Monday, May 16, 2011

Sneaky sneaks and gender in Bible translation

I don't really like to get into arguments about gender in Bible translation. I just want some honesty in debates. And the honesty I want is for people who are arguing for gender inclusivity to recognise that the Greek (that's where my interest lies here) uses masculine language in a way that is inclusive of feminine objects. This is not unique to Greek, it doesn't (in my opinion) reveal some deep-seated masculinist program of the Greek language, it's just a feature of grammatical gender linked to real gender.

So, for example, αδελφοι does not 'mean' "brothers and sisters". It would be more accurate to say it 'means' "brothers" (when referring to a group of exclusively male siblings), and "brothers and sisters" (when referring to a group of mixed-gender siblings).

It's no problem to recognise this, just as it shouldn't be a problem to recognise that historically in English "Man" and "Mankind" have been gender-inclusive terms. The fact that contemporary English-speakers now regard them as gender-exclusive terms shouldn't blind us to the fact that this is a shift in our own language.

Insisting that αδελφοι means "brothers and sisters", and ανθρωπος always means "human being" with no gender marking, is misrepresenting the Greek language, even when these are accurate translations of the contextual meaning of the words.

4 comments:

gbroughto said...

The fact that contemporary English-speakers now regard them as gender-exclusive terms

why the 'now' in this sentence. Are you really suggesting that in previous eras (before women could vote, were considered property, etc) that the language of "man" (etc...) consciously operated as gender-inclusive?? Surely - and I'm not linguist, but an amateur cultural observer - the delicate interplay between culture and language is far more complicated??

I empathise with your reaction against the reactionaries, but I'm not convinced by your arguments here.

So to a question on the Greek: the logic of your argument suggests there must exist a feminine Greek form for 'sisters' comprising exclusively female siblings in which the masc. root αδελφ- does not fit (although 1 Tim. 5:2 suggests otherwise...) or have I missed something?

Seumas Macdonald said...

I am at least suggesting that the language of "man" etc., was not as gender-exclusive as we might like to think. That is, if we simply read previous ages as times of patriarchal exclusion of women in which gendered language was exclusive of women (even with the arrogant assumption that women didn't realise they were being excluded), then we have anachronised our own reading of previous eras' language.

In one sense, the flexibility of English has allowed this issue to unfold. Learn a european dual-gendered language, and you'll constantly be told that words are gender-labelled in a way that offends modern political sensibilities. I'm suggesting that to project sexism onto a language as a whole is a mistake.

It's perfectly good Greek to speak of sisters: αδελφη, -ης. And the phenomenon is not Greek-only. I can think of a number of languages known to me where the gender will be masculine for a group that is either masculine or mixed, and feminine for a feminine-only group.

gbroughto said...

okay - I get this response - it makes sense (even with my more limited language skills)

but sticking with αδελφ- I still don't quite understand why you quibble (in the original post) that:

It would be more accurate to say it 'means' "brothers" (when referring to a group of exclusively male siblings), and "brothers and sisters" (when referring to a group of mixed-gender siblings)

Can you cite examples where context demands a male only group of siblings "brothers" but the translators have used the neutral "brothers and sisters"? And secondly, where context does not direct us one way or the other, what do you think should be the 'default' translation?

lhynard said...

fully agree with you on this, Seumas — irks me too