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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A view from the Planning Commission

As some of the regular readers of this blog may remember, I got involved in politics pretty much by accident last summer. The county tried to reorganize our neighborhood and we, all 6700 of us, stood up and said no. Three of us, whose main qualifications are that we are willing to stand up and speak in front of an audience of hundreds, emerged as the leaders. And that got me nominated and appointed to the Alameda County Planning Commission.

Well, on Monday we had a very difficult case. A Mexican woman (to judge from her accent in Spanish) stood up to petition for a variance in building an addition to the family house. (She spoke because her husband has no usable English.) Her English was tentative and, because one of the planning staff is bilingual, she was allowed to testify in Spanish.

The story is wrenching. They hired a contractor and filled out the forms for permits, which the contractor said he would apply for. He asked for money up front and constructed a sorely needed addition, which was largely complete when a county inspector noticed that the construction was unpermitted because it did not conform to the setback ordinances. The contractor, who, it turns out was unlicensed and therefore didn’t actually apply for the permits, disappeared. Now the family has been told they will have to tear down the addition they need and which has already cost them $40,000. We toured the site and the neighborhood and noticed that setback ordinances are widely violated throughout the area, but the homeowners association is adamant in this case, and if the Planning Commission were to allow this as an exception — clearly the compassionate thing to do — it would give the next person a precedent on which to demand a variance. Our hands are pretty well tied. There are no grounds to find for a variance. So we continued the case to see if the planning department can work something out.

Now my Spanish is OK. I pretty well followed what she said, but there is one interesting thing in the woman’s testimony and how I heard it that shows the tendency for English speakers to misread the meaning of gendered language.

In the course of her testimony the woman cited the reason for needing the addition was:
Tenemos cuatro hijos.
Since I was working hard to keep up, I processed that
they have four sons.
and it wasn’t until the official translation came back
‘They have four children.’
that I noticed the error.

ElShaddai Edwards may be upset that gender language in Bibles tends to attract excessive attention, but here is evidence that even I, who know better, tend to misread the meaning of gendered forms in a language that I don’t speak natively. The reason for bending over backwards on this point over and over is that English speakers misread the gender by reflex.

The facts?

The patterns are clear and they work the same in Greek and Spanish.

Greek — Spanish — gloss

υἱόςhijo —son’
υἱόι – hijos — ‘children’ (in special contexts ‘sons’)

πατήρ — padre‘father’
πατέρες — padres — ‘parents’ (in special contexts 'fathers')

ἄνθρωπος — persona —person’ (NOT ‘man’ ‘woman’)

This is hard to swallow for English speakers, especially if they are immersed in a tradition of Bible translation which has gotten it wrong for a long time. (See a fuller discussion here.)

Speakers of languages with grammatical gender do much better, for example the Reformers (as pointed out by Suzanne in a comment on the previous post), many of whom were German speakers. They know from their own languages that just because ἄνθρωπος is grammatically masculine does not mean it refers directly to men and only indirectly to women, any more than the grammatically masculine word Mensch does in German. The same is true of persona in Spanish. Just because it is grammatically feminine does not mean it refers to women primarily and only secondarily to men. The most macho Spanish speaker will not mind being referred to as una persona.

And we are all children of God.


In Spanish if you want to say ‘They have four sons.’ you have to say.
Tienen cuatro hijos hombres.
(The dictionary will tell you to say hijos varones but my Mexican friends say that sounds a little archaic.)

In Greek you don’t NEED to add a modifier to υἱόι to get the reading ‘sons’, but because there is ambiguity in referential gender, Koine has expressions like υἱός ἄρρην (lit. ‘male son’) and υἱεῖς ἄνδρες ‘grown sons’ (lit. ‘sons men’) with modifiers to clarify actual gender reference.


At Wed Mar 19, 05:18:00 PM, Blogger flacius1551 said...

Tenemos is actually first person plural: "WE have...."

At Wed Mar 19, 08:03:00 PM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

I, who know better, tend to misread the meaning of gendered forms in a language that I don’t speak natively. The reason for bending over backwards on this point over and over is that English speakers misread the gender by reflex.

Rich, This is an important post for all the reasons you note. I most appreciate your using yourself as an example here, to speak to real life translation issues, and how these relate to the Bible.

In various conversations here at BBB, the standard for translation often seems to be "concordance." But when you talk about gender encoded in languages differently, concordance is a rather dicey goal.

I think it's very important to consider that much of the Bible (in the original language) comes to us already in translation. The point I was making about "shibboleth" in a comment on Wayne's last post is that English translators have transliterated the Hebrew word. The Jews translating their language into Greek (i.e., the Septuagint) decided that a translation (and not a transliteration) was best for Judges 12:6. What's more concordant? Either choice (whether to transliterate as if translating or to translate without transliterating) gains and loses something.

The way the LXX translators put Genesis 2:7 (at least the last half of it) is: ἐγένετο ὁ ἄνθρωπος εἰς ψυχὴν ζῶσαν. Clearly ἄνθρωπος gets away from the specificity of which person, but the Hebrew starts to play with the ground and the genders in Genesis 5:2 and what's lost in Greek becomes obvious. So Paul, writing the Corinthians (I Cor 15:45), has to add a couple of words including the transliterated name "Adam" [see the bracketed words below] to make something else clear: ἐγένετο ὁ [πρῶτος] ἄνθρωπος [Ἀδὰμ] εἰς ψυχὴν ζῶσαν. I think Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have to do the same kind of thing, often, when putting Jesus's Aramaic into Greek. Is there concordance? The translator often has to choose what's important (and not always what the language precisely signals originally--is "shibboleth" better transliterated for the sounds of the pun or translated for the meaning of the word?)

Now back to Spanish, and your context. "We have four children" is not just a mother's intended statement (as translated well enough into English). The unofficial translator, presumably, did not know (and neither did you) whether the four are sons only, are daughters only, or are both sons and daughters; the intention of the translator is the point at issue: to get at the "testimony" so that some of you 6700 people could help make a decision. (The mom really does consider the gender of her children important, whether daughters or sons, and if pressed she could use Spanish language to tell which is which. Similarly, native Vietnamese speakers can tell the difference between the color of the sky and of an unripe guava skin, even though they use one word for blue and green.) The very very crucial thing about gender in translation is how you ended your post here, how God created us in God's image: whether female or male "we are all children of God."

At Wed Mar 19, 10:25:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


Thanks. I especially appreciate how close the Spanish and Greek are so the comparison can be seen.

At Wed Mar 19, 11:03:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

Flacius1551 said ...
Tenemos is actually first person plural: "WE have...."

Claro que sí. I was using indirect discourse, reporting my thoughts. "Ah, they have four children in a single bedroom, of course they are crowded."

At Wed Mar 19, 11:09:00 PM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

I probably should have added that if you want to say you have four sons in Spanish you HAVE to say.

Tengo cuatro hijos hombres.

My sources tell me that if you say

Tengo cuatro hijos varones.

it sounds old-fashioned.

I'll look into Koine to see if there are clear examples.

At Thu Mar 20, 07:27:00 AM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

Oops. Nobody caught me. I got so wrapped up in the Spanish that I forgot that while Latin has filius vs. filia, Greek doesn't have ὕιη. (Well, actually it does sort of, it has a similar word ὐιήν but that is related to the root for 'vine, wine' οἶν-.)

So I add a correction later today.

At Thu Mar 20, 10:28:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Sorry Richard, I can't believe I missed this. What was I thinking!

Part of the problem is that the expression "son of God" and "children of God" are a translation of the Hebrew, which does work exactly the same way as the Spanish. However, the principle is the same in Greek as well, the plural of the male form denotes the male and female. It does not in English, so if we want the English to have the same denotation as the Greek then we must say "children."

At Thu Mar 20, 10:48:00 AM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

I've fixed the (numerous) mistakes in the original. Non-existent words, misplaced accents and the like. None affect the point, but only go to show that I shouldn't try to squeeze things in between dean's appointments and teaching classes. It shows up my sloppiness in proofreading.

At Thu Oct 23, 10:20:00 AM, Blogger Sean Harrison said...

Hi, Rich,

Part of the solution is for the city planning department to exercise greater diligence in checking up on construction that is going on in the neighborhood. If the homeowners' association cares so much about code conformance, they should have made sure the new construction was conforming -- it's a simple call to the city to say, "Hey, I see an addition going in across the street and I don't see a permit posted in the window."

So, how about giving the homeowners' association two options: (1) Bring every property in the neighborhood into conformance with the setback requirements, at the property owners' expense, or (2) let this addition stand as an exception and be more diligent in the future.

At Thu Oct 23, 10:21:00 AM, Blogger Sean Harrison said...

P.S. I just noticed how old this post is, so the situation is probably history. Sorry about that. But I am interested to hear how it came out.


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