Issues of Translation: Pronouns, Gender and the Bible

"Issues of Translation" was originally a series of articles I wrote for The Crown, the newsletter for All Saints, Sacramento published between May 2010 and March 2011. It was spured originally by an article about the King James bible which lead several members of the congregation to ask why there are so many different translations, and what makes one better then another. Rather then try to answer that question directly, I undertook to write a few articles showing why it is not obvious how to translate scripture.

Rather then allow these articles to languish on my hard drive, I have decided to repost them here. I plan to put one out each Friday. In the articles I occasionally refer to traditions common to The Episcopal Church or our parish. You should know then that for most scripture readings we use the New Revised Standard Version of the bible. Some of our liturgical sources (i.e. Rite I) still use language from the Authorized Version (now known as the King James Version or KJV). Choral Evensong services also have reading from the KJV. "Our hymnal" referers to The Hymnal 1982 of The Episcopal Church, and "our prayer book" refers to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

Beginning in the mid 1960’s a new issue arose for biblical translation. Society became fare more aware of gender in language and with it both the overt and subtle forms of discrimination that gendered language embodied. Over the next decade the English language was pulled, sometimes gently, but often with much discord, towards a more gender neutral form. Words like “fireman” became “fire fighter;” “mailman” became “mail carrier” and “policeman” became “police officer.”

This change was particularly hard on biblical translations. With the change in gender marked language, words changed meaning in such a way that older translations now sounded out of touch or rude to modern ears. To people younger then a certain age the masculine no longer includes the feminine. Words like “he” “brothers” or “men” have a strictly male import.

Translators face two problems: translating from strongly gender marked source languages into a gender neutral contemporary English, and overcoming English’s own gender marked pronouns.

Indeed, there is some linguistic research that implies that it really never did. Look at the following example, “When a typical American comes home from work, he wants to be comfortable. He removes his coat, takes off his panty-hose, and puts on slippers.” If you found the second example jarring, you are not alone. While this sentence is grammatically correct for English circa 1950, the American Heritage Dictionary observes, “Thus he is not really a gender-neutral pronoun, rather, it refers to a male who is to be taken as the representative member of the group referred to by its antecedent.”[1]

Translators face two problems: translating from strongly gender marked source languages into a gender neutral contemporary English, and overcoming English’s gender marked pronouns.

There are a number of translations, where gender is simply translated directly including the venerable Authorized Version (King James, KJV), and New International Version (NIV). When reading these versions, one must realize that when one sees a word like “brothers” that it almost certainly a generic term which includes women as well.

Other popular translations like the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) and New Living Translation (NLT) will change to a more accurate, but less direct “brothers and sisters” or change from “fathers” to “ancestors.” Some would claim that this is altering the text, but I and many other scholars claim that when, for example, Isaiah refers to “The God who brought your fathers/ancestors out of bondage in Egypt.” that the word ancestors is more accurate. The difficulty comes when it is not clear whether the word in question is a generic or intentionally refers to just one gender. This can become a theological issue, and good translation strives to be as theologically neutral as possible.

The other issue is the well-known case of third-person singular pronouns. We are stuck with “he” or “she.” Translators, like the rest of us, must work with or around this part of our language. There are a couple strategies that readers might see in their translations. One is to change a generic to the second person – changing “he” to “you.” Another is to move from singular to plural. Even Paul does this when he quotes Isa 52:7 “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings” as “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good tidings” (Romans 10:15a KJV). A favorite technique of the NRSV is to replace the pronoun with its antecedent. The NRSV translates Isa 52:7 as “…the feet of the messenger who announces peace.”[2]

As a conclusion, I want to again point out that none of these translations are trying to change the meaning of the bible. Instead each is trying to present that meaning accurately using the sometimes limited tools of the English language, which as I pointed out is a moving target. In addition, there is a strong desire not to have a translation that is on the one hand awkward or on the other rude. There is also the weight of history and the competing voice of theology; all of these factors must be balanced by each translation. There is no “best” translation, only different balances which suit the desires of various readers.

1. Poythress, Vern S. “Gender and Generic Pronouns in English Bible Translation” as republished at

2. Examples in this article are taken from Strauss, Mark L and David Wegener, “The Inclusive Language Debate” as republished at