When Translators Add (Gendered Pronouns) to the Text

Gail Wallace

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Gendered Pronouns

One of my pet peeves about some translations of the Bible is the way translators have added masculine pronouns that don’t exist in the original texts. This was done in the interest of clarity, but in this day and age, these additions can give the impression that parts of the Bible were written mostly to men. Here is an example from Paul’s teaching about spiritual gifts.

Paul’s admonition about spiritual gifts in Romans 12:6-8

In Romans Chapter 12, many English translations add seven male pronouns that are not in the original biblical manuscripts. While using male pronouns was consistent with literary practices of the day and considered to be inclusive of women in some cases, English language usage has changed dramatically.  Not only are the added pronouns unnecessary today, they interfere with our understanding of this passage. This is especially true for children, young adults, and anyone who didn’t grow up in the church.

Why does it matter? When the seven pronouns are removed it becomes clear that the spiritual gifts Paul is writing about are understood to be given to believers regardless of their gender. Compare the 1984 and 2011 New International Version translations. The added pronouns in the 1984 edition are highlighted in bold:

We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. 7 If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; 8 if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.  (NIV 1984 edition)

We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; 7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; 8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully. (NIV 2011 edition)

Imagine how children would be impacted by hearing these different readings growing up. Even as an adult I find reading a gender-accurate translation feels like a breath of fresh air and gives new life to my vision for a church that reflects the full image of God.

Sometimes a translation decision impairs our understanding of the text in ways that go far beyond issues related to gender. Here is an illustration that brought this home to me recently. (I have to give credit to Beth Moore for pointing this out in her video study, “Jesus, the One and Only”.)  Here is the account of Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane:

Jesus betrayed and arrested in John 18:1-5

1 When he had finished praying, Jesus left with his disciples and crossed the Kidron Valley. On the other side there was a garden, and he and his disciples went into it. 2 Now Judas, who betrayed him, knew the place because Jesus had often met there with his disciples. 3 So Judas came to the garden, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and the Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns, and weapons. 4 Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?” 5 “Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied.

Notice how Jesus’ response is recorded in these two translations of verses 5 & 6. Even though “he” is not present in the Greek text (it reads “ego eimi“), translators of the NIV felt the need to insert the pronoun in the name of making the passage more clear to English-speaking readers. I suggest that it has the opposite effect and obscures an important aspect of the story.

I am he,” Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.) When Jesus said, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground. (NIV 2011)

He said to them, “I AM.”  (Judas, his betrayer, was standing with them.) When he said, “I AM,” they shrank back and fell to the ground. (Common English Bible)   

Previously when reading this passage, I have been curious as to why people would literally fall down when Jesus answered “I am he”. The translation “I AM” makes more sense. Consider the similarities of Jesus’ response to God’s words to Moses in Exodus 3:13-14:

13 Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM (ego eimi) has sent me to you.’ 

Jesus was not answering a simple question of human identity in John 18; He was making a claim of deity. This was God speaking. And when He declared “I AM” the force of His voice may have caused the ground to quake in response (something we in California can imagine all too well!). Unfortunately, this nuance is missed in most translations.

Jesus says “I AMforty-five times in the Gospel of John, but the presence of one added pronoun makes it easy to miss that these words were spoken three times during this chaotic scene.  The next time you reflect on what was accomplished through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, may you also be moved to fall to the ground in the presence of the great “I AM“.

(And if you’re still using the 1984 NIV, I suggest it’s time to upgrade…)

 

Gail Wallace

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28 Comments

  • Hi, Gail–Thank you for your post. This seems more important than just a gender pronoun issue. If Jesus is making the bold theological statement, “I AM,” I’m surprised it’s not translated that way more often. “I am he” seems more like bad translating, since Jesus is saying something more significant than, “Yes, I’m Jesus of Nazareth.”

  • Thank you. Was reading same scripture and pondered too about the falling down business. This really clarifies and gives an extra focus for us.

    • Glad to hear it, Manni! Happy Easter 🙂

  • It’s just like Jesus to leave clues every time he speaks of himself. To say ‘I am’ 45 times is astonishing and obviously said specifically for ‘those who have ears to hear, let them hear’.

    It’s also agonisingly irritating that the biases of translators have hijacked the purposes of God for his word and his world by slanting their translations toward their prejudice, which means that for those who are not schooled in Greek and Hebrew, so much of what has truly been said (or unsaid) is lost in a morass of legalism.

    There are some for whom this mistranslation is a gift, to be used as a bludgeon against women. I feel for those who are not leaning this way but who think (as I thought for many years) that God must want it this way, little knowing that it was not the will of God but the will of man.

    Uggghhh… frustrating. Thanks so much for ministries like TJP and others who deliberately work to enlighten those who are really looking for answers.

    • I totally share your frustration, Bev!

      The text gets ‘locked up’ from the regular reader and when we try to point it out, we are accused of twisting the Scriptures!

      Let me tell you about a translation that is even worse than a few ‘hims’ (although I agree these are misleading) – the most common French translation for kephale (head,1 Co 11, Eph 5) is the French word ‘chef’ (chief). Apart from cooking, the most common modern usage of this word is ‘chef d’entreprise’ – company boss, i.e., the one who gives orders, directs.

      The origin of this translation is understandable, because in old French the word ‘chef’ did actually mean ‘head’ – e.g. the word ‘couvre-chef’ (head cover) was used for a hat (male or female). However, for it to be maintained in most bible translation revisions means that it is now taken exclusively in a modern sense that denotes authority.

      We are miles away from even discussing the meaning of the ancient Greek and Paul’s metaphorical head-body image gets lost (even when applied to the church, except in a couple of cases.)

      Thankfully, one recent translation has translated kephale correctly as head restituting the richness of Paul’s imagery (the NBS – merci Henri Blocher) – but it isn’t that popular, it does contain other surprising ‘changes’ of vocabulary which people don’t like.

      There are no egalitarian voices speaking up in French… yet… it might have to be yours truly.

      • This is so interesting, Vicky! Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian makes similar points about kephale in the attached article, and as a French-Armenian I’ve heard him make similar comments about the meaning of head in other languages. I will be praying that God helps you find the right platform for your voice over in France!http://www.cbeinternational.org/?q=content/i-believe-male-headship

        • Thanks, Gail!
          Gilbert Bilezikian’s book has been translated into French, as has Aida Besançon Spencer, & also Loren Cunningham – although you have to seek them out on the internet.

      • Hey Vicky,

        Where are you in France? I do know that it’s very tough there for Christians anyway, let alone women leaders. Are you anywhere near Lisieux? I have friends there planting a couple of churches, one into Caan and one near Lisieux.

        What does NBS stand for? I infer from what you said that Henri BLocher is a translator, is that right?

        You certainly sound like you are called to be a voice to France.

        • Being quite discreet about where I am! For the time being.
          Who are your friends church-planting with?

          The NBS is the Nouvelle Bible Segond, a 2002 revision of the Louis Segond bible, originally translated in the late 19th century.

          Yes, Henri Blocher was on the Bible Society team of translators. He is one of the foremost evangelical theologians in France and teaches at a Bible college near Paris. He also teaches at an American faculty and has been published in both English & French. He contributed to ‘Women, Ministry and the Gospel : Exploring New Paradigms, IVP Academic, 2007. He’s open to women in ministry, without being an egalitarian – well, he had to be, his grandmother, Madeleine Blocher was the first ever female pastor of a large church in Paris – an exception to the ‘rule’.

          • Sounds fantastic about the Blochers.

            As to my friends, they are closely linked with lots of churches and EA in UK. Their churches are called Beta – the lead couple are Gerard and Chrissie Kelly. If you like, I can put you in touch.

  • This is a great post, Gail! Another place in John where adding an extra pronoun is unhelpful is Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman in ch. 4. He reveals himself to her, step by step, as Jew, teacher, prophet, and finally Messiah. In v. 26 he says “ego eimi” [I am] and she understood the deity claim too, like Tim pointed out. Unlike the soldiers, she didn’t cower in fear, but she dropped her water jar and ran back to the village to tell them the good news. She understood and believed.

  • Here’s an additional nuance: in Koine Greek, verbs are always inflected (have a pronoun and number). So eimi by itself means “I am”. Not only is placing a pronoun with a verb unnecessary, it makes the pronoun emphatic. Had Jesus not intentionally meant to identify himself as God, he could have omitted ego (“I”). In general the NLT is pretty good with this. Note that in John 8 the people argued with Jesus when he said that he knew Abraham but it wasn’t until he announced, “before Abraham was even born, I AM” that they tried to kill him. They knew exactly what he was claiming.

    • Excellent! That is so helpful, Denise. Thank you 🙂

  • On this issue of gendered pronouns, I found these books to be very informative:

    I Will Love Unloved: A Linguistic Analysis of Woman’s Biblical Importance
    J. J. McKenzie, University Press of America, February 1994
    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0819192295/

    A Gender Neutral God/ess: Be Inclusive but MAKE NO IMAGES was the Religious Change
    J. J. McKenzie, Amazon Digital Services, August 2012
    http://www.amazon.com/Gender-Neutral-God-ess-ebook/dp/B008UBUT20

    God bless,
    Luis

    • Thanks for these books, Luis. I have been able to download A Gender Neutral God on Kindle in Australia, but I Will Love Unloved is not available at all in Australia… I will have to order it from USA>

  • I’ve always looked at the Gethsemane declaration as pertaining to deity as well, Gail. The connection to them falling at his feet and Moses’ experience at the burning bush are unmistakable. It’s sad that inserting a pronoun where none exists has obscured the meaning of God’s word.

    Cheers,
    Tim

    • Hi, Holly! I recommend either the 2011 New International Version or the New Revised Standard Version. There is not “perfect” translation, but these do a nice job of navigating the gender pronouns. They would be classified more as “gender accurate” than “gender inclusive” which I prefer. Thanks for reading, and Happy Easter!

  • When I first discovered this (adding masculine pronouns) I literally screamed at my computer. Getting this right makes the difference between understanding that women are included in the kingdom and thinking that we are just an afterthought. Do you have suggestions for translations that are accurate in this regard? (I know APU uses the NRSV, but am wondering if there are others.)

    • Liz, the TNIV (came out after the NIV 1984 and before the 2011) gets it mostly right. But it’s no longer in print because of the uproar it generated and the protests by those who want to keep all that masculine language. You might find a used copy somewhere. I use the NRSV also; it’s pretty good.

      Another passage where translators add lots of masculine pronouns is 1 Timothy 3:1-7. The Greek verbs tell us it’s a 3rd person singular, so now pronouns are needed. But in English we need them for clarity, and so all the “hes” are necessary, but lead to a much more masculine sounding list of qualifications.

    • Hi, Liz! I would agree with the suggestions that Leanne made as far as the 2011 NIV and NRSV. I use the TNIV she mentioned for my personal devotional time, but have found that sometimes it goes too far the other direction in making pronouns that are gendered in the original manuscripts gender neutral. Thanks for reading – Happy Easter!

      • Thanks, Gail! I followed the link above to the article about 1 Tim. 3 and it is really good! Thanks for sharing it! Just want to tell you again how much I love the Junia Project and how helpful it has been to me!

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