Anyone who has learned a language other than English knows that the act of translating from one language into another is not like connecting dots or trying to break a code on the back of a cereal box. Often there is not a one for one correspondence between words. One may talk about how foreign words are similar, but they are rarely exactly the same. Geography, culture, even nationality can all play a part in the process of how we translate a word. This happens even in English. There are a number of English words that mean one thing in the USA and something else in the UK. For instance, in the USA suspenders are what a man wears to hold up his trousers, but in the UK they are what a woman uses to hold up her stockings. In the USA the backyard is the grassy area behind the house. But in the UK it is simply a concrete area, no grass. You can imagine the surprise my wife and I had when we moved into our house in the UK and discovered that the advertized “backyard” was little more than a 12 x 12 concrete patio. Our friends in the UK often said that the USA and the UK were two countries separated by a common language. I still remember the odd looks we received on the tube in London when one of our American visitors loudly announced to us, and everyone else in the car, that her “pants” were falling down. I will leave it to you to find the meaning of that one if you don’t already know.
If English can present such challenges in translation, imagine what it is like trying to translate a text that is several thousand years old and several cultures removed. The Bible is just such a book and leads me to the point of today’s blog.
I just received a copy of the Common English Bible (CEB), of which I am a contributing translator. For the most part I find it to be an easy read that will help bring the Bible to life to people living in a modern age. But there a couple of points that caused my eyebrows to rise in curiosity. It has to do with gender specific language and technical terms. I will talk about gender specificity today and post about technical terms later.
The CEB, like other modern translations, has attempted to temper the male dominant language of the Bible and make it more gender friendly. Thus Paul’s letters are addressed to “brothers and sisters” rather than just “brothers.” Genesis 1:26-27 now reads “And God said let us make humanity in our image” and “God created humanity in God’s image.” I think this is an accurate and appropriate way to translate and interpret the Hebrew word “Adam” here, which can mean all of humanity and not just a “man.”
But what has me scratching my head is the use of “human” instead of “man” or "Adam" in 2:15-25. The result is that now instead of Adam naming the animals, it is done by “the human” and God realizes that it is not good for “the human” to be alone so he puts “the human” into a deep sleep and takes one of his ribs to make the woman. Adding to the oddity of this translation is the fact that all of the Hebrew pronouns in these verses are clearly masculine and translated as such. Thus God makes a helper for “him” and puts the human in a deep sleep and takes one of “his” ribs. Even though the “human” is clearly male he is not called “man” until 2:24 when the narrator talks about a man leaving his father and mother to embrace his wife. The rest of the Garden of Eden story calls the couple man and woman, but not Adam and Eve. In fact, "the human" is not called Adam until 4:1 when we are told about Adam and Eve's children. Eve ,however, is mentioned a few verses earlier in 3:20 because Adam gives the woman her name.
I am not sure what all to make of this. On the one hand, I applaud the translators and the editors in their attempt to bring gender inclusive language to the Bible so that we have a translation that reflects our modern way of thinking. But the translation of the Hebrew “Adam” as “the human” seems overformal. Granted, Adam is a human, but he is also clearly male as the pronouns indicate. Moreover, Genesis has many things to teach us including the importance of men and women in creation. Calling Adam “the human” seems like a sterilization, and attempt at making the first human an androgynous or asexual being. Perhaps there was a fear that calling the first created human a “man” would suggest that men are superior to women. While that has happened at times, I am not sure this translation gets around the problem. I think they would have been better-off translating “Adam” as a proper noun as a way to avoid the generic “man.” This would have gone some distance to diminish the gender specific language that they were unable to avoid anyway because of the masculine pronouns.
Here is a link to Genesis in the CEB. Take a look at it and let me know what you think of the first three chapters. Is this is a helpful translation? To what degree can we make an ancient text reflect our modern sensibilities? What do we gain and what do we risk?