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May 15, 2008
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Home > 1997 > October 27Christianity Today, October 27, 1997  |   |  
Do Inclusive-Language Bibles Distort Scripture? (Part 3 of 4)
He Said, They Said


Part three of four parts; click here to read part two.

Grant R. Osborne: NO
Whether or not to use inclusive language in Bible translation is not a gender issue but a matter of translation theory. Those of us who believe in the use of inclusive language are not trying to force a feminist agenda on evangelicalism. Many who use inclusive language, in fact, are affiliated with the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW). We must be careful about attributing motives to actions.

The true question is whether formal equivalence or functional equivalence, as Bible translation theories, produces the best translation for our day. Formal equivalence (sometimes called "literal translation") believes that the original wording, grammar, and syntax should be retained so long as the resulting translation is understandable (KJV, NASB, and RSV are examples). Functional equivalence (also called "dynamic translation") believes that the text should have the same impact on the modern reader that the original had on the ancient reader. According to this approach, it is not the original terms but the meaning of the whole that is important, asking the question, "How would Isaiah or Paul say this today to get his meaning across?" (the Good News Bible and NLT are examples; NIV and NRSV are sometimes literal, sometimes dynamic). The first is a "word-for-word" translation and the second a "thought- for-thought" translation.

For instance, Matthew 5:3 in the New American Standard Bible reads, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven," but the New Living Translation reads, "God blesses those who realize their need for him, for the kingdom of heaven is given to them." Functional equivalence tries to communicate the meaning of blessed and poor in spirit rather than simply to translate the words themselves. It does not ignore the words but rather translates the ideas behind the words.

In fact, a purely literal translation is impossible. The King James Version and the NASB do not keep every nuance of the original intact, nor can they. Every translator has to decide the best way to translate the words of one language into another, and that means changing not only words but also idioms and grammatical structures. Translation by slide rule cannot be done, and decisions have to be made.

The use of inclusive pronouns in translations falls within the realm of dynamic translation theory. In the ancient world it was common to say "man" or "he" when speaking of all people. The influence of the KJV has made it common until recent years to do the same. Within the last two decades, however, this is practiced less and less, and those who have not grown up in the church can misunderstand such male-oriented language. (You do hear it now and then in newscasts, but normally by older commentators who grew up with the idiom.) Even if the inclusive he is retained in some stylebooks, it is impossible to deny that its occurrence is becoming rarer or that ultimately it is on its way out in modern language. A basic principle of all translation theory is to express the ancient text in the thoughts and idioms of the receptor language.

While it is true that the "feminist" agenda launched the protest against the inclusive he, the issue has gone beyond ideological boundaries. The public as a whole, whether sympathetic or not to the feminist cause, is reluctant to use he or man when referring to all people. In the public schools, he has not been used for years to speak of both men and women, and most young people under 30 have not grown up with its use. As Jerold Apps says in Improving Your Writing Skills, "People are often confused when words like he and man are used to mean sometimes men and sometimes both sexes." Therefore, biblical scholars more and more are translating male pronouns, when they refer to men and women, with a plural.

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