Issues of Gender in Translation


The world of Bible translation is complex. That is because of the number of things one needs to understand about the original languages of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek and the culture and language you want to translate those texts into. In the world of translation translations generally follow the above spectrum ranging between word for word or thought for thought (with the paraphrase taking the thought for thought to the extreme). The danger as you move into the thought for thought realm is that it increases the likelihood that the bias or opinion of the translator(s) will be expressed because they are filtering the original and telling you what it “really” means. The historic nuances can also be lost (though ultimately to see all subtleties one much learn Greek or Hebrew!).

In recent decades, but especially more recently with the rise of LGBTI and gender-inclusive agendas, the issue of gender and translation has been much debated.

I grew up reading the NKJV. To this day I still appreciate how it reads. As a teenager my pastor used the NIV and I was given a NIV study Bible for my grade 12 graduation. For the first number of years as a preacher I used the NIV. Generally speaking it is a good translation, but over time I found it less accurately captured the original (which made it difficult for expository preaching) and didn’t suit the way I read. About 8 years ago I settled on the ESV (we’ll come back to that). I appreciate and use other translation (often reading them to get another take on the possible renderings of the Greek, etc [and filtering out bad gender inclusive moves when necessary]). More thought for thought translations can be great for work with non-Christians, children, and in various forms of evangelism. However, it is my belief that within the Church and especially amongst mature believers and those interested in going deeper into the study of God’s a more literal translation is helpful (and almost necessary unless you have a basic knowledge of the original languages). While certain translations have their merit, they are starter food (or milk), rather than whole food (meat). Thus I have appreciated the translation philosophy of the ESV which is “essentially literal” and “seeks as far as possible to capture the precise wording of the original text…” The ESV preface also highlights what I have already mentioned above, that “a thought for thought translation is of necessity more inclined to reflect the interpretive opinions of the translator and the influences of contemporary culture.”

On this last point—“contemporary culture”— I can further appreciate the position the ESV (and some other translations) take. My personal stance is this, let’s have a Bible translation, that presents what the original authors wrote and then build our beliefs and practices off of that rather than impressing our changing contemporary beliefs and practices back upon the Bible to make it suit our culture (which is what the JW’s and extreme gender inclusivists do). This is especially important with the issue of gender. Now I admit that many past translations were overly traditional in the sense that they were entirely patriarchal, often translated passages that didn’t refer exclusively to men to only refer to men, and thus excluded women. However, I’d encourage us all to not over-react to the far end of the spectrum in the opposite direction but to readjust in a way that stays true to God’s word (cf. Rev. 22:19).

There are many issues at stake in this conversation like our identity, the nature of God (for extreme inclusivists portray God as neuter), gender confusion, complementarianism, marriage, sexual ethics. These are important areas!

“Human” is often put forward as a neuter alternative to mankind. This fails to understand man is inclusive when referring to our species (is not man and male also found in woman and female…hence some lack of consistency too). It also fails to note that “human” actually means “of man” and so gender inclusivists use of human does not escape the historic meaning.

I believe “man” is a perfectly acceptable when referring to the human race. As Wayen Grudem (General Editor of the ESV) writes on pp. 439–40 of Systematic Theology, “…such usage has divine warrant in Genesis 5, and because I think there is a theological issue at stake. In Genesis 5:1–2 we read, “When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God. Male and female He created them, and He blessed them and named them man when they were created.” (cf. Gen 1:27). The Hebrew term translated “Man” is adam, the same term used for the name of Adam, and the same term that is sometimes used of man in distinction from woman (Gen 2:22, 25, 3:12; Eccl 7:28). Therefore the practice of using the same term to refer 1) to male human beings and 2) to the human race generally is a practice that originated with God himself, and we should not find it objectionable or insensitive [bold added].” Specific to the naming of our race Grudem continues, “…God’s naming activity reported in Genesis 5:2 indicates that the use of “man” to refer to the entire race is a good and very appropriate choice, and one that we should not avoid.” [bold added].

But there are other situations that emerge when translating the Bible[1]: passages that use man to refer to a person, 2) gender specific terms (like referring to a city in the feminine), 3) theological terms (Son of Man), and 4) divine terms (God the Father). Aside from the first, I believe the risks of a move to gender inclusive translation undercut any potential benefit. While gender translation needs to be done on a case by case basis, and while my preference is to put forward what is in the original, I respect the use of gender inclusive translation in the first situation but repudiate it in the others. We need to challenge traditionalists to look at the text of the Bible and ensure they are being considerate to women where the text allows, yet on the flip side equally challenge those who object to the text of the Bible and urge them to do some soul searching as to why?

In closing, let’s examine a case study of a famous verse that presents this translation issue at the basic level of situation 1:

John 15:13

Wooden (Interlinear) ***
Traditional Renderings KJV Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
NIV (1973) Great love has no man than this: to lay down his life for his friend.
Middle of the Road ESV Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.
NIV (2011)[2] Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
Gender inclusive versions[3] NLT There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
NRSV No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
TNIV Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends


What I appreciate about the ESV rendering is “tis” which is translated as “no one” is a gender neutral term in the Greek and so the ESV does not following the rendering of the traditionalist translations. However, where the original actually uses “his” it retains its use.

For those who can stomach this approach I wholeheartedly commend the ESV as a robust translation for preaching and study. For those who want to be more culturally relevant, have a less word for word translation, or who want a translation that respectfully leans toward gender inclusive language where appropriate, then I would commend the NIV 2011.

If you know of someone who is struggling with this issue the best approach is to increase understanding, which I believe will remove objections so that we can be transformed by encountering God through the faithful translation of His word.

If you are interested in exploring this topic further I can suggest a number of resources from various perspectives.

The Lord’s Sweetest Blessings,

Pastor Chris

[1] There is also the business of trying to translate Hebrew masculine pronouns into English gender inclusively when English does not have a neuter singular and so one is forced to use the plural they. This can muddy the waters of stories where we need to know how many people are involved! Such are the imitations of language.

[2] The NIV 2011 still regularly uses man and mankind (in the universal sense or where needed for theology) but here (on a case by case basis) employs gender inclusive language when the text can be read either way or when “man” is used but likely refers to both genders. A leading complementarian, D.A. Carson, is on the translation committee for this translation.

[3] That maintain the masculine where it refers to God. There are other more radical versions that make all divine references neutral.