Transcribing the text of the Bible has been an ongoing and often controversial process ever since the Greeks translated ancient Hebrew manuscripts around the 3rd century BC. The revised New International Version (NIV) and The New American Bible, respectively, will include gender-neutral language and substitute words that the editors claim will reflect a modern understanding of the book’s theology. What are some of the words that will be changed in this translation? And how will the use of gender-neutral pronouns affect reading of the text?
In Indo-European languages (primarily the languages of Europe) there are three gender noun classes or categories: masculine, feminine and neuter; the latter refers to words that are non-gender specific or refer to language and cultures that recognize a third gender, where the gender of the subject is always referenced by the subject of the word. In contrast, gender-neutral language aspires to “neutralize” any reference to a specific gender; replacing “stewardess” with “flight attendant” is a widely understood example, as is “chairperson” for “chairman.”
The Apostle Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female…” – this passage from Galatians 3:28 makes a statement about gender roles by using the specific masculine and feminine pronouns. However, if replaced with a gender-neutral pronoun, as in the case of NIV, the intended meaning may simply get lost in the translation. The same could be said for the passage: “Man cannot live by bread alone” (Mathew 4:4), as it has become such a popular cultural phrase.
The New American Bible’s revisions also attempt to reflect the evolution of modern language. For example, in the original scriptures “holocaust” refers to the offerings made to God. Most people equate that word with World War II and the genocide of Jews. The new version reads, “burned offerings” which denotes the original, positive meaning.
“Booty,” which has a modern sexual connotation, has been replaced with the “spoils of war” – a reference to the gains inherited from the winning of a battle.
What do you think of these examples? Can you think of other circumstances where translation has changed the way you experience a piece of writing? Let us know.