Monday, June 18, 2012

Translation Accuracy or Political Correctness?

One doesn't have to look for very long in any discussion on "favorite Bible translations" before two things happen, usually right on the heels of each other.
  1. The discussion turns to whether or not the translation is gender inclusive (even if that precise term isn't always used, the topic comes up. Include any relevant similar term in this point).
  2. Translations that go too far (in the opinion of some) in their attempt to be gender inclusive are quickly accused of doing so in order to be "politically correct" (note that this term is pretty much always used pejoratively, and usually communicates a change made out of fear of offending some group or another).
This pattern demonstrated itself in a recent post over at Kurt Willem's blog, in which he discussed on his own recent preference-shift toward the CEB, while also praising the now-defunct TNIV. An early comment suggested that "the NIV has become victim of political correctness run amok." In this particular case, the only gender-related comments were related to language for God the Father (he wants to retain the gender-specificity of the Greek there), and this was quickly cleared up, as the NIV — and the TNIV and the CEB — all retain such gender-specificity in reference to the persons of the Trinity. Still, the question of gender-inclusion had already been raised in Willem's own remarks, and now the discussion was engaged in earnest.

I took the opportunity to ask for further clarification on why the NIV was being accused of "political correctness," on the chance that it was about some area of disagreement other than what was already clear in the comments. The conversation that ensued, while short, has thus far remained civil, but it was definitively established that gender-inclusive language was indeed the primary concern. What I want to comment on here is not really on the question of what the original languages actually intended (that is, were certain Greek and Hebrew terms actually intended to include both men and women?), and more on the question of how best to capture that intent (once we've determined it) into modern English.

Part of the difficulty in translating passages of Scripture is that the translator is dealing with at least two "moving targets." The first, the original language itself, is more or less fixed. That is to say, although modern Greek is still a living language, the koine Greek of the New Testament is fixed in history. However, our knowledge of koine is incomplete. As new ancient manuscripts come to light, and as existing manuscripts continue to be studied, scholars may learn that a koine word had some shade or nuance of meaning that was not previously understood, and thus our understanding of that word may change. However, these changes are likely to be very subtle, at most, and I'm not going to worry too much about that.

The second "moving target" is more likely to be important, but may in fact be even harder to recognize. Modern languages are changing all time, although this change happens unevenly across the cultures and times in which a language is spoken. So, for example, the word "man" has been used (at one point, almost universally) to mean "mankind" or perhaps more properly, "humanity" in general (that is both men and women were understood to be included in the term). In some areas, the word "man" is indeed still used in this way, often with little argument. However, this usage is no longer universally understood as including women, as well as men. Many English speakers see the word "man" and automatically think "male."

I should be clear. I do not mean only that some women do not feel "included" in the term "man." I also mean that some people, perhaps attempting to defend a traditional interpretation, will point to the word "man" in some English translations of the Bible, even in contexts where the original Greek was understood more inclusively, and use the use of the word "man" to argue for a male-exclusive interpretation. Often, even other traditionalists will join in saying that those interpretations are wrong, but the point remains that many English speakers no longer see the word "man" without thinking in terms of a male-bias.

For this reason, I argue that a modern English translation that strives to be gender-inclusive (only and specifically in those areas where the original context was also intended to be inclusive of both men and women) is not doing so out of some concern of "political correctness." We're not so much worried about offending people. Sometimes the Bible does indeed offend. That's not always a bad thing. Rather, we're concerned that people are misunderstanding what the Bible has to teach us, because an English word itself no longer communicates in precisely the same way that it perhaps once did.

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