Bible translation foundations – #2 nouns and

Thanks to everyone who commented on my test paragraph in the preceding post. Everyone had good suggestions for improvements. Most, I think, recognized that it was strange English to have the name of my wife repeated so often and felt it would be better English to have pronouns refer to her more often. I agree.

Most, if not all, languages have some language forms which function like English pronouns do. That is, they have some way of indicating that we are still talking about the same person or thing, instead of repeating the name (noun) of that person or thing.

In Cheyenne, the language I have studied for thirty plus years, there are no pronouns. Instead, there are prefixes and suffixes on verbs which allow us to know that we are still talking about the same person or thing.

Koine Greek also uses affixes to give pronominal (pronoun-like) information so that a noun is not repeated too often. But Greek also has available some pronouns to use. If a pronoun is used in addition to a pronominal affix, there is often some kind of emphasis placed on the pronoun, according to those who have studied the functions of pronouns in Greek discourse.

Pronouns can have very different functions (pragmatic meanings) in different languages. In some languages a proper noun (name) is used throughout a story to indicate who is the hero of that story. Lesser characters are spoken about with pronouns, after they have been introduced into the story. I personally checked a Native American translation where the linguist on the team assumed that this was the case right up until he attended a workshop on discourse structures not long before the translated New Testament for that tribe was published. At the workshop he discovered from analysis of texts in that language that it was the hero of the story who was spoken of with a pronoun. Lesser characters were referred to by proper nouns. He was amazed and realized that he and the rest of the translation team would need to do major revision of the New Testament so that proper names and pronouns were used accurately, to indicate who was the main person or hero in a story.

Well, this brings us to another question which I have wanted to ask you in this series on Bible translation foundations? Here it is:

Should English Bible translators consistently match proper names and other nouns in the biblical language texts with corresponding proper names and nouns in the translation language, and match pronouns (or pronominal prefixes or suffixes) in the biblical languages with English pronouns?

It would be helpful for our discussions if you could provide support from specific verses in the Bible for your answer to the preceding question.

5 thoughts on “Bible translation foundations – #2 nouns and

  1. J. K. Gayle says:

    Should English Bible translators consistently match proper names and other nouns in the biblical language texts with corresponding proper names and nouns in the translation language, and match pronouns (or pronominal prefixes or suffixes) in the biblical languages with English pronouns?

    English Bible translators do make these matches. So I think the question is what rhetorical effect does the translator make with her or his match.

    2 Examples:

    1. When does the English translator call the Hebrew אָדָם (‘adam) by a proper noun, i.e. the transliterated Adam as the name of a particular individual and/ or as the category of the male (not the female)? Most translators will call it “man” or “human” until somewhere in Genesis 2. Then it becomes “Adam” in different verses. The implications are huge for reading the Bible from a gendered perspective.

    2. When does the translator match the explicit Greek pronouns with explicit English pronouns that fail to bring across the gender of the referents? Luke 24:8-12 is an example of how translations variously acknowledge whether characters in a narrative are men or women, and again this has huge implications for reading the Bible that acknowledges male and female difference as it pushes for the plural, equal image of God mentioned first in the Hebrew of Genesis 1:27.

    In Luke 24:11, there’s the Greek

    καὶ ἠπίστουν αὐταῖς

    which best gets translated something like

    “The men disbelieved the women.”

    We don’t have to label this translation “feminist” if that’s a dicey English word for some. But it does get at what Luke’s Greek gets at, which most English translations fail to get at.

  2. jkgayle says:

    Follow up to my earlier comment:


    1. Notice how Everett Fox renders Genesis 1:27:

    So God created humankind in his image,
    in the image of God did he create it,
    male and female did he create them.

    In commentary and elsewhere in translation, Fox also refers to adam as “Everyman” and “human beings,” and “the human.” Fox gets away with the less literal “it” by noting that the Hebrew noun adam “does not specify sex.”

    Robert Alter’s translation of 1:27 is exactly the same as Fox’s except instead of “humankind” there’s “human” and in place of “it” there’s “he.”

    But no good English translator ever uses “Adam” in Genesis 1:27 (instead of “human” or “humankind” or “man”). Not Fox, not Alter, not any translation team, nobody.

    “Adam” does not appear in English translation until the following:

    Genesis 2:19 in KJV, NKJV, the Amplified

    Genesis 2:20b in ESV, NIV, TNIV, NIrV, NASB,

    Genesis 3:17 in Fox

    Genesis 3:20 in CEV, NLT, The Message

    Genesis 4:25 in Alter, long after Eve, Abel, Cain, and Cain’s male descendant’s are all specified by name.

    You can check your other favorite translations to see when they finally decide to give a proper noun reference to “Adam.”



    In my comment above I linked to a blogpost where I showed how KJV, RSV, and Ann Nyland made rather vague or ambiguous the pronouns in English. But I was arguing that the specific if implicit gender of the referents in the Greek was best brought into English as explicitly gendered nouns. You may want to check how your favorite translation translates with either underspecified pronouns or gendered nouns:

  3. Gary Simmons says:

    Wayne, The question of pronominal specificity (or whatever the actual phrase is — I’m untrained!) seems to walk a line between naturalness and accuracy. Personally, my rough translation usually follows pronoun-for-pronoun and noun-for-noun. I give pronouns for verbs with no external subject. Now, as for the second draft of the translation, that’s when I start asking questions of naturalness like this.

    Philippians 1 contains examples of where I feel compelled to give a noun where we find only an article or pronoun in Greek. Here’s 1:27-29.

    μονον αξιως του ευαγγελιου του χριστου πολιτευεσθε ινα ειτε ελθων και ιδων υμας ειτε απων ακουω τα περι υμων οτι στηκετε εν ενι πνευματι μια ψυχη συναθλουντες τη πιστει του ευαγγελιου

    Only conduct yourselves worthily of the Gospel of Christ, so that, regardless of whether I come and see you or I just hear about you in my absence, you would stand in one spirit, striving together with one mind in the faith of the Gospel

    και μη πτυρομενοι εν μηδενι υπο των αντικειμενων ητις εστιν αυτοις ενδειξις απωλειας υμων δε σωτηριας και τουτο απο θεου.

    (and not be shaken by anything set forth by our opponents), for to them the faith of the Gospel is a sign of destruction, but it actually is your salvation — this is from God.

    οτι υμιν εχαρισθη το υπερ χριστου ου μονον το εις αυτον πιστευειν αλλα και το υπερ αυτου πασχειν

    For you are given this task on behalf of Christ: not only are you to believe in him, but also to suffer on his behalf.

    [Although I’m not enslaved to parts of speech, I think the imperatival infinitive works for English here. Thoughts?]

    So here we have three consecutive verses where nouns must be supplied for English. The substantizing use of the article is practically always a candidate for rephrasing.

    Kurk, for some reason I am reminded of John Hobbins’ blog post on “Blessed art thou among women.”

    If memory serves, Kurk, the LXX is likewise inconsistent in its translation of Adam. And of course, that definitely is a sticky issue.

  4. Formiko says:

    I don’t believe there’s a complete Cherokee OT (if there is one, please let me know!) but the Cherokee word for Adam is
    ᎡᏓᎺ pronounced edame, which is just a transliteration. Mankind is ᏴᏫ, which is pronounced yuwi, bearing no relation. So if one were to make a Cherokee xation of Genesis, should Adam be renamed to Yvwi?

  5. Joel H. says:


    I think this is a great question.

    By way of background: I’ve struggled with this issue when translating Rabbinic texts. When two people are arguing, the usual style there is “He said… And he said… And he said… And he said…” The reader has to keep track of which “he” said what. It’s very common in the (early first Millennium) Mishnah, and very odd in English.

    I see a clue to an more general answer when you group “pronouns” and “pronominal prefixes or suffixes” together. These are not the same — as you recognize — and pronouns in both Greek and Hebrew are different than mere affixes.

    In English we usually have only two possibilities: a noun or a pronoun. In Hebrew and Greek there are three: a noun, a pronoun, or nothing. (Frequently the “nothing” will correlate with something on the verb.)

    So it seems like the more general question is how we map the three categories into English’s two.

    And as usual, I think the wrong way to do it is merely to mimic the original.

    Rather, the right question is “what role does the noun/pronoun/lack of pronoun play in Hebrew/Greek, and how do we do the same thing in English?”


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