I’ve been absent for quite a while here. I’m on sabbatical and trying to finish not one, but two, books. Since I last posted I’ve been to India on a spur of the moment trip.
One of my wife’s work colleagues got married and invited us to the wedding. So we went. I have for years been telling my wife that I wanted to visit India some day. Seeing the Taj Mahal was on my bucket list. So she called my bluff.
Anyway, we also got to visit some longtime friends in Tamil Nadu as well. Mary met them in Ethiopa in the 60’s. They are a family of polyglots. They speak excellent English in addition to their native Tamil. From their years in Ethiopia, they speak Amharic. Their son, who has had a most interesting work history, went back to Africa to work so he speaks Swahili as well as Hindi and all the major Dravidian languages (Kannada, Malayalam, and Telegu). This is an example of something we linguists say over and over. Much of the world is multilingual. People who speak only one language are the exception, not the rule. And Vinod didn’t learn his languages by studying them in school for years. Rather he picked them up mostly in the context of living and working in places where he needed to have them. Needless to say, he thinks about language and translation in a very different way from you and me. To him language is the tool you use to communicate with.
That’s a position I’ve been arguing for in this blog for years.
If you think it’s the words of the original that are important and that wording must be preserved up to the limits of intelligibility, then you have to be willing to distort the meaning because no two languages work the same way — even if they are closely related.
Let’s look at a subtle example where Koine and English match in categorial distinctions but the where the norms of usage are different, and see what the distortion of meaning is.
The words in question are man, woman, and person on the English side and ἀνήρ, γυνή, and ἄνθρωπος on the Koine side. The categories match.
man = [adult male human]
ἀνήρ = [adult male human]
woman = [adult female human]
γυνή = [adult female human]
person = [human being]
ἄνθρωπος = [human being]
The difference I want to focus on is a subtle one.
In English one normally includes the gender of the referent unless there is reason not to. As a result man is about four times as frequent as person in running text, and woman is about three times as frequent.
But in Koine, it’s the other way around. You don’t use the gender based term unless there’s a reason to. So ἄνθρωπος is a little more than twice as common as ἀνήρ, and in one in eight of those cases, ἀνήρ means ‘husband’, not ‘man’. The patterns are similar for woman. Ἄνθρωπος is a more than four times as common as γυνή, and in half of the cases, γυνή means ‘wife’, not ‘woman’.
If you saw a man standing on the corner and you say (1), it is not just a simple report. You imply something more.
(1) I saw a person standing on the corner.
Because (2) is what we normally say, unless there’s a reason to withhold the gender of the referent.
(2) I saw a man standing on the corner.
For that reason alone, translations that try to push the gender neutrality of ἄνθρωπος often sound odd in English. Here are some examples.
καὶ γὰρ ἐγὼ ἄνθρωπός εἰμι ὑπὸ ἐξουσίαν, … (Matt. 8:9a)
The Source: I, too, am a person under authority, …
Stylistically better: I, too, am a man under authority, …
Ἄνθρωπός τις ἦν πλούσιος ὃς εἶχεν οἰκονόμον, καὶ οὗτος διεβλήθη αὐτῷ ὡς διασκορπίζων τὰ ὑπάρχοντα αὐτοῦ. (Luke 16:1)
The Source: There was a certain rich person whose manager was accused of wasting money.
Stylistically better: There was a certain rich man whose manager was accused of wasting money.
Δεῦτε ἴδετε ἄνθρωπον ὃς εἶπέ μοι πάντα ὅσα ἐποίησα· … (John 4:29)
The Source: Come see a person who told me everything I ever did!
Stylistically better: Come see a man who told me everything I ever did!
In these cases ἄνθρωπος is best translated man. That choice isn’t driven by sexism, but by the norms of English usage.
But then that knife cuts two ways.
There are places where translations in the King James line say man (for ἄνθρωπος) where person, someone, or human or some kind of indefinite is a more accurate translation, both referentially and stylistically.
τί γὰρ ὠφελεῖται ἄνθρωπος κερδήσας τὸν κόσμον ὅλον ἑαυτὸν δὲ ἀπολέσας ἢ ζημιωθείς; (Lk 9:25)
ESV:For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?
Stylistically better: What will you gain, if you own the whole world but ruin yourself or waste your life?
Of course, we’ve heard enough sermons now to know what Matt. 15:9 means, but apart from Biblish (or in fixed phrases) we don’t use a nominal construction with man when we mean to highlight humanness.
Human nature does not mean the same as the nature of man.
This is especially when we want to highlight the distinction between human and divine.
To err is of man, to forgive is of God.
8 Ὁ λαὸς οὗτος τοῖς χείλεσίν με τιμᾷ,
ἡ δὲ καρδία αὐτῶν πόρρω ἀπέχει ἀπ’ ἐμοῦ·
9 μάτην δὲ σέβονταί με,
διδάσκοντες διδασκαλίας ἐντάλματα ἀνθρώπων. (Matt. 15:8-9)
ESV: 8 “‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
9 in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
Stylistically better: “‘These people honor me with their words,
but their hearts are far from me;
9 their worship is useless,
they teach human commandments as doctrine.’”
None of our translations even begin to grapple with questions of style beyond the frequently cited argument that Biblish sounds like better English. (A point I roundly dispute.)
But, I fear, that by pointing out the stylistic problems associated with the use of gendered terms, I may have stepped into a mine field.
So let me affirm that I’m saying there are specific passages (and not a few of them) where using man makes for better English than using person or human (being). In asserting that I’m responding to stylistic concerns, not pushing an anti-feminist or complementarian agenda. I’m certainly not a feminist, but I am egalitarian. So if I say there are places where ἄνθρωπος is better glossed man, it’s not because I have a theological ax to grind.
(WARNING: If the comments start to wander off into a debate, theological or otherwise, about men’s and women’s roles, I’ll moderate with a heavy hand.)