The policy of the NRSV translation committee on inclusive language, as I began to discuss in the preceding post, was sensible, in my view. It involved a three-pronged approach.
- Any passage that was referring to both men and women was to be rendered inclusively, even if the original language (Hebrew or Greek) used masculine terms (“men,” “man,” “brothers,” “he” etc.).
- Any passage that was explicitly referring only to men, or only to women, was to be left as referring only to men or to women.
- All references to the Deity that in the original used masculine terms were to be left masculine.
Here I will say a few things about each of these policies, in reverse order. First, the deity. No one on the committee thought that the deity actually has male genitalia or other sexual distinctions. But changing every reference to God (a masculine term, since there is a feminine alternative: Goddess) or Lord (again, a feminine alternative: Lady) or … anything else, would be hugely cumbersome and distracting. And there are not literarily satisfying options. It really would not do to alternate every other time between God and Goddess; and neutral terms such as “the deity” (for “God”) or “the Sovereign One” (for Lord) are awkward and not literarily pleasing.
Moreover, the committee decided that the reality is that ancient Jews and Christians understood God to be a male figure. And so, for the translation, they left all male-exclusive language in reference to the deity as masculine.
Second, there are numerous passages in the Bible that explicitly speak about men only or about women only. There are more of the former, obviously. These were to be left masculine or feminine. For example, in Acts 2 Peter gives his famous speech on the day of Pentecost to the crowd of Jews who are gathered there, to convince them that the miracle of the coming of the Holy Spirit shows that Jesus really was the messiah who died and was raised again. One might think the crowd comprised both men and women, but when Peter addresses them he calls them ANDRES ISRAELITAI – literally “men [i.e. males] of Israel” (2:22); and later he calls them ANDRES ADELPHOI – literally – “men [male] brothers.”
The translators kept these explicitly male terms explicitly male, so that in the second instance they translated the term as “brethren.” This was in contrast to other passages, such as in the letters of Paul, where ADELPHOI, the word for “brothers” occurs without the male designation ANDRES; these passages were taken to refer to both men and women, and so were translated accordingly, often with something like “brothers and sisters,” where “and sisters” was not explicitly represented in the Greek text but was nonetheless understood to be the case because Paul was not talking only to the men but to the women as well.
This policy of keeping male-only language male-only but male-language that referred to males and females inclusive made for some very difficult decisions in places, especially in the Old Testament, and nowhere more problematically than in the legal codes of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. There are some verses that give laws directed explicitly to either males or females. For example, Leviticus 15:2 refers to the ceremonial impurity that comes on a man from an abnormal discharge (e.g. from a sexually transmitted disease) from his penis. That law in the NRSV is kept male only, as directed to “any man” (as opposed, say, to “anyone”). Later in the chapter, in 15:19, is a reference to ritual impurity that comes on a woman during her menstruation period. That law is directed to a “woman.”
On the other hand, there are other laws that appear to apply to both men and women, even if the Hebrew uses male-specific terms. The laws concerning leprosy occur in Leviticus 13, and are phrased, in the Hebrew, as referring to ADAM (= a man). But the laws surely applied to women as well, and so the NRSV translates the term as “a person.” In many ways, this approach to translation clarifies the sense, since if one translated it as “a man” then these particular laws might be taken by modern readers as referring only to male and not to females. But for the translators it was always a judgment call and often proved difficult.
The third prong of the inclusive language policy, then, was to render all references to humans generally as inclusive, rather than as referring only to males. Apart from the problems imposed by the legal codes of the Old Testament, this policy created real difficulties for translators who wanted to present a literarily satisfying and even elegant translation, but were faced with real conundra when it came to phrasing passages accurately (as including both men and women) but pleasingly.
In some instances there was not a big problem. “Men” could be translated as “people” or “human beings” or even “mortals” without much of a problem in most places. “Brothers” could be clarified as “brothers and sisters.” And so on. But in some passages the results are clunky and unattractive. One that I’ve always thought was completely impossible was Mark 1:17. At the very beginning of his ministry Jesus, Jesus calls his disciples, beginning with Peter and Andrew. Passing by the Sea of Galilee he sees them fishing, and he calls out to them “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” They drop their nets and come to follow him.
But surely Jesus does not mean that in their new role as “fishers of men” they will catch only males (for the kingdom), but females as well. So by translating the word “men” as “men” the translators would do a disservice to the reader, who may misconstrue the meaning. Moreover, the Greek word used is not the male-only designation ANDRES but the generic term that refers to both males and females ANTHROPOI (= people/humans). And so the passage should be rendered inclusively. But how?
I’ve puzzled over this problem for years, and have never come up with a good solution. The original suggestion that the NRSV committee wanted to go with was to render it “Follow me and I will make you fishers of humans.” I thought that was terrible. Maybe it’s because I spent too many years in Vacation Sunday School singing “I will make you fishers of men.” That King James rendering is so catchy and flows, literarily, so well. In contrast, “fishers of humans” simply seems clunky. Eventually the committee went with a translation that I preferred (remember, I was not one of the translators: I was just the research grunt for the committee. But I still had my opinions!), “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Still clunky and not the sort of thing you’ll make into a song for kids. But at least it’s accurate. And I’ve never come up with anything that works better, that both gets the correct meaning across (the disciples will catch people – both men and women – for the kingdom) and expresses that meaning elegantly.
In a subsequent post I will talk about other problems that arose from the inclusive language policy of the committee.
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