Natural and Grammatical Genders – the role of grammar in translations…

Let me share a few thoughts about the usage of pronouns when translating the Greek text to English. If you only ever learned English you are probably not aware of translational issues. Concerning natural and grammatical genders, please refer to the following article:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammatical_gender

The following quote (http://www.cs.bham.ac.uk/~pxc/nlpa/nlpgloss.html) on “gender” highlights the problem translators often face:

“In some languages (but not English), nouns fall into a small number of classes which require changes in the articles, adjectives, etc. which qualify them. In Indo-European languages, these classes are traditionally called genders and labelled according to whether nouns for males (masculine gender), females (feminine gender) or neither (neuter gender) fall into these classes. French has two genders, masculine and feminine, shown for example by the use of le or la for the; German and Modern Greek have three genders, having neuter as well. Note that grammatical gender is not tied to biological sex, since, for example, the nouns meaning ‘a young girl’ are neuter in both German and Modern Greek. Thus as with number, grammatical gender is not the same as semantic gender.”

So modern English employs no grammatical gender, but old English did. Interestingly, people still refer to cars and countries as “she”.

In Hungarian, for example, there are no different feminine and masculine pronouns for the third person singular (he/she).

Suppose, in our language the noun “cat” is a feminine noun. So I write about my cat that I have just bought over the weekend, and my cat is a he, for he is a male, but I need to refer to my cat as a she because the noun itself is feminine. So I have a cat that is both she and he at the same time, depending on whether I refer to the gender of the term or the sex of the animal.

Now, let me bring you a few examples from the Scriptures. Ignoring the above rules in translations leads to disaster.
A.)

John 15:26 But when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me.

The Greek term for counselor (“parakletos”) is masculine, so it attracts the masculine pronoun, but the term for Spirit (“pneuma”) is neuter. However, we notice that at the end of the verse the masculine pronoun is used – “he will bear witness” (Gk “ekeinos”). This led translators to think that the masculine “he” points to the neuter Spirit, and such mistakes are followed by grave theological errors. However, nothing is further from the truth.

Let me write the above verse again with a bit of emphasis placing the explanatory remarks in brackets:

John 15:26 But when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father (the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father), he will bear witness to me.

Writing the verse this way makes it clear that the “he” points to the masculine term “counselor”, and the only reason the pronoun is masculine is because masculine nouns attract masculine pronouns.

B.)

We have a similar, yet somewhat different example in Jude:

Jude 6 Angels who didn’t keep their first domain, but deserted their own dwelling place, he has kept in everlasting bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day. 7 Even as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities around them, having, in the same way as these, given themselves over to sexual immorality and gone after strange flesh, are set forth as an example, suffering the punishment of eternal fire.

In these verses we the term “angel” is masculine, cities are feminine, thus, we would expect that “these” be also a feminine pronoun, but it is masculine. Therefore, scholars concluded that this pronoun had to refer to the “angels” of v. 6. Making this huge error leads to the utterly wrong conclusion that those angels committed sexual immorality. Never mind what v. 8 says,

Jude 8 Yet in like manner these also in their dreaming defile the flesh, despise authority, and slander celestial beings.

The fact of the matter is that the Greek term “aggelos” simply means “messenger”, and thus, it may also refer to people, while “celestial beings” can only refer to the angels of God.

The better interpretation is that the masculine pronoun, “these”, refers to the people of Sodom (which is masculine), and thus, v. 7 has no connection to v.6. Indeed, when we talk about cities we often mean the populace and not the buildings and the walls (i.e. Balmain won against such and such). In v.7 Jude clearly talks about the population of Sodom, not the physical city itself. How can houses sin?!

C.)

One last example is John 1.

John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 The same was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him. Without him was not anything made that has been made.

Now, the Greek term “logos” is masculine, so we expect the presence of the masculine pronoun, but correctly it should be translated as “it” unless theological ideas are forced into the translation.

Let us look as Tyndale’s translation:

John 1:1 In the beginnynge was the worde and the worde was with God: and the worde was God. 2 The same was in the beginnynge with God. 3 All thinges were made by it and with out it was made nothinge that was made. 4 In it was lyfe and the lyfe was ye lyght of men 5 and the lyght shyneth in the darcknes but the darcknes comprehended it not.

Notice that Tyndale has the correct rendering, for the term “word” in English is neuter. There is an old Italian translation that translates it with a “she”, for the Italian term for “word” is feminine. Translating the Greek masculine pronoun with “he” is a grave error, it is not translation, but theological interpretation.

Similarly, within Judaism, the Shekinah (the visible cloud of the Presence) is a feminine word, thought to be YHWH’s feminine aspect, therefore, they often called the Spirit the “mother”. In the Gospel of the Hebrews (the Aramaic version of Matthew) – quoted by Origen – Jesus says,

“Even now did my mother the Holy Spirit take me by one of mine hairs, and carried me away unto the great mountain Thabor”

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  1. […] So what is so difficult in interpreting biblical passages? One must first of all understand Jewish mindset to understand the Jewish book. The knowledge of history, culture and language is also required, just as being aware of the difference between natural and grammatical genders. So it is a very difficult task. The knowledge of the method of four levels of ancient Jewish interpretation, PaRDeS, is also a must, for it is extensively used in the NT. But beyond these one gets nowhere unless he gets the concept right. Always interpret symbolic passages in the light of literal truth, not the other way around. […]

    Deriving Literal Truth from Symbolic Passages - does truth matter? » ZWorld - The World to Come

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