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Thursday, November 10, 2005

Essentially literal translation is impossible!

I was interested to find the following in an article on gender issues at the ESV website:
The inclusive use of the generic “he” has also regularly been retained, because this is consistent with similar usage in the original languages and because an essentially literal translation would be impossible without it.
I will leave to one side the inaccurate statement that the English generic “he” “is consistent with similar usage in the original languages” (in fact the English use of gendered pronouns is quite different from Greek and Hebrew grammatical gender) and focus on the last part of the above. This would seem to imply that “essentially literal translation” is impossible into languages which do not have a generic “he” or an equivalent pronoun. But does the ESV translation team really intend to teach this? For, since there is also a clear implication that “essentially literal translation” is the only fully valid method of Bible translation, the implication of course is that it is impossible to translate the Bible into some languages.

And those languages into which they seem to suggest the Bible is untranslatable include the dialects of English which do not have a generic “he”, which are spoken by the majority of speakers in the UK and Australia (including myself) as well as by a large proportion of US speakers. So, must at least 100 million of us be deprived of the Word of God in our own language?

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At Thu Nov 10, 09:40:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Peter, I think that Poythress and Grudem deal with the issue of languages that lack a masculine generic singular in their book on "Muting the Masculinity of the Word of God." I seem to recall them saying that if a language does not have a masculine generic, you just have to get by without it. Their claim, however, is that English still uses the generic "he". They also state that for those who do not understand the intended generic meaning of a "he," they can be taught this meaning very quickly. They believe that it is such an important part of their theology that such teaching should take place. Instead, it is taking place within families and churches which believe in the theological system that Poythress and Grudem do, the theological system of Federalism and the linguistico-theological notion of "male representation."

At Fri Nov 11, 03:58:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Wayne, thank you for the pointer. Poythress and Grudem (on p.197 of the online version of their book at, which is not the latest edition) write:

Of course, we agree that some languages in the world may not have all the capabilities for expression that English does, and in those cases translators will have to do the best they can with those languages. ... But all of those considerations are simply changing the subject, which is how to translate the Bible into English today.

Well, translating the Bible into English may be the only subject of interest to Poythress and Grudem, but it is not to me. Also, the version of English into which I, and the TNIV translators for example, are most interested in translation is not recognisably the same as the English described by Poythress and Grudem, for, despite theie lengthy attempts to defend generic "he", it is abundantly clear that this usage is obsolescent, unnatural and unacceptable in many dialects of English. And so, if a translation is to have the "clarity of expression" sought by the ESV translators (see, it must avoid generic "he".


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