Four Translations—Gender in translation

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.


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.


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.


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?


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?


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?


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.

8 thoughts on “Four Translations—Gender in translation

    • Thanks, Rich, from another Rich.

      I appreciate you addressing these texts. I wonder, though, if we aren’t approaching the text on different levels. Because I serve as pastor of a congregation as well as other duties, my concern here is as pastor. In evaluating the translations, it soon becomes evident that translators themselves (by publishing the translations) have made part of the question gender related. By translating selected pasages to conform to an agenda for gender (regardless of which direction is taken, i.e. NIV or ESV), the translations themselves impose the gender topic on its readers.

      In this case, members of my congregations won’t know about allusion and intertextuality, but they will see a change in the nouns/pronouns and even the number of those nouns/pronouns in selected texts. At that level it is indeed a gender issue. (Note: I am trying to write this as neutral as possible.) As a pastor and president of our seminary, I cannot change the translations that are published.

      If the translators are being addressed, and secondarily pastors of congregations, then allusion and intertextuality become the source of better understanding the text itself. And I would whole-heartedly like to learn more about what you write. It is indeed beneficial. How is it best to help pastors and members who already have one of these translations?

      Does this help in understanding where I am relative to these translations? Have I understood you correctly? I appreciate your concerns and knowledge.



  1. You ask hard questions.

    There are two different kinds of answers for rank and file laity, and for seminary students, but there is a root assumption common to both that I’d like to address in this response.

    It’s true that different translations sometimes change singulars for plurals and choose gender neutral language or not, and those things pop off the page for us. But to address that issue, I’d like to raise the old question: WWJD?

    Questions about wordings arise because we dissect Scripture literally. But Jesus (and the writers of Scripture) rarely handle Scripture that way. Sometimes they even distort it in ways we find horrifying by today’s standards (Matt. 2:23).

    Jesus may well have been the least literal guy in the Bible. He never just said what he meant. (How many times did the Sanhedron have to ask him if he was the Messiah?) He always spoke in parables or indirectly. He yelled at the disciples when they were being too literal (Matt. 16:6ff), and he lit into the Pharisees for doctrines that were built on literalist logic (Mark 7:8-13).

    I know that it’s in centuries of church theological tradition to treat Scripture literally, but I think it’s time to question the premise. I come to that conclusion because of my experience in translation. Anyone who translates between living languages where there are bilinguals who can evaluate your translations knows that literalism is a complete dead end. We also know that for a text of any complexity at all, there isn’t just one good translation, there are many. (See chapter 1 of David Bellos’ wonderful book on translation “Is That a Fish in Your Ear”) And, as Bellos points out, this is not a problem.

    But there are also theologians — albeit controversial ones — who are raising the same kinds of questions about literal treatments of Scripture. (Brian McLaren comes immediately to mind, but one could argue that Walter Wangerin and even Gene Peterson were dealing with Scripture in non-literal ways without fully articulating the theology.)


  2. The trouble with translating אדם in a gender neutral way in Genesis 1:26-27, I would have thought, is that this is Adam. I see that in chapter 2 and 3 the NASB translates אדם (without the article) as Adam (2 v 20, 3 v 17, 3 v 21) and האדם (with the article) as ‘the man’ – who is in fact Adam. That seems reasonable to me. Well, there is no article in 1 v 26, but there is in 1 v 27, so perhaps there is a case for translating 1 v 26 as ‘Let us make Adam in our image..’? Has this ever been done? It makes it more personal, it seems to me, but I may be missing some obvious reason why it would be wrong.

    The other problem with a gender neutral translation of 1 v 27 is that it makes it harder to understand 1 Corinthians 11 v 7.



    • Howdy, Andrew. For the first point, it might be instructive to see how and when each translation changes from translating אדם as generic (man or human) to translating it as specific (Adam). There is no agreement on when and why to do it at each point.

      Regarding your last point referring to1 Corinthians 11:7, we have to be careful how and in what direction we look for help. I don’t think we can change how we understand or translate Genesis 1:26-27 based on what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11. Rather, however we end up translating Gen. 1:26-27, that should then assist us in determining what Paul meant in 1 Cor. 11. If it is harder to understand, then we have to wrestle with it that way.


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