Want to start an interesting and heated discussion on Bible translation? Try to discuss how to deal with gender in translation. The recent past had been governed by the thought that the singular pronoun “he” (and “him”) could be used for referring to males only or to a human in general. That is the way I grew up, never giving it much thought.

But times have changed. Now, when a speaker or writer (translator) uses “he” many hear/read only male specific referent. Some may not like it; some may even demand: “that isn’t right.” Realistically in the present context, we would be foolish to ignore the need to address this issue. I cannot rehash the entire debate, but wanted to give a couple references that do address the issue of gender in translation:

Dr. Rod Decker Evaluation of NIV 2011

Gender-inclusive pronouns and contemporary usage

Gender-neutral language, with special reference to NIV 2011

There are two main issues involved in this discussion:

1) Does the original language text (Hebrew or Greek) give us enough information to distinguish between male specific and human in general?

2) How can that be expressed in English without contorting the English language?

Genesis 1:26-27

In Hebrew, the main nouns are אָדָ֛ם (adam) and אֱנ֥וֹשׁ (enosh). Should they always be translated “man” or is it legitimate to translate in some contexts “human” (or even “person”)? For the male specific word, Hebrew has זָכָ֥ר (zahar) and for female/woman נְקֵבָ֖ה (neqēbah). In Genesis 1:26-27 (NAS) we see three of these words used:

Then God said, “Let Us make man אָדָ֛ם (adam)  in Our image, according to Our likeness; … God created man אָדָ֛ם (adam) in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male זָכָ֥ר (zahar) and female  נְקֵבָ֖ה (neqēbah) He created them.

Let’s see how the four translations handle this:

NIV 2011

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, …
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

ESV

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

HCSB

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.”…
So God created man in His own image;
He created him in the image of God;
He created them male and female.

GW

Then God said, “Let us make humans in our image, in our likeness.”…
So God created humans in his image.
In the image of God he created them.
He created them male and female.

ESV and HCSB follow the more traditional approach, namely using “man” as generic, as well as the corresponding “he/him” pronoun, except in the last line.

NIV 2011 and GW opt for the change to the gender neutral “humankind” as a collective or “humans” as a plural. Then both use the plural to translate a singular. To me, this is not helpful, but I do not dismiss either translation, they are usable and communicate approrpiately. However, in some texts, this change from singular to plural may change the dynamics of the specific passage (i.e. see how NLT handles Psalm 1:-2).

Psalm 8:4 and Hebrews 2:6

Another passage has significant messianic/christological implications: Psalm 8:4, using two different nouns, comparing it to how it is quoted and translated in Hebrews 2:6, which is applied to Jesus Christ:

What is man (אֱנ֥וֹשׁ  enosh) that You take thought of him,
And the son of man (בֶן־אָ֝דָ֗ם ben-adam “son of man”) that You care for him?

NIV 2011

what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?

What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
a son of man that you care for him?

ESV

what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?

What is man, that you are mindful of him,
or the son of man, that you care for him?

HCSB

what is man that You remember him,
the son of man that You look after him?

What is man that You remember him,
or the son of man that You care for him?

GW

what is a mortal that you remember him
or the Son of Man that you take care of him?

What is a mortal that you should remember him,
or the Son of Man that you take care of him?

In this case, NIV 2011 seems the most awkard and least effective, although it is consistent in using the same method in both pasages. Notice that the traditional English following the Hebrew number has “son of man” (singular). NIV 2011 changes that to plural “human beings,” but then in Hebrews 2 translates it as singular, but indefinite singular “a son of man.”

ESV and HCSB follow the traditional translations, “man”… “son of man.”

GW offers a glimpse into being a cross between the two approaches, and seems to be effective, even though “a mortal” is a little unexpected by traditional mind set. “A mortal” reflects generic singular quite well, and “the Son of Man” as specific; GW does the same in both verses.

Unless one is absolutely committed to the traditional wording, in these two cases, GW seems to be the best translation of the two verses. NIV 2011 is clearly inconsistent and the least desirable of the four. Interestingly, NLT se is similar to NIV 2011 and less than satisfactory for a translation.

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