, and that neutrality encompasses “men,” “women,” or any combination. (Another time I’ll talk about the difference between studentim for all women and studentiot for all women.)

The Hebrew words yeled and yalda, “boy” and “girl,” work essentially the same way. The plural y’ladim can include girls, even though a girl cannot be a yeled.

From this we learn that we cannot use anthropoi (the plural of anthropos) to figure out what anthropos means, or, at least, it is a methodological mistake to start with the obvious fact that anthropoi is used for women and conclude that anthropos can be used for a woman.

Generalities and Instances

Just as a word can have different gender roles depending on whether it is plural or singular, a word can behave differently when it’s used to express a generality versus a specific instance. We see this in Hebrew and also in some dialects of English.

Many speakers use “man” to mean “someone,” as, for example, “man is the highest form of intelligence.” (You don’t have to agree with the statement to understand the grammar in it.)

Yet even the people who use “man” for men and women alike do not use it for a specific woman. They only use it for a specific man. So even speakers who use “man” generically do not say, “there’s a man I’d like you to meet” when they have in mind a woman. They certainly do not say, “Sarah is an interesting man” if she’s a women.

So we see that “man” (in some dialects) refers to people in general but only to a male adult specifically.

Accordingly, when we look at anthropos we have to distinguish between its general use (Aristotle’s “anthropos kai probaton,” for example) and its specific use (“I saw an anthropos yesterday.”)

Summary

In short, what we are looking for as we try to figure out what anthropos means is only the singular, specific use of the word.

Before actually doing that, a few thoughts about one way languages can differ are in order, and I turn to them next.

Be Specific

Languages differ in the degree of specificity they require in different contexts. For example, in English we conveniently have a word “person” that includes males and females of any age. (“Human” does the same. As the cliched exercise for the reader: what’s the difference in English between the two?) But it’s not hard to imagine a language that didn’t have such a general word. In such a language, speakers might have to indicate the approximate age of the people they were talking about

An Example: Students

To help understand the issue, we can look at English and Hebrew. In English we have a word “student” that conveniently encompasses elementary school students, high-school students, college students, graduate students, etc. In Hebrew, by contrast, there’s one word (talmid) for grade-school students, and a whole other word (student) for college onward. (It’s a common mistake for English speakers to think that student means any “student.”)

So it is impossible in Hebrew to use one word to refer to a “student of any age” the way we think of the concept in English. So what if I have a “student” in mind, generally, of no particular age, maybe in grade school, maybe in college? I have to spell the notion out in Hebrew, perhaps with the phrase “talmid or student.

Similarly, an Israeli will almost never tell a story about a student without specifying whether the student is in grade school or higher education because it’s so hard to do linguistically.

Another Example: Travel

It’s such as important point that another example seems in order. In English, we have a nice general word “go.” It includes walking, running, biking, driving, flying, boating, etc. When I say “I went to New York City,” I don’t specify at all how I got there. In Hebrew, there are two verbs: halach and nasa. The former excludes travel by vehicle, while the latter excludes travel by foot. So in Hebrew, a speaker almost never mentions going to a place without at least giving some indication of the means of getting there because it’s so hard to do. (Russian is even more complex. It has different verbs for various modes of travel and also for mono-directional travel versus bidirectional travel. In Russian, going to New York and not coming back is not the same verb as going to New York for the day and then returning.)

Once again, for us the important point is that it’s impossible in Hebrew to say “go” without specifying whether or not a vehicle was involved.

How Is Anthropos Used?

With all of this in mind, we can look at how anthropos is used.

To the best of my knowledge, when it is specific and singular, it always refers to a specific man, never to a specific woman. In other words, anything of the sort “an anthropos was….” refers to a man. If the person is a women, we instead find the word gune. (My search is limited to the OT LXX and the NT, so there may be examples I don’t know about. What we’re looking for is something like “I saw an anthropos and she said….”)

Unfortunately, we may not have a fair sampling of how anthropos might apply to women, because the overwhelming majority of people in the Bible are men, and of the women, many are mentioned in the context of their specific role as women, either as mothers or wives. For example, in Genesis 24:5, Abraham’s servant is concerned that the “gune might not be willing to follow me back.” If anthropos were entirely neutral, used when gender is irrelevant, we might expect to see anthropos here, rather than gune. But on the other hand, even though Rebeka is just a person here, she is also the person Isaac is going to marry. So Gen 24:5 is suggestive but not convincing.

Still, we have a few clearer examples. Some of the ones I’ve found are these:

  • Joshua 2:4. The woman who hides the Israelite spies is just a person, really, and she doesn’t have any particularly feminine role, yet she is a gune, not an anthropos.

  • Matthew 15:28. Jesus calls the Canaanite woman, gune, not anthropos, even though she isn’t doing anything that only women can do.

  • Matthew 26:7 and 26:10. The woman with the alabaster jar (side note: someone has to remind me what alabaster is) is referred to as gune, not anthropos.

To me, two facts are important:

1. We see gune for a specific person when the person is female, even when her gender doesn’t seem germane.

2. We never see anthropos for a specific woman.

These two facts, combined with the theory above that tells us where we should look, point me to a very clear answer.

Conclusion

I don’t think anthropos means “person.” Rather, it is one masculine form of gune (the other being aner — a topic for another time). When the word is used to refer to an individual person, that person is a man. When the word is used to refer to a person in general (“one” in English, or the French on), it can be a man or a woman. And when the word refers to “people,” it again can be men or women.

In fact, Greek had no way of referring to a specific person without specifying gender. In other words, Greek didn’t have a word “person.” (This is parallel to Modern Hebrew, which doesn’t have a general word for “student” or for “go.”)

So even though anthropos in its various forms and contexts means different things, I think we can usually know when it is gender specific and when it is not.

The next question, what to do with that knowledge when we translate, will have to wait.

September 16, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , , , | 19 Comments

More on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

Suzanne McCarthy brings up the issue, again, of whether the Greek word anthropos is exclusively masculine (“man”) or gender neutral (“person”).

The short answer is that it is both.

We’ve been through this before, but the Greek framework of gender really is difficult for speakers of languages like English to grasp in the abstract, so here are some English examples that will help make things clearer.

The first example is the English word “day,” which has two clear, mutually incompatible meanings. The first is “24-hour period.” There are seven days in a week, 365 days in a year, stores are open for 24 hours a day, etc. The second is “part of a day.” Some pharmacies are open day and night, night follows day, days get shorter in winter, etc.

The second example is “luck,” which again was two clear, mutually incompatible meanings. The first is “good fortune.” The phrase “with any luck” means “with good fortune.” The second meaning is more general, “fortune of any sort.” That’s why people can have good luck or bad luck, and why “I can’t believe his luck” applies equally to lucky people and unlucky people.

The third example is “child,” which yet again has two meanings: “young human” and “any human with a parent.” So we have the phrase, “men, women, and children,” but also “adult children of aging parents.”

This final case is particularly interesting, because every person has a parent (even if the parents are dead: “children continue to mourn their parents’ death for years”). Just looking at the two definitions, it would seem that “child” in the sense of “someone’s offspring of any age” is a pretty silly word to have. How would it be different than “person”?

The answer is that “child” in this broader sense is only used in connection with parents. “Here comes a child” almost always refers only to a juvenile. But “parents and children” is ambiguous.

The case of “day” shows us a pattern that is similar in some ways, different in others. It’s different in that “day” is completely ambiguous. In my dialect, at least, if a store is “open all day,” I don’t know if it’s open at night or not. But it’s similar in that the phrase “day and night” is entirely clear.

One important lesson we learn from all of this is that words often have one meaning when they are used alone, and a separate meaning when they are used in distinction to something else. And, perhaps counter-intuitively, the various meanings can seem confusing, inconsistent, or even contradictory. Nonetheless, native speakers usually find the words entirely clear.

Not surprisingly, the Greek anthropos works just like these words.

By itself, it usually means “person.” John 16:21 is a pretty clear example: “a woman in labor suffers pain, but when her child is born she doesn’t remember her pain on account of her joy at having brought a person [anthropos] into the world.” To the best of my knowledge, no one thinks that this only refers to male children.

On the other hand, anthropos also contrasts with female-gender words like thugater (“daughter”), e.g. in Matthew 10:35; gune (“woman”), e.g., in Matthew 19:3; etc. Looking at the second instance, it’s clear that “an anthropos leaves his father and mother and joins his wife” refers only to men taking wives, not women. I don’t think anyone believes otherwise.

These examples point in a very clear linguistic direction. The Greek word anthropos — like many gendered words in gendered languages and like many other words in other languages — has more than one meaning.

In this context — and I think this was Suzanne’s point in her posting — it’s common to observe (as the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood does here) that “in the New Testament, when this term [anthropos] is used for specific individuals, it always refers to males” (their emphasis).

Maybe. But it does not follow from this (potential) fact that anthropos cannot refer to a specific woman. And they even provide the evidence, in their next paragraph: “The list of specific men of which anthropos is used is quite long […] as distinct from the three times Christ refers to a woman (gune) in a parable.”

The lopsided nature of the text here — that is, the very fact that our data set includes a long list of men and only three women — warns us not to draw general conclusions about the word. If we enlarge the data set, to include, for instance, Suzanne’s example from Herodotus’ Histories (1.60), we do find anthropos used in regard to a specific woman.

Two additional points seem in order:

First, I gather from the CBMW piece that some people are trying to use the linguistic qualities of the word anthropos to determine Jesus’ gender. This doesn’t seem like the right approach to me. Again from the CBMW piece: “That Jesus is an anthropos means first of all that he is a human being; but it also means that he is a male human being.” I don’t think so.

Secondly, I frequently read claims like, “Jewish women [in Jesus’ day] were kept in subjection and sometimes even in seclusion” (from Scanzoni and Hardesty’s All We’re Meant To Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, quoted in the CBMW piece). Again, I don’t think so. Salome Alexandra ruled Judaea as queen for about a decade shortly before Jesus’ time. This was a hardly a culture that universally denied power to women.

At any rate, and in summary, lots of words have a variety of interrelated, sometimes contradictory meanings that are determined in part by context. The Greek anthropos is no different. Sometimes its meaning most closely overlaps with “man,” sometimes with “person,” sometimes with “human.” But picking and choosing examples without taking into account how language works will almost always lead to a conclusion that is as convincing as it is wrong.

September 20, 2013 Posted by | general linguistics, grammar, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 59 Comments

Making Jesus the “Human One”

Though the text of the new Common English Bible (“CEB”) has been circulating for some time, its recent release made headlines (Bob Smietana in The Tennessean, picked up by Cathy Lynn Grossman on her USA Today blog), in part because of the translators’ decision to change the traditional “son of man” into “human one.”

Why did they make the change, and is it a good one?

Son of Man

The traditional “son of man” is a literal translation of the Hebrew ben adam, which is how God frequently calls Ezekiel. We also find it elsewhere in the OT. In these cases, the Greek Septuagint translates the Hebrew literally as uios anthropou.

The English phrase also occurs in the NT, where it is the nearly literal translation of the Greek uios tou anthropou (“son of the man”), common in all four Gospels, and appearing elsewhere.

While the Hebrew phrase seems to refer to any human (even though it’s only actually used of a few humans), the Greek phrase seems to refer specifically to Jesus. For this reason, many translations capitalize it, either “Son of man” or “Son of Man.”

Against “Son of Man”

Perhaps the biggest drawback of these literal translations is that the Hebrew ben and Greek uois indicate “member of” in addition to “son” or “child.” One famous phrase where we see this is b’nai yisrael (b’nai is the plural of ben), commonly “children of Israel” or “sons of Israel,” but really just “Israelites.” Similarly (just for instance), in Matthew 9:15, the phrase commonly translated as “wedding guests” is literally sons of the weddinghall.

Accordingly, ben adam could simply be someone who is an adam, just as uios tou anthropou could be someone who is an anthropos. That is, both phrases might just refer to a person. This is where the CEB gets “human one.” They are right that “son of man” is overly literal and misses part of the point of the original.

Another problem with “son of man” is that it is doubly gendered in a way that the Greek is not. In Greek, both uios and anthropos can refer to women as well as men. So the traditional translation introduces gender while the CEB’s translation does not.

In Favor of “Son of Man”

On the other hand, the term “son” in the NT is hardly a neutral one. It is part of the trinity. And it makes possible the progression from “son of man” to “son of God.”

In terms of the latter, for example, we find Luke 22:69-70:

“…but from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” All of them asked, “Are you, then, the Son of God?” (NRSV, my emphasis)

In the CEB, this becomes:

“…but from now on, the Human One will be seated on the right side of the power of God.” They all said, “Are you God’s Son, then?” (CEB)

The progression is destroyed.

And in terms of the trinity, we might consider Matthew 12:32: “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven…” (NRSV), which resonates with Matthew 28:19: “baptiz[e] them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

In the CEB, we find instead: “And whoever speaks a word against the Human One,” which doesn’t match “baptiz[e] them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” in the same way.

The Tradeoff

I understand the motivation behind “human one” in the CEB. And I think that in isolation it’s a better translation than the traditional “son of man.” But in the broader context of the full NT, I think the association with “son” is too central to give up, and so the CEB misses more than it captures.

What do you think? Which part of uios tou anthropou (“son of man” / “human one”) is more important, the meaning of the phrase or the associations of “son”?

July 19, 2011 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 37 Comments

Top Translation Traps: Too Much Information

Translators frequently have information at their disposal that doesn’t come directly from the text they are translating.

Though it’s often tempting, it is nonetheless almost always a mistake to add the additional information into the translation.

For example, if a mystery novel starts, “a man was walking by the beach,” the translator should not change it to, “Mr. Smith was walking by the beach,” even if it later turns out that Mr. Smith was the man.

Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment begins with odin molodoi chelovek, “a young man.” The reader soon learns that the young man used to be a student. But it would surely be a mistake for a translator to render the Russian as “former student” instead of “man,” even though the guy happens to have been a student.

This sort of mistake comes up frequently in Bible translation.

Four Examples

People / Men — Anthropos

We just saw one clear case at Bible Gateway‘s new translation blog, regarding the people in 2 Timothy 2:2 (“and what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people [anthropoi] who will be able to teach others as well,” NRSV). The question there is whether the translation for anthropoi should be “people” or “men.”

Ray Van Neste’s answer notes that the leadership position referred to in 2 Timothy 2:1-7 “has been forbidden to women in [verse 12 of] 1 Timothy 2.” Based on this, Dr. Van Neste seems to claim that anthropoi should be translated “men.”

But even if he is right about who the anthropoi are, his reasoning is flawed. Just because the people are men doesn’t mean that anthropoi means “men,” or that “men” is the right translation, any more than “young student” is the right translation for the “young man” in Crime and Punishment.

Hebrews 5:1 works the same way. There, high priests are selected from among anthropoi. I suppose they were probably men, but that doesn’t mean the translation should say “men” where the original is broader: “people.”

Similarly, I suppose the people in 2 Timothy 2:2 were also followers of Christ. Should we therefore translate “reliable Christians” for pistoi anthropoi? Of course not. To translate “Christians” is to add information that comes from other parts of the text. To translate “men” is to make the same mistake.

People / Slaves — Nephesh

Another example came up in a comment to a discussion about nephesh in Genesis 12:5 on BBB: “Abram took … the persons [nepheshes] whom they had acquired in Haran…” (NRSV). Yancy Smith points out that some versions translate nephesh as “slave,” rather than “person,” because the nepheshes there are “acquired.”

But again, the reasoning (of the TEV and others) is flawed. Even if the people are slaves, there is a difference between “acquiring people” and “acquiring slaves.” The Hebrew has the former, and so should the translation.

The Son of God / Christ

A third example comes from Mark 1:1: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (NRSV). The “Son of God” is, of course, “Christ,” also translated as “Messiah.” We see the identity, for example, in Matthew 26:63: “tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God” (NRSV). But that doesn’t mean that we can translate Mark 1:1 as “Jesus Christ, the Messiah.”

Dry Bones

Our final example for now comes from the “dry bone” prophesy in Ezekiel, who is told in verse 37:4: “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD” (NRSV). In verses 37:9 and 37:11, the reader learns that these bones are the “slain” “house of Israel.” It’s a brilliant progression, and it would be destroyed by translating “bones” as “slain of the house of Israel” in 37:4.

Summary

It seems to me that, wherever possible, translators should translate the text of the Bible without destroying the nuances of the original. And often, providing too much information makes a translation less accurate.

December 19, 2010 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Gender in the Updated NIV

According to the translators’ notes for the updated (“2011”) NIV, “every single change introduced into the committee’s last major revision (the TNIV) relating to inclusive language for humanity was reconsidered.” This is in keeping with an announcement the translators made in 2009.

Some people were concerned about this, because they were afraid the translation committee might reverse some of the progress the TNIV made in preserving gender accuracy.

From the quick look I took today, it seems that the gender-neutral translations for humanity have largely been preserved.

OT Examples

For example, the phrase ashrei adam appears six times. In all six places, the TNIV had “those” for adam, an update from the 1984 “man” in five out of six of the instances.

In half of those cases (Psalm 32:2, Psalm 84:16, and Proverbs 28:14), the NIV2011 changes “those” to “the one,” while in the other half (Psalm 84:6(5), Proverbs 3:13(12), and Proverbs 8:34) the newer version retains “those.” I think it’s unfortunate that ashrei adam now enjoys two translations in English, but I think the more important point is that the gender neutrality was preserved in the new NIV.

Likewise, Psalm 1:1 with its similar asrei ha-ish is now “one.” It was “those” in the TNIV, and “man” in the older NIV84.

In Psalm 147:10, surprisingly, the NIV translators chose “warrior” for ha-ish. I think it’s a mistake, but it still demonstrates a commitment to gender accuracy in translation.

NT Examples

On the other hand, for Matthew 4:4 (ouk ep’ arto zisetai o anthropos), the NIV2011 reverses a decision made by the TNIV, reverting to “man” (which is what NIV84 had) for anthropos: “Man shall not live on bread alone.”

This is confusing. Unless the translators think that “man” is gender inclusive, the translation is wrong. But if they do think that “man” is inclusive, it’s not clear why they didn’t use it elsewhere.
Continue reading

November 1, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

How Many Women is One Woman in 1 Timothy 2:12?

Peter Kirk drew my attention to a post by Bill Heroman about I Timothy 2:

If anyone wants us to be perfectly literal about 1 Tim 2:12, we should note, at least as a beginning, that Paul is primarily speaking against one-on-one mentoring, female to male. “I do not allow a woman to teach or to direct a man.” Everything in this statement is entirely singular. [Emphasis in original.]

Bill then asks whether “[t]he male/female intimacy of a one-on-one discipling relationship may be all Paul is really afraid of.”

In other words, Bill suggests that Paul may not be talking about women in general, but rather about one woman teaching one man, in private (and perhaps even the specific instance of that).

It’s a lovely suggestion — and I laud the effort — but I don’t think the grammar supports it.

It’s common to use singular nouns generically, both in English (which is why I might equally write that “it’s common for a singular noun to be used generically”) and in Greek. Furthermore, the tendancy in Greek is to use eis (“one”) to refer specifically to one of something.

For example, in John 11:50 we find, “it is better for eis anthropos to die…,” that is “one person.” Without eis the text would more naturally mean that it is better for people to die. I think that John 11:50 is particualy instructive because the context could make it clear that anthropos means just one person, because “it is better for people to die than for the whole nation to perish” doesn’t make any sense. But the grammar still has to support the context.

So it seems that the way to say, “I do not allow one woman to teach one man” would be to use the word eis twice.

Even so, I have to agree with Peter, who “love[s] the way that blogger Bill Heroman is prepared to think outside the box.”

December 10, 2009 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Two Examples of Just How Tricky Gender Can Be

Gender, and in particular the gender implications of anthropos, have come up over and again recently (for example, my posts here and here, some great information from Suzanne here, and a response by Peter here). I hope to have time in a few days to prepare a fuller post with a little more background and information.

In the meantime, here are two examples — one from Russian and one from Spanish — that show how tricky gender and language can be.

1.

moi doktor ne znala shto deleat
my (masc.) doctor (???) NEG knew (fem.) what to do
“My doctor didn’t know what to do.”

2.

el azucar blanca
the (masc.) sugar (???) white (fem.)
“The white sugar….”

In (1), we see that the normally masculine word “doctor” gets a masculine adjective (moi) but a feminine verb (znala) because she is a woman. (This contrasts with how gender usually words, as in the example I gave here about the French personne, which gets feminine agreement even when it refers to a man.)

In (2), we see the noun azucar (properly with an accent that I can’t figure out how to type) with the masculine determiner el but the feminine adjective blanca. (La azucar blanca is also possible, and depending on dialect, so is el azucar blanco.)

These highlight the complex nature of gender in language.

More soon.

September 26, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , , | 9 Comments

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 | , , , , , | 4 Comments

How Much Meaning Do You Want?

At the end of my discussion of anthropos, I concluded that one meaning of anthropos is “man,” and that we see that meaning in Matthew 12:10.

Here I want to suggest that, even so, “man” may not be the best English translation for anthropos. Here’s why.

One of my points before was that Greek makes it very difficult to talk about people without specifying their gender. (English makes it easy in the plural, but equally difficult in the singular. Had I written, “Greek makes it hard to talk about a person without specifying…” I would have been hard pressed to finish the sentence grammatically and elegantly.) Accordingly a Greek text about “just someone” will usually end up looking “masculine.”

Again (see here for the background), we can compare the situation to Modern Hebrew, with its two verbs halach and nasa. The former means “went by foot” and the latter means “went by vehicle.”

Suppose we have a Modern Hebrew text that reads, “Chris nasa to Tel Aviv to start his day.” We have two translation options:

1. “Chris traveled to Tel Aviv to start his day.”

2. “Chris went to Tel Aviv to start his day.”

At first glance, (1) looks like the obvious choice. Nasa means “traveled,” and it is what Chris did. We know he didn’t walk, because otherwise the verb would have been halach.

However, in favor of (2) is the fact that the original Hebrew doesn’t necessarily stress the means of transportation, while the English in (1) does. The Hebrew is as neutral as possible about how Chris got to Tel Aviv, while the same cannot be said for (1). As a speaker of English and Hebrew, I know that (2) is often the best translation of the Hebrew.

To look at the matter another way, imagine starting with an English sentence, translating it first into Greek and then back into English. I think we can agree that if we’re doing things right, the English that we start off with and the English that we end up with will be the same.

If we start with “Someone walked into the room,” we get either “anthropos…” or “gune…” in Greek, but we probably get the former. It stands to reason, then, that when we translate back, we should translate anthropos as “someone.”

At least, sometimes “someone” is the best translation of anthropos. We have a dilemma, because if we start with “a man walked into the room,” we might get the same Greek “anthropos….”

Part of the translator’s job in this case is to figure out whether the Greek text means to emphasize “man” over “woman” (in which case “man” is the better translation) or whether the maleness is incidental (suggesting “person,” “someone,” etc. as the better translation).

It’s pretty difficult to discern these nuances from the text, which is but one of many reasons that translation is hard.

September 17, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , | 14 Comments