The Issues Surrounding Gender Sensitive Translations: Do Gender Sensitive Translations Distort Scripture? Not Necessarily – Part 1

By: Dr. Darrell Bock; ©2002
Dr. Bock says, “I hope to help Bible readers sort through the recent controversies tied to the discussion of gender issues in Bible translations. This discussion is not intended as an endorsement of any version. Rather it serves as an explanation of the issues tied to these recent controversies. The goal is that the reader appreciate the issues involved in producing such a translation.”

Do Gender Sensitive Translations Distort Scripture? Not Necessarily – Part One

The following remarks appear in a combination of outline and text. I hope to help Bible readers sort through the recent controversies tied to the discussion of gender issues in Bible translation. This discussion is not intended as an endorsement of any version. Rather the remarks serve as an explanation of the issues tied to these recent controversies. The goal is that the reader appreciates the issues involved in the production of various Bible translations that relate to gender sensitive renderings.

1. Two Approaches to Basic Translation Theory that Underlie the Debate

To begin with, it is important to consider how the gender sensitive translations relate to the bigger issues of translation theory. There are two fundamental approaches to transla­tion theory as a whole (regardless of whether one is concerned to be gender sensitive in the translation or not). These are “dynamic/ functional equivalence” rendering and “formal equivalence.” (1) “Dynamic/ functional equivalence” means translators are trying to render the force of the passage. Here one’s goal is to be clear about the fuller meaning of the passage with concern for it making good sense in the “target” language (i.e., the language into which the text is being translated). For our versions, the target language is English, as the Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic are rendered into English. The phrase “dynamic/func­tional” appears here because some call this approach dynamic equivalence and others call it functional equivalence, but the same thing is meant. In contrast, (2) “formal equivalence” means rendering the passage as precisely as possible in conjunction with the forms and expressions of the original language of the text. Formal equivalence means making render­ings that keep the gender, number, lexical and grammatical force of the originating lan­guage as much as is possible and still be understandable in the target language. This is often labeled a “literal” translation.

In general, gender sensitive renderings tend to embrace dynamic equivalence, while those opposed to gender sensitive renderings prefer formal equivalence in translation. Sometimes lines of difference are drawn right here at the start.

But is there one type of gender sensitive translation or are there variations in how gen­der sensitive translations are made? The short answer is that there are variations in how gender sensitive translations are made. To really appreciate the discussion, one needs to be aware of these types of gender sensitive translations.

2. More Basic Definitions: Two Basic Approaches to Gender Sensitive Translations

Descriptively speaking, there are two basic types of gender sensitive approaches to translation: ideological gender sensitive renderings and translational gender sensitive renderings. I am presenting these two terms to describe gender sensitive renderings in order to classify clearly the variations within gender sensitive translation. These terms are not currently in common use, but they best define what is going one with these translations.

They can be defined as follows:

A. Ideological Gender Sensitivity: This type of translation seeks to “degenderize” the Bible (that is remove all language that is male specific and excludes women as a re­sult). The argument is that the Bible arose in an era of patriarchalism (where men ruled the culture and women were seen as less than equal). In this approach even male metaphors for God and/or Jesus are changed to more neutral language (so Jesus is not called “Son of Man’ but “son of a human being”).
B. Translational Gender Sensitivity: This approach renders terms to make clear the gender scope of passages, especially when they use an all-encompassing reference to man or mankind to address both men and women. So, for example, the rendering of a term that is translatable as “men” is made into “men and women” when the meaning intention or application of a passage is broad and not gender specific.

Individual translations run along a spectrum involving these two approaches. In other words, different translations may have varying degrees of each type of translation. Some are thoroughgoing in their ideological rendering. Others try to keep to a translational ren­dering. Some mix the two. Identifying the particular approach requires looking at how a series of texts are handled to see which type of rendering is being applied. Unfortunately most translations do not use these adjectives to describe the type of gender sensitive renderings they are employing. The reader must figure it out by examining a series of examples within the translation.

However, both these gender sensitive approaches are usually “dynamic/ functional equivalence” renderings as opposed to “formal equivalence.” Nonetheless, ideological gender rendering is very different from translational gender rendering in the amount of changes it makes to surface the dynamic element in translation. Generally speaking, trans­lational renderings are more restrictive and will make fewer changes than ideological ren­derings will. Dynamic equivalence translations are common today. Among the better known are the Living Bible, the New Living Translation, and Today’s English Version.

So how do gender sensitive translations describe themselves? Do these descriptions help us understand what they are attempting to do?

3. The Problem with Common, Current Terminology about Gender Sensitive Translations

Unfortunately the three normal names used today for gender sensitive translations do not necessarily reveal the type of gender sensitive translation theory applied. Common expressions for these translations today are “gender-inclusive translations,” “gender-neutral translations,” or “gender-accurate translations.” “Gender-inclusive” means that the transla­tion has included the careful consideration of gender in making its renderings. The transla­tion has focused itself on these passages with special attention. Often gender inclusive translations are ideological in their approach. “Gender neutral” often means that the trans­lation has tried to be as “neutral” in the presentation of gender as possible. These transla­tions can be of either type: ideological or translational. “Gender accurate” means that the translation has attempted to be accurate with regard to the rendering of gender. Usually this points to a translational approach. Each of these three terms (gender inclusive, gender neutral, and gender accurate) tends to show up in newspaper and periodical reports about translations, sometimes synonymously. However, these three descriptions are inadequate in classifying the translation’s approach to gender sensitivity (i.e., ideological or transla­tional). Thus, the gender labels “inclusive,” “neutral” or “accurate” alone do not often help us understand how gender is being translated, despite the claims implied in their defini­tions.

What is needed is an explanation of the type of gender sensitive approach taken by the translation in question. Of these three commonly used terms (inclusive, neutral or accu­rate), the clearest is “gender-accurate.” When this term is used, the translator or version is claiming that the rendering is an attempt to be accurate with regard to gender issues in translation. This means that the version desires to be accurate with regard to the original intent of the text. But again to really tell what gender sensitive theory is being applied (ideological or translational) requires the examination of a series of specific examples.

Of course, one can have either goal (including accuracy) and not execute it. This is another reason why one has to look at specific passages as well as what is claimed by the translation.

As if these issues are not enough, there is the question whether gender sensitive ren­dering of the type we have described is even worth attempting. This is a completely differ­ent approach to the question. It adds a third approach to the discussion beyond ideological gender sensitivity and translational gender sensitivity. It is the view that gender sensitive translation should only take place within the formal guidelines of translation with a reliance on formal equivalence. It is this third view that leads into the basic dispute, but it has been a common approach to translation.

4. A Third Approach to the Question and the Nature of the Dispute

So the presence of this third approach raises the question of whether this type of gender sensitive translation should be attempted at all. This third approach argues that issues of gender should be subsumed under the formal limits of the meanings of the Hebrew, Ara­maic, and Greek words used. This approach we shall call the non-gender neutral school. Those who object most strongly to gender sensitive types of translations (in either its ideo­logical or translational form noted above) tend to prefer “formal” equivalence translation theory. The non-gender approach argues that such gender sensitive renderings should not call themselves translations at all, but paraphrases. In fact, the introductions to most trans­lations do explain their most basic theory of translation [see section 1 above]. If they do explain themselves, then they usually will make the point as to whether they are dynamic or formal equivalent in approach. They may even address generally how they handle the issue of gender. But in doing so, they will speak of gender inclusive, gender neutral, or gender accurate to do so. These categories, as we noted in section 3 above, are not al­ways helpful in describing what is really going on.

The non-gender approach also will acknowledge the difference between the two basic theories of gender sensitivity noted above in section 2. In general, they see translational gender sensitive renderings as far better than ideological renderings. Yet they still argue that both approaches, as a matter of translational principle, suffer from severe problems. They argue that it is better for the vast majority of individual passages and for the sake of accurate translation not to try to render passages in terms of gender sensitivity. Thus, this third school will often oppose such translation as a matter of translational principle.

The dispute on this point arises from a disagreement about whether it is wise as a matter of translation theory to render the overall scope of the passage rather than the grammar of the individual words (i.e., its gender and number). In other words, the debate is over what is gained and lost in such translations, including whether a distortion of the meaning of God’s Word results. The gender sensitive approaches argue for changing “man” to make clear the scope of the passage. Ideological renderings argue one should do this throughout translations at every level. Translational renderings argue that it should only be done in contexts where a broad intention is clearly indicated by the context. The non-gender neutral approach argues it should only be done where it is explicitly expressed in the linguistic terms. This third approach generally argues that where there is doubt, leave the wording alone. Perhaps a good example illustrating the problem in English is how we use the phrase “you guys.” In parts of the Northern and Midwestern United States, we use this term in many contexts as a shorthand when addressing both men and women. So the question is, how should one translate such a phrase if one were in the Southern United States? Should it be left as “you guys” (so non-gender neutral approach) or be rendered into “you men and women” (so the gender sensitive approaches to show its force in context). Com­ing to the Bible, the question for all translators is, should a translation now moving into a second language (from Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic into English) leave “man” alone (so non-gender neutral group)? (In Greek, there are four different ways to express the idea of “man,” but those terms do not always mean “adult males.”) Or should the translation make clear that the intent of the address is broad when the context may well suggest this (so the gender neutral group that is attempting a translational gender sensitive rendering)? Trans­lators of all schools consider these translational questions and make judgments about the meaning and the context of the passage. Some say, “do not ever infer a broader context in the rendering” (so most non-gender neutral groups), others “sometimes it is OK” (some non-gender neutral groups in a few places and a few translational sensitive groups), others “wherever possible” (many gender sensitive groups), others “always” (the more radical ideological gender inclusive translations).

There is a recent example that is causing much of a stir. The Today’s New International Version (TNIV) is attempting a translational gender sensitive rendering within its larger revision of the New International Version (NIV). It is less radical in its changes than most gender sensitive translations. Most (but not all) of the committee that translated this volume are not egalitarian (i.e., they do not believe women can do everything in ministry or can occupy every office). So most of them hold more traditional, conservative views on the role of women. They do not have a “politically correct agenda” they are pushing. They simply claim that they are attempting to translate the meaning of the text faithfully. This goal was their claimed intent whether it comes to issues of gender that are changed in the TNIV or a larger number of other, mostly stylistic changes the TNIV made. Of the changes from the NIV in the TNIV, 70 percent are not related to gender issues, 30 percent are. The TNIV changes 7 percent of the NIV text, and 2 percent relate to gender renderings.

People can discuss whether the TNIV is successful or not, but to do so they should appreciate the issues related to the attempt and not question the integrity of those making the effort. So a survey of the issues and some examples follow. The examples are ren­dered in a way that someone who does not have formal training in Greek and Hebrew hopefully can follow. Imagine yourself a translator. How would you handle texts in these contexts? But before we turn to specific examples, let us very briefly consider some history of translation that indicates that this translational question is not a new one but one that has actually been around for a long time.

5. The Problem of Gender Sensitivity in Translation Is An Old One — A Brief Glimpse at Translation History

William Tyndale published the first English New Testament in 1526. He rendered huioi (often rendered “sons”) in Matthew 5:9 as “children,” a gender neutral rendering.

In the Old Testament, the seventeenth century King James Version (KJV) rendered ben (or its plural) “son” or “sons” 2,822 times, and as “child” or “children” 1,533 times, or right at 35 percent.

Hosea 2:4 gives us an example as it discusses Gomer’s three children, two sons and one daughter. The Hebrew of Hosea 2:4 reads translated formally, “Upon her sons also I will have no pity, because they are sons of whoredom.” Yet the KJV, American Stan­dard Version (ASV), NIV, and New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) all opt for “chil­dren.” Even the Septuagint (LXX), dating from about 100 BC, also uses the Greek neuter term for children (Hosea 2:6 LXX: tekna). Thus the principle of such translation has been around a long time.

6. Moving to Specifics about Translations

We have many translations today in part because different versions (1) hold various views about the amount of formal or dynamic equivalence to give to a translation. (2) They also differ in goals as to the appropriate style and vocabulary level into which to render the text. For example, children’s translations will use a simpler English and less complex vocabulary in rendering the text. (3) There also is discussion on what Greek manuscript text base they are translating. (4) Then there is the decision about how to handle the question of gender in translation.

A. It is often valuable to use a variety of translations, because no single translation is perfect. This is because translation often involves judgment on what rendering is most satisfying in a given context (regardless of gender issues).
B. Translation must be contextual, working one passage at a time and that process can ask gender specific questions about the context. A translation should not be evaluated for whether it asks gender questions but how it well it renders each of the passages in question in relationship to its meaning in context.
C. Translational options in such texts are just choices about what rendering is most adequate. Often in the decisions the translator makes there are both gains and losses in respect to the meaning. Often one either removes ambiguity in an effort to gain clarity or keeps ambiguity at the expense of clarity in order to maintain formal accuracy. The attempt is usually to get the best contextually driven meaning in the most efficient way.
D. It is often the case with any translation that individual experts in the language will prefer the way another translation renders a particular passage. This preference may include suggesting that in a given translation several passages are less than ideally rendered and could be improved.
E. It is this last point that also contributes to the number of translations we now have. It also explains the tendency of many individual versions to periodically update them­selves. The translators seek to take the overall critique of their translation seriously and hope to improve it when they update it.
F. Judgments about how well or poorly a translation has accomplished its goals will differ. The success depends on how well or poorly the translators executed their goals and what their goals were. However, this same is true for those who critique transla­tions. There is always the factor in the critique of how the critic views the translation’s goals. If the critic thinks the goals are flawed, they will rate the translation accordingly.
G. For careful translators the standards of evaluation are usually twofold: (1) to give careful attention to the original meaning of the text being translated and (2) to have a concern that the text be clearly rendered.

To be continued…

(Note: Dr. Darrell Bock was a guest on our series Jesus: The Search Continues. This is a response to many of the false ideas about Jesus being promoted today, one example being the ABC/Peter Jennings’ program entitled The Search for Jesus. The entire 2-hour special is available through our catalog in video, audio or written transcript formats.)


Read Part 2

1 Comment

  1. […] The Issues Surrounding Gender Sensitive Translations: Do Gender Sensitive Translations Distort Scrip… By: Dr. Darrell Bock […]

Leave a Comment