Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Preface to the NRSV

Here is the complete preface to the NRSV, and I have cited the part referring to gender here. I have added paragraph formatting for this blog.
    During the almost half a century since the publication of the RSV, many in the churches have become sensitive to the danger of linguistic sexism arising from the inherent bias of the English language towards the masculine gender, a bias that in the case of the Bible has often restricted or obscured the meaning of the original text.

    The mandates from the Division specified that, in references to men and women, masculine-oriented language should be eliminated as far as this can be done without altering passages that reflect the historical situation of ancient patriarchal culture. As can be appreciated, more than once the Committee found that the several mandates stood in tension and even in conflict. The various concerns had to be balanced case by case in order to provide a faithful and acceptable rendering without using contrived English.

    Only very occasionally has the pronoun "he" or "him" been retained in passages where the reference may have been to a woman as well as to a man; for example, in several legal texts in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. In such instances of formal, legal language, the options of either putting the passage in the plural or of introducing additional nouns to avoid masculine pronouns in English seemed to the Committee to obscure the historic structure and literary character of the original.

    In the vast majority of cases, however, inclusiveness has been attained by simple rephrasing or by introducing plural forms when this does not distort the meaning of the passage. Of course, in narrative and in parable no attempt was made to generalize the sex of individual persons.
The key phrase here is that if we know that the Greek or Hebrew word refers to both men and women, then the English should use an inclusive term in order to indicate this. Fair enough, one might think.


Bob MacDonald said...

I generally agree - I had trouble though with psalm 1 which really illustrates the singular plural problem. Eventually I did not try and eliminate the bias since the language and metaphor of king in the psalter is so prevalent. I could not eliminate gender bias as a first priority. I always felt that literary structure and the relationship of individual anointed to God had to take precedence in translation. Man is such a trouble maker!

Anonymous said...

The key phrase here is that if we know that the Greek or Hebrew word refers to both men and women, then the English should use an inclusive term in order to indicate this. Fair enough, one might think.

As a translation principle, it's hard to believe that anyone would disagree, because the alternative is specifically to distort the text to make it more narrow in meaning.

Yet I know that there is contention regarding this.


Suzanne McCarthy said...

Hi Bob,

I do know that there is no easy answer, but ultimately we need to know if a woman is an individual in the Bible or not. :-)


I have written a post today that I hope you will respond to. Thanks so much.

Bob MacDonald said...

Thanks Sue - I wrote very briefly today on Psalm 21 as the answer to Psalm 20 - I think we should all identify with the king, male and female - but I leave in the translation as king rather than ruler or monarch. They were men after all. If I was to write my own poems based on the psalms, I might play with the metaphors more - but to be faithful to the poet in my translation, I must use the poet's thought even if I think it is transcended in the work I know that God has done. The transcendence must be there for others to find - it does not belong to me alone - (nor does it belong to 'Christians' alone).

Suzanne McCarthy said...

And the NRSV has "king" in this passage. No one is saying that all terms should be made gender neutral. Rather, the point of the preface is that if the word refers in the text to a mixed group, then the English should indicate this.

The difficulty is where the original uses a term which clearly refers to both male and female, and the translation uses an English word that is male onle.