Friday, August 20, 2010

Gender Inclusiveness in Bible Translations - Can we go too far?

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?


  1. I am a woman and I appreciate the CEB translation of man as human because it includes me in that oneness of being originally created of GOD rather than being created of MAN. That's what inclusive language does. It includes EVERYONE.

    It is our cultural context that has separated men from women, not God. This problem of separating man and woman comes from focusing more on Genesis 2 rather than Genesis 1:26-27.

    Do you find the "us" of God in Genesis 1:26 problematic as well. As a woman, I would like to think that I am part of that divine, "us" image of God as well.

  2. Dear Anonymous,

    No, I don't have a problem with the us in 1:26. That is why I said that I agree with the translation of "humanity" in Gen 1. I am also not suggesting that we should exclude women. That is why I noted here and on previous posts my appreciation and support of gender inclusive translations. But in the case of Gen 2, I wonder if in our pursuit of gender inclusiveness we sometimes miss the point of the text. I think Genesis 2 is a celebration of the sexes. I don't agree with those who would use the creation of Adam first because, as you point out,it is a narrow focus on Gen 2 without considering Gen 1. But in Gen 2 the pronouns are clearly masculine and the story moves towards the creation of women as a separate, distinct sex. I think the author of Genesis is making a statement about the importance of women and their equal status and role in creation as that of men. I do not think that it should be read as giving males the dominant role. But again, how far to we go when dealing with an ancient text? How much should we alter? That is my question.

  3. I appreciated the 'human' translation because it clarifies Gen. 6 where the 'sons of God' or 'divine beings' saw the 'human women' thought they were beautiful and married them. Most folks don't want to address: The Nephilim were on the earth in those days - and also afterward - when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown. Genesis 6:4

    There were other beings when God created the world, so I think it's important we address that God created 'humans'.

    The gender inclusiveness may not be as big of an issue as we try to make it out to be. It is very clear in this translation that the the first 'human' was Adam and he was a male.

  4. Gender inclusiveness has been a relevant issue for some time now, receiving particular focus in the past several years. However, as you know, John, translation is not an easy task. There is certainly no right or wrong answer to the question, "Should Bible translations use gender inclusive language when rendering male pronouns and verbs which have a broader meaning?" But, translation often involves much more difficult issues than a question such as this reveals.
    I do not agree with the common quip that "translation is treason," by-and-large because this mindset treats translation as a purposeful attempt to undermine the meaning of the original author. This is certainly not what translation attempts to do. However, because of the complexities of language, some of which John pointed out, translators are often forced to choose a select few aspects of meaning to bring across from the source to the receptor language. This is a very complex topic, but more than just meaning is at stake, e.g., poetics, semantic range, ambiguity in language, word-plays, etc.
    In regard to Gen 2 it seems to me that the translator(s) have purposely changed the text in such a way to appease modern sensibilities. However, they probably go too far in this instance. One reason I say this is that the original author(s) of Gen 2 probably envisioned an actual male human being as they wrote the word "adam" in Gen 2. How do we know this? Well, we can not be completely certain, but the fact that woman is created next--that is, a female human in contrast to a male human. Why would the original author(s) ever intend for the "adam" to be interpreted inclusively, or ambiguously, if they were going to portray the creation of the female human as a distinct event?
    In regard to anonymous' comment that, "it is very clear in this translation that the first 'human' was Adam and he was male," that is the very point! Why use a gender ambiguous term to translate "adam" when the word "man" is just as suitable and more clear in the context, particularly when all of the pronouns are male?

  5. Some years ago my denomination published a new hymnal. One of the features was gender inclusivenss, which meant that some public domain songs had some words changed; "Father" became God, "man" became people, etc. What is funny is that half the people sing the old way and the other half read the words! One of our song leaders calls it the "It-nal" (instead of the "Him-nal"). While I appreciate sensitivity to gender inclusiveness, sometimes I think it can be taken too far, which is what I read you saying, John, about Genesis. In trying to be inclusive the editors created some grammar confusion!

  6. Majored in languages. Not impressed with typical gender inclusive efforts. Mostly squander the text in unwarranted prioritization of social, political and cultural agendas. Results typically poor, imprecise and obscurant. As a translation the CEB in unremarkable. The marketplace will determine if it is to be the replacement of the NIV or simply another NRSV.

  7. I find the issue of gender inclusiveness both ridiculous and comical.
    Anyone with half a brain & a classic education understands the "inclusiveness" of "Adam" as the representative of the first "human" of creation. I also think that it is little short of blasphemy to try to make scripture "fit our modern times" rather than letting the original text "stand on its own". Translation can be a "can of worms" indeed, but don't try to twist what the original text says to fit "our times". I wonder if God is disgusted, or amused, by our academic dithering with the original text & its meanings. I consider the Bible the living word of God & we are to fit it, not make it "fit" us & our times. It already does & always will be His word! We just need to accept it & not try to change it to suit our idea of what is "correct or accurate". It is accurate in the original version, so don't try to "change" or "translate" it to fit our times. God actually tells us that His word is unchangeable & that "I am God, I change not". Yes, there are a multitude of ideas as to just what "unchangeable" means. But I don't think God has a "dictionary" of meanings for Himself or His Word!

  8. Ginny,

    I think that there are some issues you bring up that should be addressed. To begin, the topic of gender inclusiveness is a valid discussion, and should not be dismissed outright. There is actually a great need to translate scripture into the language of each culture, and perhaps each generation--to fit our times, so to say. Even ancient Jews had to translate the Hebrew Bible into the languages that they could understand (hence the Greek Septuagint and the Aramaic Targumim); the vast majority of people on this planet wouldn't be able to make heads or tails of the Old and New Testaments in the original languages. Furthermore, what was a good English translation 600 years ago (e.g., the KJV) will not necessarily effectively communicate the meaning of the source text to a modern audience. This is because English language itself has evolved and changed to such a degree that what once was clear to an English speaker of the 1600s will not be clear to an English speaker today; hence, a new, or updated, translation is necessary.
    Furthermore, there are significant issues in regard to translation itself (as I mentioned above). For instance, translators are often forced to choose the "best" way to render a Hebrew or Greek word into English, often having to choose between an English word that carries some of the meaning of the Hebrew or Greek versus another word that also carries some of the meaning as well--that is, choosing between two words that overlap in meaning, but neither of them really carrying the full semantic range of the Hebrew or Greek. This is not to mention occasions where the Hebrew or Greek is somewhat ambiguous and the English translator is forced to choose a word that is, by its nature, more specific. Thus, the translator is often forced to go for adequacy.
    Another issue, not to drag this out, is in terms of idioms. It is often necessary to render ancient idioms in terms that modern people will understand, because most people today don't have the historical knowledge, or the ability to do research, in order to understand an ancient idiom or metaphorical phrase.
    This discussion only barely addresses some of the issues that translators are faced with. Now, in regard to gender inclusive language, many languages, Hebrew, Greek, and English included, do not have 3rd person personal neuter singular pronouns (or verb forms), and thus generally use 3rd person masculine pronouns (or verb forms) when speaking about men and women together. English benefits from a neuter plural pronoun (they) and thus can sometimes provide inclusiveness when the author may have meant so. Therefore, inclusiveness is a serious issue, but often a hot-topic, and can be misapplied in cases like Gen 2 of the CEB.
    All this to say, while Scripture is certainly the living word of God, it does not simply speak for itself--it must be translated; and the ancient text sometimes does need to be communicated in a less than literal way to speak to modern people.

  9. The Common English Bible associate publisher Paul Franklin has a blog and one of the posts addresses the language used for the first humans in Genesis. Here is a quote from that blog that I find interesting: "The Hebrew word adam generally means 'human,' and this word is used up until Genesis 2:23 to refer to the first human. (Remember that God had not yet made a 'he' and a 'she,' though the writer or reader already knows the two creation stories and assumes from the masculine pronouns that the first human is a male.)"

    Read this post here:

  10. Yes. Thank you, Anonymous. My point exactly.

    "Adam" translated to "human" means that I, as a woman, come from the Earth as well. Though a rib may separate Adam from Eve, NO ONE can separate me from the love of God as God's good creation.--Not even a Biblical interpretation that DISREGARDS the first chapter as meaning ALL of humanity contained in Adam.

    I too am contained in Adam, and by extension, Eve as well, Eve's name being a derivative of the Hebrew word for life. Likewise, EVERY PERSON (male OR female)also is an extension of Eve because Eve is the creator of life in Human form through Adam.

    This is what it means to have inclusive wording.

  11. Anonymous,

    I think that you are missing the point. Translation is not simply about making the text fit everyone, or about making everyone comfortable with the text. Translating "adam" in Genesis 2 as "Adam" (i.e., a proper name) or "man" (i.e., specifying gender) neither contradicts the message of Genesis 1 (i.e., that both male and female genders are created in God's image), nor depreciates the value of women. By and large, I fully support inclusive translations. For instance, the epistle of James uses the Greek word "adelphoi" often; the word is generally rendered very literally as "brothers" or "brethren." However, it seems clear that James is not solely writing to male believers spread abroad (James 1:1), but includes both men and women in his vocative addresses. That is, he simply used a masculine word as a catch all of both genders--many languages do this. (however, English is a rare language that has a neuter third person plural pronoun (i.e., they) which does not specify gender.) All this being said, I support translating "adelphoi" as "brothers and sisters" when the context supports an inclusive understanding that both men and women are being addressed.

    Genesis 2 is not such a text. It is clear from the context that the author is meaning that the first person was male; just as the second person was female. If we took the "inclusive" argument to it's logical conclusion in this instance then we should not translate "Eve" as Eve, nor as woman; but instead, we should render "Eve" as human also. This makes the text devoid of any meaning at all, and provides incredible contradiction, since the Hebrew does use masculine and feminine verbs and pronouns throughout the text. Translating the Hebrew word "adam" in this instance as "human" is not making the text more inclusive, but is actually robbing the text of its intended meaning. On the other hand, translating, for instance, "adelphoi" throughout James as "brothers and sisters" is a proper use of inclusive language, since the intended meaning includes both men and women. The meaning is not contradicted but is expanded.