ESV and TNIV gender language: my POV
In this post I simply want to introduce some general thoughts about gender-inclusive language and Bible translation in the TNIV and ESV. I will try my best to be as objective, honest, and fair to all sides as possible. I will not enter into the debate itself, although even these general comments I will make will cause some of you to strongly disagree with me. That is the nature of discussions that involve deeply held convictions.
1. The translators of both the ESV and TNIV are godly individuals, deeply committed to a high view of Scripture and to the Bible as our most reliable rule for faith and practive. Many of the translators on the different teams have been friends and colleagues for many years. I believe that most of them have a high degree of respect for each other.
2. The translators of both versions agree that references in the biblical autographs which clearly refer to groups consisting of both males and females should be translated with English words that make that clear.
3. Both the ESV and TNIV have made the translation of a number of passages more gender-accurate than, for instance, the NIV is. For instance, in all cases where the Greek indefinite pronoun tis clearly refers to any individual, regardless of gender, both translations translate the word with an English indefinite rendering, such as "whoever" or "someone." And this is correct, accurate translation. It contrasts with the NIV treatment of tis which was sometimes translated with words such as "any man."
4. Both versions translate original references to males or females with appropriate matching gender terms in English. This includes references to God, whose fatherhood is a pervasive part of the biblical autographs. Hence, references to boys and men in the Hebrew or Greek have corresponding male words or masculine pronouns referring to them. Similarly, all references to females in the Bible are translated in both versions with feminine nouns and pronouns.
1-4 is what the two versions have in common. And let me stress that what they have in common is a great deal. But I do not want to minimize the gender-language differences between the TNIV and ESV. The differences are not trivial.
5. The TNIV does not continue use of the English masculine pronoun "he" as the generic singular pronoun (when the gender of a referent is not known or is irrelevant in the particular context). Instead, the TNIV uses various other English forms, all of which have already been in use in English, to avoid use of generic "he." The reason the TNIV translators avoid use of generic "he" is that many (but by no means all) English speakers today have the feeling when they hear the pronoun "he" that it is masculine, rather than generic. This is true even of some speakers, like myself, who were taught in "grammar" school that "he" could refer to either females or males. I, however, still use generic "he" sometimes. Most of the time, however, what comes most naturally out of my mouth is the singular "they" which has been in general usage in English since ca. 1400 A.D. The singular "they" sounds "right" to me. I am not driven by any feminist agenda, although as soon as I say that I use the singular "they," there are likely to be people who will say that I am (but if I am, then so is Dr. James Dobson, who also uses the singular "they"!). For anyone not familiar with the singular "they" it is the form used in a sentence such as:
It is every passenger's responsibility to be aware of the contents of their luggage at all times.This is what is repeated on the public address system at our airport in Billings, Montana. Montana is a conservative state with cowboys, ranchers, farmers, gun owners, etc. but I suspect that very few people in this conservative state think twice when the pronoun "they" is used in the public address announcement to refer back to the antecedent, "every passenger." The TNIV translation team has denied charges that their decision not to use generic "he" was motivated by feminist concerns. Their detractors do not believe them and this makes for a fair amount of back-and-forth argument of the nature of "no, we don't", "yes, you do." By the way, some of the greatest authors in the history of the English language have used the singular "they", including Shakespeare, the translators of the KJV (yes, the singular "they" is in the KJV; I don't have the references right at hand but I can locate them sometime), C.S. Lewis, and even anti-TNIV detractor, Dr. James Dobson of the Focus on the Family radio program.
6. The ESV (and also the HCSB) use the generic "he", following the Colorado Springs Guidelines For Translation Of Gender-Related Language In Scripture (CSG). These translators believe that the generic "he" is still understood as a generic by a sufficient number of English speakers to warrant its use in new English translations produced at this time. They also believe, as stated in the book on this topic co-authored by Drs. Vern Poythress and Wayne Grudem, that those who do not understand the generic meaning of "he" can be taught it very quickly. A number of those who translated the ESV and HCSB have signed a statement opposing the particular usage of gender-inclusive language in the TNIV. As a matter of fact, both Drs. Grudem and Poythress who helped draft the CSG are on the TOC (Translation Oversight Committee) of the ESV. The translation of the ESV was initiated in response to movement of the NIV CBT (Committee on Bible Translation) to revise the NIV to be more gender-inclusive. (A further motivation for production of the ESV was discontent with what was viewed as too much "dynamic equivalence" in the NIV and a desire to have a more literal translation than the NIV, but one that read more smoothly than the NASB. I believe, however, that had the NIV CBT not made moves toward more gender-inclusive language the ESV would not have been produced.)
7. In some passages where a singular male term is used in the Bible as a kind of "representative" (an important theological and translational term for Drs. Poythress and Grudem) of all of humanity, or, in some cases, all righteous people, the translators of the ESV and TNIV differ in their interpretation. The ESV translators believe that the reference to a single male (even if he represents a gender-inclusive group) must be translated as a single male in English. This is regarded as word-level accuracy, precisely translating both the number and gender of the person referred to in the biblical text. In many of these passages, the TNIV team believes that since the single male represents a gender-inclusive group, they should use an English term which more clearly conveys that the biblical text is speaking about a gender-inclusive group. Typically, as in Psalm 1, the "blessed man" is translated as the "blessed people" (or some close synonym) in the TNIV. Anti-TNIV people (including ESV translators) believe that this is changing God's Word, changing both the number and gender of the original word "man." Both teams believe that they are accurately translating the intent of the original biblical wording in such male-representative passages.
Part of what makes this debate so intense are deeply held convictions about what are the God-ordained relationships between males and females in the world, in marriage, and in the church. One of the primary reasons the ESV was produced was to support the traditional teaching of many churches (and the belief that it is the Bible's clear teaching) that females are to be in submission to males, especially to husbands and to elders (who must only be males) in churches. Those who believe in such female submission are called complementarians. Complementarians believe that males and females are equal in value in the eyes of God, but, by divine commands, then have distinct roles in the world and church. Those who believe that women are not only equal in value but can have the same roles as men (other than obvious biological roles) are called egalitarians. Everyone on the ESV team, as far as I know, is a complementarian. I think that most on the TNIV team are also complementarians, believing, for instance, that women should not be ordained to be pastors or elders. The linguistic forms of the ESV more easily support the complementarian belief system. Complementarianism, however, can be taught from the propositional wordings (teachings) of the TNIV, also, however. The fact that there are more masculine forms to function as generics in the ESV is viewed by Drs. Poythress and Grudem as a proper use of English in Bible translation, a linguistic means of supporting the complementarian belief system.
I have probably over-simplified the two positions a little, although that has not been my intent. Again, I hope I have been objective and fair to both sides in this very intense debate.
For those who might wonder, I personally am not fond of either the TNIV nor the ESV. (I never used their predecessors, the NIV nor RSV, and when I look at them now, I am not fond of them either.) But I do not want to advocate against either version. I will try to be gracious in any statements I make where I point out areas where either translation can be improved. I have already posted a number of such things in the appropriate ESV and TNIV sections of this blog and I will continue to do so. I do with respect for each of the translation teams. And if anyone could help me find places to improve in our Cheyenne Bible translation, I would gladly welcome it.
Regardless of what someone believes about complementarianism or egalitarianism (and I do consider these belief systems to be important), the more important issue for translation is whether the biblical text has been translated accurately with regard to gender. It is my understanding that all members of each translation team, those of the ESV and TNIV, believe that the way that they have translated is more accurate than the way the other team has translated. For some people, including perhaps many reading my post here, the answer is obviously clear as to which of the teams is right about translating accurately. To them there really is no argument. There is no need for any discussion or debate. I respect that position, but I do believe that it is important for this issue to be discussed. Right now the world is watching as Christians shoot each other (only figuratively, so far) over this issue. On the whole, the world doesn't care about this inter-nicene battle. Many think it is humorous to watch Christians attack each other over various issues like this. I, for one, do not think it is humorous. I do think there are real differences among godly sincere people. Of course, advocates of either side can quote the familiar adage that anyone can be sincere, "sincerely wrong." And this is true. But it is also true that not every Bible passage is as clear as we would like it to be so that we could translate it without any doubt about its meaning. This is true even of some of the Bible passages involved in the gender-inclusive language debate. Some believe that when Paul addressed the adelphoi of Romans 12:1, he was only speaking to males, so Paul properly used the plural male term for "brothers." Others, including the translators of the ESV, believe that in some cases adelphoi can and does refer to a mixed group of males and female believers. The ESV places a note to this effect on the word "brothers" for Romans 12:1 and a number of other passages.
May God give us grace to hear each other. I especially hope that he would give us grace not to question the spirituality or biblical commitment of those with whom we disagree on this issue. This doesn't mean that I consider anyone's convictions unimportant. No, on the contrary, the fact that Adrian and I encourage gracious discussion which includes dissent, indicates, I think, that we both consider these important issues. If nothing else, the amount of heat which is being generated these days by this debate makes this an issue to be dealt with as best as possible. The church has dealt with a number of other issues over the centuries and survived, including whether or not to baptize babies, whether someone who is baptized is to be placed all the way under some water or if getting water just on their heads is enough, whether or not it is possible for a true believer to lose their salvation, whether God is totally sovereign or if he has chosen to allow people to act in ways that he has not determined for them to act, whether or not the "sign gifts" ceased at some point in the past, etc. etc. May the church also survive this debate. A world which needs to hear God's Word both from Scripure and seen in our lives needs the church to survive this issue.
Categories: Bible translation, gender-inclusive