Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Gender and translation: an introduction

I shall simply present a few examples to show how grammatical gender works in Greek.
    οὐδὲ καίουσιν λύχνον καὶ τιθέασιν αὐτὸν ὑπὸ τὸν μόδιον Matt. 5:15
    Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket
In this case, the lamp λύχνον has a masculine gender and so does the pronoun αὐτὸν which refers to it. However, there is no reason to translate the pronoun as "him." The lamp is inanimate - it is not a person but an "it."

In French this passage is as follows,
    on n'allume pas une lampe pour la mettre sous le boisseau,
    you don't light a lamp to put it under a bushel
However, in French the word for "it" is feminine because la lampe is feminine. In German the lamp is neuter,
    Man zündet auch nicht ein Licht an und setzt es unter einen Scheffel,
In spite of the fact that the pronoun referring to lamp is masculine in Greek, feminine in French and neuter in German, we have to translate this pronoun as "it" in English because the lamp is not a person, it's an "it."

The truth of the scripture is not in any way changed because the grammatical gender of the word for lamp is different in each language.

Even within the Greek language, sometimes there are two words for the same thing, and one word is masculine and the other feminine. But they may refer to exactly the same thing.
    καὶ εἰσῆλθεν εἰς τὸν οἶκον Ζαχαρίου καὶ ἠσπάσατο τὴν Ἐλισάβετ. Luke 1:40
    and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth

    καὶ εἰς ἣν ἂν οἰκίαν εἰσέλθητε, ἐκεῖ μένετε καὶ ἐκεῖθεν ἐξέρχεσθε. Luke 9:4
    And whatever house you enter, stay there, and from there depart.
The word for house is masculine in the first verse and feminine in the second, but I don't think there is any reason for this beyond the fact that words with a certain ending tended to be masculine, feminine or neuter. In this case, there are two words and they are often used interchangeably.

Although the pronoun in John 1:3 is masculine, it is only masculine because the word logos is masculine.
    πάντα δι' αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο
    all things were made by it
There is no particular reason to translate it into English as,
    all things were made by him
This kind of interpretive translation cuts us off from how the early Greek fathers would have read this passage. On the other hand, not knowing that the "it" is masculine in grammatical gender also cuts us off from some of what may have been written about this passage.

The question is whether we can afford to be out of step with translations into other European languages, and out of step with the literal meaning of the text, which clearly says "all things were made by it" (meaning the word.)


Gem said...

I am not an expert, but I did come across a case of grammatical gender which "undid" a translation/interpretation which strikes me as insulting to women.

“These are they which were
not defiled with women; for
they are virgins.” Rev 14:4

The word VIRGINS there is
parthenos: according to this interlinear- http://scripture4all.org/OnlineInterlinear/NTpdf/rev14.pdf:
n_ Nom Pl f

My understanding is that one can tell that the gender of this group of virgins is female because of the female ending of the greek noun. So how do the translators justify translating the feminine plural there as MALE virgins?

However, Eric told me here:
QUOTE: Actually, Charis, the word “virgins” (parthenoi) in Revelation 14:4 is masculine, plural, nominative, not feminine; your interlinear is in error about this. ENDQUOTE

...so I am not sure now, but since you are researching grammatical gender, I know you will understand the question in my mind about this passage, and I wondered if you had some resources which would help determine the actual grammatical gender is in the original Greek of Rev 14:4?

Suzanne McCarthy said...


I will post some resources. Try the Greek NT that I link to. Click on the word parthenos in Rev. 14 and see if you get a better result from that.