God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: Girl Nations and Boy Nations

From the About comes this great question:

I have a question about the gender of nations. It seems like nations can be referred with both masculine and feminine pronouns. Is there any significance with this change? For example, Moab is “he” in Isa 16:12, Israel is “he” in Jer 2:14; 50:17 but “herself” in Jer 3:11, and Babylon is “she” in Jer 50:29, just to name a few.

What a fascinating observation for those of us who love language.

Gender, as we know, is more complex than Language 101 classes would suggest (I have some particularly vexing examples here), and it’s not unheard of for words to allow two genders.

For example, the Modern Hebrew shemesh, “sun,” is generally feminine but in poetry can be masculine. In this case, the agreement choice even has implications for the translator, because masculine agreement is a sign of poetic register.

On the other hand, multiple gender agreement is fairly rare. So when we see dual agreement with so many nation-words (“Moab,” “Damascus,” “Egypt,” “Israel,” and others) we have to assume that this is more than coincidence.

To get a sense of the issue we need only look at Isaiah 17:1. There, damesek (“Damascus”) is first masculine, then feminine: hinei damesek musar [masculine] mei’ir v’hayta [feminine] m’i hapala, that is, “Damascus will cease to be a city and will become a pile of rubble.” “Will cease” is masculine and “will become” is feminine.

Another example is mitzrayim (“Egypt”). In Exodus 12:33 the word for the nation takes a feminine verb, in Psalm 105:38 (sometimes numbered 104:38), a masculine one.

Exodus 14:25 expands the data set a bit, because Egypt is personified as “I,” not “we”: vayomer mitzrayim anusa…, “Egypt said, ‘I will….’,” though every translation I know of, including the LXX, renders this as “we will…” Going back to Exodus 12:33, we see that even though mitzrayim takes a feminine singular verb at first, the continuation of the verse is masculine plural.

Unfortunately, I don’t have an easy way to gather all of the verbs that have a particular subject. So for now this is more like a “Q and not really A,” because I don’t have an answer yet.

(As a guess, this is a case of conflicting agreement considerations. For example, in English, “either he or I will be in jail” is perfectly grammatical. But it’s not so easy to put that sentence into the present. “Either he or I am in jail?” No. “Either he or I is in jail?” Also no. “Either he or I are in jail?” A little better. I suspect that, similarly, in Hebrew there were reasons for nations to be masculine and feminine, singular and plural. But without more data, it’s hard to form a more concrete conclusion.)

Can someone provide a complete or nearly complete set of the verbs for, let’s say, “Israel,” “Moab,” “Egypt” and “Damascus”?

December 27, 2009 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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?

December 7, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , , | 12 Comments

Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?

Clayboy has a short post in which he describes an experiment he ran. He told an audience, “I like to ask my fellow men to stand.” Only the men stood.

This is pretty convincing evidence that, at least where he was, “men” doesn’t mean “men and women.”

I wonder if there is any context in which the women would have stood, too.

November 15, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , | 9 Comments

Translating and Improving the Bible

Joel Berkowitz (in Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage) writes of the hubris of Yiddish theaters that promoted Yiddish productions of Shakespeare that were “translated and improved.”*

Though we mock it now, I often think I see the same thing in Bible translations, in two related ways:

1. “Translators” want to make the general flavor of the text into something it never was, frequently either overly formal (NKJV, for example) or overly informal (GNB / TEV).

2. “Translators” want to explain not just what the text says, but what it “means.” Sometimes this takes the flavor of theological interpretation. Other times it comes from a desire to make an opaque text simple.

The second issue came up recently in a comment by Peter Kirk, who correctly points out that expanding on bara in Genesis 1:1 to specify details of creation that are absent from the original text “go[es] beyond what is necessary for translation […] into theological speculation.”

One criticism of translating sarx as “sinful nature” is that is, too, is a “translation and an improvement” in that it fills in details on which the original text is silent. (Another criticism is that it’s not what the text meant. But my point here is that even if it is what the text meant, it might not be the right translation.)

Similarly, it seems to me that “translators” who take gender-specific texts and make them generic are “translating and improving.” For that matter, taking a generic text and making it gendered is a mistake, though I think this reverse pattern usually happens by error — because the translators don’t understand gender in the original language as well as they think they do — not by design.

A case in point is “ancestors.” Let’s assume I’m right that the Hebrew avot means “ancestors.” How, then, should we translate “to your avot, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Deut. 1:9)? Even though the ancestors listed are all male, and even if the biblical culture was such that only the men counted (I don’t think it was — but let’s assume), I still don’t think “ancestors” should be changed to “fathers.”

A more radical case makes the reasoning clearer. If patir refers to God, I think it should still be translated as either “father” or “parent,” not as “God.”

The reason I put scare quotes around “translators” so many times here is that in my opinion translation is incompatible with deciding a priori what the content or style of the translation should be. You can (try to) improve the text, or you can translate it, but you can’t do both.

(*) By the way, though the “translated and improved” slogan is widely cited, I’ve been unable to confirm it. If you have a photo of the original, I’ll be most grateful to see it.

November 3, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Translating Words That Mean More Than One Thing

Frequently a Hebrew or Greek word will, in the eyes of English speakers, “mean more than one thing.”

A Foreign Word With Multiple English Translations

A Foreign Word With Multiple English Translations

There are two ways for this to happen. The first is when there are really two foreign words, similar to the situation with “bank” in English (both a financial institution and the side of a river); that’s not what I have in mind here. The trickier case is when the foreign word only has one meaning, but that meaning is more general than any English word, so it takes two (or more) English words to cover the same semantic territory as the one foreign word. This is depicted graphically to the right.

A simple example might be eitz in Hebrew, which means both “tree” and “wood” in English. It’s not that eitz means more than one thing. Rather, the Hebrew term is more encompassing than any English word. So we say that it “means more than one thing,” but really we just have a mismatch between English and Hebrew. (When the situation is reversed, we again generally resort to English-centric terminology, and say that the foreign language has two words “for the same thing.”)

Translating Words With Multiple English Translations

Translating Words With Multiple English Translations

I see three possible translation scenarios, depicted to the left. In the first two, context makes it clear how to translate the foreign word into English. These two cases are usually easy for the translator, and it’s generally only a linguistic curiosity that the foreign language has but one word for the two English ones. Continuing our example, the “eitz of knowing good and evil” is a “tree,” while the eitz of which the ark was built is “wood.”

But sometimes the usage of the foreign word spans both English words, and this is always a true dilemma for the translator. Neither English word suffices as a translation. We don’t see this with eitz, but lots of other words come to mind.

One example seems to be sarx in Greek (as was discussed extensively about a month ago by Peter Kirk, Clayboy, Mark Goodacre, Jason Staples and others, and again in passing yesterday by T. C. Robinson). It’s not exactly that sarx means more than one thing. Rather, its meaning includes “body” in English, but it is broader than that English word. When sarx is used for “body” or “flesh” (say, in Leviticus 13:24), it’s easy to find an English translation. But when it includes “body” and other important denotations as well, a good translation is elusive.

I think another set of examples comes from gender words. The Greek adelphos, for example, includes the English “brother,” but also what we might awkwardly call “co-member of society.” Again, the word doesn’t have more than one meaning, just more than one good translation, depending on context.

What other important words like this present themselves?

October 22, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Man is Everywhere (And So is Woman)

In a comment on A. Admin’s post about Bill Mounce, Mark Baker-Wright takes Dr. Mounce to task for writing (originally here):

Have you noticed the new advertisement for the Prius: “Harmony Between Man, Nature And Machine.” I’ll bet Toyota would be glad to sell to women.

Dr. Mounce is using the point to support his claim that:

[T]hankfully “humankind” never occurs in the NIV/TNIV. What an ugly word! But “mankind” continues to be used as a generic term in English, as does “man.” I know there are people who disagree with this point, but the fact that it is used generically over and over again cannot truly be debated; the evidence is everywhere.

What we have here is confusion on at least two levels:

1. Different people have different dialects. This should be obvious — particularly in light of the heated debate people have about this very issue in their own language — but it seems that this point is frequently forgotten or ignored. It’s perfectly possible (and seems to be true) that one person would hear “man” or “men” and think “people,” while another person would hear “male adult people.”

So even when “there are people who disagree,” both sides can be right for their own dialects.

2. Words mean different things in different contexts. It’s perfectly possoble — and, again, seems to be true — that in English “man versus nature” has more of a general feel than “man versus woman.”

Mounce even gives us an example from his own dialect. He writes, “I know there are people who disagree.” Why didn’t he write, “I know there are men who disagree”? Because in that situation, it would seem, “men” doesn’t mean “people.”

October 16, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , , , , , , | 9 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.


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


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

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 | , , , | 4 Comments

More About the Revisions to the (T)NIV

Thanks to A.Admin on Aberration blog for pointing out the recently posted FAQ about the revisions to the (T)NIV.


Of the 31 questions in the FAQ, 7 are specifically about gender, and another few are about “flashpoints” (their word and their scare quotes) — presumably gender and the word sarx — in the translation.

Yet I don’t see any clear division in their answers between “gender inclusivity” and “gender accuracy” (I wrote about the important difference here.) They do say (Answer 5), that “It is not possible at this stage, therefore, to give a definitive answer to the question about the use of gender inclusive language in the new NIV.” But they are also committed (Answer 23), “to accurately translate God’s unchanging word into contemporary English.” It seems to me that that philosophy demands gender accuracy.

Regarding the generic “man” for “people” — and specifically regarding the potential claim (Question 24) on the part of readers that “Christians are intelligent people. We understand that ‘man’ means woman and man.” — the response is that, “As with the NIV founders, we still feel deeply conscious of the need that exists for a Bible that offers the whole church — from experienced Bible-handlers to interested newcomers — access to God’s unchanging word in language that all can understand.” I read this as them saying that experienced Bible-handlers are okay with “man” while newcomers are not. Q/A 25 offers roughly the same answer to the same question asked from the other side of the debate

To me this seems like the wrong way of framing the gender issue (though it might be more helpful regarding technical words like sarx).

According to the FAQ, “Instead of answering [some questions] individually, we have stated the theme of the question and have included the answer. Other questions are as they appeared when sent to the site, altered in some cases to correct spelling and grammatical errors.”

This approach is potentially important for understanding Question 16: “I am saddened to hear that the TNIV will no longer be in print. […] I certainly hope that the new NIV2011 Bible will lack the divisiveness of its predecessor, but please prayerfully consider the importance of gender-inclusive language, especially in cases where it is actually more faithful to the original text. God used the TNIV to bring me (and I suspect many other thoughtful women) even closer to Himself as I felt him speaking more directly to me as his daughter” (my italics).

I know there are people who think that gendered language should be used for God in English; others vehemently disagree. I wonder if the inclusion of a question phrased like 16 gives us a clue about the direction of the next (T)NIV. (To me, it sounds like the authors of the FAQ wrote both the answer and the question in this case, paying careful attention to the words.)

General Philosophy

Q/A 22 restates what we already know. The new translation will not attempt to be a word-for-word translation. The question is, “Who are you to change the language of the Bible? (This is a general question many have asked in polite and not-so-polite ways.) and the answer is “Translators of the Bible are sometimes accused of ‘changing the words of God.’ Guilty: Anyone who translates the Bible changes every one of ‘God’s words’ — because ‘God’s words’ have come to us in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. […] The real question, then, is how best to translate the original words of God into English words.” The answer then explains that the word-for-word approach doesn’t work.

Answer 29 gives a little more detail: “The committee simply considers how best to communicate the original authors’ ideas and the cadence of their language in the way they would have spoken themselves had they been speaking in English to the global English-speaking audience today.”

It’s a tall order.

September 21, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory | , , , , , | 2 Comments

Girl Things, Boy Things, and Translation

A comment to Peter Kirk’s discussion of Matthew 12:9-14 drew my attention to a passage from Appendix D of Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad. In it, Twain writes about his experience with German, and, among things, gender. Here’s part of what Twain writes:

See how [this crazy thing called gender] looks in print — I translate this from a conversation in one of the best of the German Sunday-school books:

“Gretchen: Wilhelm, where is the turnip?

Wilhelm: She has gone to the kitchen.

Gretchen: Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?

Wilhelm: It has gone to the opera.”

Below are two more passages as Twain translates them from German to English in jest.

I wonder how many of his mistakes make their way into serious published translations of the Bible.

The Tale of the Fishwife and Its Sad Fate

It is a bleak Day. Hear the Rain, how he pours, and the Hail, how he rattles; and see the Snow, how he drifts along, and of the Mud, how deep he is! Ah the poor Fishwife, it is stuck fast in the Mire; it has dropped its Basket of Fishes; and its Hands have been cut by the Scales as it seized some of the falling Creatures; and one Scale has even got into its Eye, and it cannot get her out. It opens its Mouth to cry for Help; but if any Sound comes out of him, alas he is drowned by the raging of the Storm. And now a Tomcat has got one of the Fishes and she will surely escape with him. No, she bites off a Fin, she holds her in her Mouth — will she swallow her? No, the Fishwife’s brave Mother-dog deserts his Puppies and rescues the Fin — which he eats, himself, as his Reward. O, horror, the Lightning has struck the Fish-basket; he sets him on Fire; see the Flame, how she licks the doomed Utensil with her red and angry Tongue; now she attacks the helpless Fishwife’s Foot — she burns him up, all but the big Toe, and even she is partly consumed; and still she spreads, still she waves her fiery Tongues; she attacks the Fishwife’s Leg and destroys it; she attacks its Hand and destroys her also; she attacks the Fishwife’s Leg and destroys her also; she attacks its Body and consumes him; she wreathes herself about its Heart and it is consumed; next about its Breast, and in a Moment she is a Cinder; now she reaches its Neck — he goes; now its Chin — it goes; now its Nose — she goes. In another Moment, except Help come, the Fishwife will be no more. Time presses — is there none to succor and save? Yes! Joy, joy, with flying Feet the she-Englishwoman comes! But alas, the generous she-Female is too late: where now is the fated Fishwife? It has ceased from its Sufferings, it has gone to a better Land; all that is left of it for its loved Ones to lament over, is this poor smoldering Ash-heap. Ah, woeful, woeful Ash-heap! Let us take him up tenderly, reverently, upon the lowly Shovel, and bear him to his long Rest, with the Prayer that when he rises again it will be a Realm where he will have one good square responsible Sex, and have it all to himself, instead of having a mangy lot of assorted Sexes scattered all over him in Spots.

From a Manheim Jounnal

[This one demonstrates the German system of compounding, which, unlike English, does not involve spaces or dashes.]

“In the daybeforeyesterdayshortlyaftereleveno’clock Night, the inthistownstandingtavern called `The Wagoner’ was downburnt. When the fire to the onthedownburninghouseresting Stork’s Nest reached, flew the parent Storks away. But when the bytheraging, firesurrounded Nest itself caught Fire, straightway plunged the quickreturning Mother-stork into the Flames and died, her Wings over her young ones outspread.”

September 18, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , | Comments Off on Girl Things, Boy Things, and Translation