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Straightening Out the Bible?: The Translator’s Text and Audience

September 10th, 2020 | 12 min read

By Joshua Jensen

Should a god who is neither male nor female be referred to by a masculine pronoun? Translator Jost Zetzsche raises this question in his essay, Is God Male? The Divine Chinese Pronoun. This problem, inevitable in English, was solved in 1930, Zetzsche tells us, by a Chinese translator who devised a new divine pronoun to supplement the run-of-the-mill set already available: masculine, feminine, and neuter. This divine pronoun is gender free, or more precisely, the portion of the character that specifies gender “signif[ies] something spiritual” and so the Bible reader now knows that “God has no gender aside from being God.”

The problem of God’s personality in relation to his transcendence is not a new one, and I don’t intend to take it up here. Instead I will explore what Chinese pronouns might tell us about the task of translation. Lurking beneath the surface are questions about what Bible translators aim to do in the first place: questions about translators’ obligations to the source text, their views of their audience, and finally, how they weigh alternatives when every decision seems like a bad one. I’ll discuss each of these in turn—the text, the audience, and the challenges that attend translation in the real world.

Translators and Their Text

Let’s begin with the translator’s approach to the source text, the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek Scriptures themselves. Consider the difficulty resolved by the Chinese divine pronoun: masculine pronouns, like English he, may suggest that God is male. So an ideal translation would refer to God in some way that avoids giving this false impression. But the obvious objection—the one you have perhaps been waiting for me to raise—is that the original Scriptures themselves use masculine pronouns in reference to God. The problem is not one of translation. It is a problem that resides in the original.

This trouble with gender is not merely a problem of pronouns. If anything, pronouns are epiphenomenal. The portrayal of God in Scripture is pervasively, overwhelming, and insistently—though not exclusively—masculine. He is a warrior, king, and father. The sense one gets from reading the Scriptures themselves is not that God is pure, genderless spirit (though Scripture certainly asserts that God is, in fact, Spirit). Instead one gets the decided impression of manly strength. Given this fact, what are translators to do? Is their obligation to protect the readers of their translations from the Scripture’s portrayal of God, substituting instead words and images and abstractions appropriate to what we know is really true about the Deity?

Before answering those questions, I will cast the net a bit wider. If there are theological problems in the Bible waiting to be solved by translators, there are also pastoral, linguistic, and historical ones.

For example, in 2017, Pope Francis made a stir by suggesting that the traditional rendering of the Lord’s Prayer, “Lead us not into temptation” (Italian, “Non ci indurre in tentazione”), may lead the faithful to think that God sometimes does lead his children into temptation. As translators discussed the Pope’s comments, they moved beyond his pastoral concerns to linguistic ones. A prominent translation consultant suggested in a public forum that the Greek text of Matthew may in fact be a mistranslation of what Jesus really said in Aramaic, and translators should grapple with this possibility—presumably meaning that translators should be open to translating what Jesus actually said, rather than Matthew’s misrepresentation.

If, as is likely, most of Jesus’ teaching was in Aramaic, then not just the Lord’s Prayer, but most or all the dominical sayings in the Gospels are translations already—they aren’t the actual words of Jesus. If that’s the case, translators into other languages are working at second hand, translating translations of Jesus. However, if the Semitic original could be reconstructed, we could strip away the Greek layer, and translate what Jesus actually said. Should we try?

No. Because the canonical Gospels are in Greek, not in Aramaic. Even if Jesus, in his life on earth, never uttered a word of Greek, the fact remains that our job as translators is not to translate what Jesus really said. Our job is to translate the Greek of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. For the translator, there is nothing more fundamental than the text itself. And the same is true for gendered language: whatever translators make of classical theism, they are translating the Bible, not Aquinas, and it is the mode of expression found in the Bible that should shape the language of the translation.

Now, this is a good time to make two clarifications, one about translation style, the other about inspiration.

First, I don’t mean to argue for a particular style of translation, as though the woodenly word-for-word Revised Version is a better translation than the meaning-based New Living Translation. “Essentially literal” and “formally equivalent” and “functionally equivalent” and “meaning-based” are to a large degree labels for verse-by-verse prudential judgments. Every translation is a mixed bag. What I’m talking about here is a disposition, a finger on the scales, that judges every translation decision not just in terms of the meaning of the original, but in terms of how that meaning is conveyed in the original wording, a consideration relevant whatever your translation style.

Second, a translator doesn’t have to subscribe to a particular theory of inspiration—or any at all, for that matter—in order to feel strongly obligated to translate the actual wording of the original rather than realities, truths, or abstractions that can supposedly be separated from those words.

More generally, any “fact behind the text”—whether the result of linguistic, archeological, historical, or theological research—is still something other than the text. The translator must translate the text itself. I might add that this is true even for harmonization. If Matthew and Mark tell the story differently, the translator’s job is not to figure out what really happened and put that in the translation. Harmonization, if a legitimate task (and I think it is), is one for pastors and teachers, not translators, to undertake.

Some may object that the Bible isn’t just a string of words that need to be put into another language: it is a sacred text with a sacred meaning; it is meant to tell us something about Someone. Surely, the objection goes, the meaning is what matters, not the words themselves. Yes. But for the translator there is no such thing as disembodied (or deverbalized) meaning. Think of it this way. If I tell you the story of how I met my wife, and then my wife tells you the same story, you’ll hear two different (though compatible and intersecting) stories. If words were simply audible snapshots of “something real” in the world, it shouldn’t be that way.

But when you hear my story, you understand that you aren’t hearing What Really Happened. You’re hearing (1) my representation of (2) what I want you to know about (3) what I remember seeing and hearing and thinking; this is something connected to reality, yes, but connected also to memory and perception and beliefs and relationships; something different from (though hopefully not contradictory to) the thing itself.

The Bible is no different. Behind, say, Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of the temptations of Jesus stands the same real event (what might be naively thought of as the “meaning” of what Matthew and Luke have written). But we don’t translate events; and we don’t translate meanings independently of the language used to convey them. As much as possible—and that’s a significant concession—we want the readers of our translations to hear Matthew’s story about Jesus as Matthew told it. And Luke’s as Luke told it. And so on for the Laws of Moses, and the Revelation of John, and everything else in between.

We might even go further (and not everyone who agrees with me so far will): The translator’s task is to represent in another language the words and sentences and texts of the Scriptures themselves—not the message of Scripture, not the stories of the Bible, not the Truth about God, nor the Simple Gospel. A good translation will contain all these other things, but only because the Scriptures themselves contain them.

Translators and Their Audience

Let’s go back to the divine Chinese pronoun. The motivation for coming up with a non-gendered pronoun was, like Janus, facing in two directions—towards theology (God isn’t male) and towards the reader (we don’t want Chinese Bible readers to think that he is). The question here is this: what can reasonably be expected from a Bible reader? The way the issue is framed in the Patheos essay is by asking, “Is God male?” Zetzsche answers, “Reading about God in the English Bible, we might think so.”

What he seems to be saying is that a reader of the English Bible (or any Bible using masculine pronouns, including Hebrew or Greek), is at risk of thinking that God is a member of “the sex that produces small, typically motile gametes, especially spermatozoa, with which a female may be fertilized or inseminated to produce offspring” (so says the first dictionary I consulted to find out what “male” means).

I’m not concerned that most readers of the Bible will make that mistake, for three reasons. First, that didn’t seem to concern Moses, Jesus, or Paul. Second, I don’t think most readers are so naive as that. A great deal of advice offered in translation manuals seems to assume that readers of the Bible aren’t capable of interpreting figurative language or dealing with unfamiliar ideas or expressions. Consider the Good News Translation, one of the most frequently cited model translations in the Bible Society manuals used by nearly every English-speaking translator on the globe.

A distinguishing feature of the GNT is that nearly all of the figurative language is gone. Why is that? It seems that English readers can’t be trusted to figure out that God doesn’t have hands, or that hungering and thirsting for righteousness doesn’t involve the stomach, that sinful flesh isn’t actually muscle tissue, or that blood is strongly associated with life and death. My point isn’t that every last image in the Bible can be meaningfully translated into every language; but the GNT usually doesn’t even try, and those translation choices have influenced countless translations into other languages.

Third, the Scripture places obligations not just on translators but on readers, in the context of the church. This point cannot be emphasized too strongly: namely, that first-time readers are not on their own. They read with the help of the church. Christ and the apostles did not establish the office of translator. They established the office of pastor and teacher. The Scriptural authors never assume that readers are approaching the text alone; instead, they assume that the difficulties of reading are taken on in a communion of the faithful, with the help of experienced guides. No amount of clarifying, simplifying, or modifying of the text by the translator can substitute for the God-ordained church, and it should not try to.

Another way of saying this (and Raymond van Leeuwen has said it all much better elsewhere) is that the Bible isn’t written for casual readers who approach Scripture like they glance over their Facebook feed. Nor is it written for first-time or one-time readers. Nor is it written for lone readers. It is written for God’s people to read under the discipline of the church and with her wise guidance. Any other kind of reading is exceptional, and typical translation practice should not be guided by the exceptional case. Even where the church is not yet strong, and teachers have little or no training, let us translate in hope of the Spirit’s ordinary work. Even under the most favorable circumstances, translation is, after all, an act of hope.

Translation in the Real World

In all my talk so far about the primacy of the original and the dignity of the reader, I’ve given short shrift to a fundamental—perhaps the fundamental—fact about translation: namely, that translation is the act of changing the original into something else, to make it available to a new set of readers and listeners. What’s changed, specifically, is the language, the wording of the original, because even the closest translation still changes every single word. And it’s more than words that get changed: it’s the order of those words, and the number of them, and their specificity; it’s how they’re arranged into phrases and sentences; it’s how to ask questions and how to emphasize a point. It is, in fact, everything.

Translation is necessary because there are no more native speakers of Classical Hebrew, and koine Greek isn’t so koine anymore. If people are going to understand the Bible, the Bible has to be changed—translated—into a form accessible to them. This means that for the translator committed to honoring both the forms of expression in the original and the dignity and intelligence of the reading audience, there are two additional countervailing pressures: the resources of the recipient language, and the culture and capacities of the recipient audience. Languages are radically dissimilar, so the translated form is almost always significantly different from the original form. And many populations, like the one I work with in northeast Cambodia, have cultures and natural surroundings quite different from the world of the Bible, and very little in the way of educational resources.

This, then, is the reality of translation. Every translated word, every phrase, every sentence, every completed page involves loss. Every translation decision is a bad one. But as Chesterton famously said in reference to home education: “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” And translation is worth doing, in part because the losses are mitigated by gains: not absolute gains, as though the translation can achieve something independently, or better than the original. Instead, these are relative gains: we give something up (say, an exact equivalent to the original word) to gain something else (say, a retention of the vividness of the original).

My burden in this essay, then, is not to convince you that translation without loss is possible, as though with enough care we can present to readers the original text, unharmed, unaltered. That may be the goal of the textual critic, but not the translator. My aim instead is to argue for translation without gain. The translator has nothing to add, nothing to clarify, nothing to correct.

But that’s not quite right, either. Bible translators do have something to add, they do aim at some gain: by their work they bring the Bible to another language, another audience, another church, or potential church. And that is a great gain, outweighing all the losses.


The original Patheos essay highlights a remarkable tool that the essay’s author, Jost Zetzsche, has painstakingly compiled for translators and Bible readers, a website called Translation Insights and Perspectives. This website compiles translation decisions made in the Bibles of hundreds of languages. Someone wishing to broaden her perspective on Bible translation couldn’t do better than to explore some of the translation examples found there: you will learn not just about translation, but almost certainly gain insights into the Scriptures themselves, refracted through the lens of other translations. As I’ve tried to communicate in this essay, there is no insight available in a translation that wasn’t already present in the original; but without translations, those insights would remain buried treasures.

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