When Avoiding Inclusive Language Becomes Mistranslation

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I've firmly occupied the middle ground in the so-called inclusive language translation debates. Both sides have a point, and good translation needs to take both factors into account. There are things I like about how several recent translations do things, but no translation philosophy has gotten it quite right. I'm firmly convinced that the English language is changing, and there's no going back. In certain quarters it's changed enough that certain English speakers simply can't hear the so-called non-inclusive language as meaning what it once meant (when such language was actually inclusive: hence my use of "so-called" before speaking of the new style as "inclusive"). But I also think the complaints of sexism in the mere use of grammatically-masculine pronouns for gender-indeterminate or gender-unknown referents are exaggerated and overblown.

My main concern is not with the intrinsic worth of either way of translating. There's probably a place for both, with each serving a populace more comfortable with that translation method. But this should be non-absolute. A translation must have a tendency that it can go against, because there are cases where the method you predominantly use can obscure what the text says if you do it in a way that the other audience picking up the translation might hear wrongly, and I don't mean in interpreting "sons" to be only male or "he" to be only male. I mean in just hearing the text to say something it doesn't say in other ways.

The ESV of II Kings 23:10 reads:

And he defiled Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, that no one might burn his son or his daughter as an offering to Molech.

To someone used to the use of "his" as a gender-inclusive pronoun, this is no problem. Josiah is the referent of the first "he". Josiah defiles Topheth so that no one might burn their own son or daughter. The way I just put it is the more contmporary way of saying it, and it precludes thinking that Josiah is worried about people burning Josiah's own son or daughter. But the way the ESV translates it, someone used to the more contemporary, so-called inclusive translations is going to think Josiah is scared to death of people going after his son or daughter, and so he defiles Topheth to prevent it. When I hear the ESV translation, it's the first thing I think, and I know better. Someone unfamiliar with the storyline is going to be pretty confused.

So I conclude that the ESV, in its consistent refusal to hear how contemporary English-speakers of my generation will hear a text like this, is actually translating in a way that conveys the wrong meaning. This is thus a mistranslation for a certain segment of the population (a growing segment). There are examples that go the other way, where the insistence on the so-called inclusive language obscures some important aspect of the meaning of a text. But this particular example is the kind of thing that gets ignored in Bible translation, and I thought it was worth drawing attention to it.


The potential confusion in reading this passage does not lie in the difference between using 'his' or 'their'. I do admit that language is changing, but I'm far more comfortable using a singular pronoun for a singular subject. Even at that, understanding 'his' as a common gender pronoun in certain contexts doesn't stop me from doing a double take at this verse and thinking that Josiah is concerned about Josiah's children. So the problem isn't confined to people who prefer a singular 'their'. It doesn't take long to correct the mistake- all I need to do is pay attention to the placement of the antecedents. 'Josiah' has been replaced by 'no one' just before the 'his'. Furthermore, saying 'their son or daughter' wouldn't necessarily solve the problem. If I didn't already know the story and saw 'their', my first reaction would be to search backward through the text for the closest plural antecedent. There's Josiah, the person burning the children, and the people who's children are being burned.

There is a simpler way to clarify the situation: one which you, perhaps inadvertently, have already used. This is the inclusion of the word 'own'. Whether 'his own' or 'their own', the children clearly belong to whoever is burning them. I would see 'their own' and understand it in a singular sense before looking for a plural antecedent. And those who do favor a singular 'they' would see 'his own' and understand that it did not refer to Josiah's children.

In any event, I don't see this as a mistranslation. English does not now have, nor will it soon have enough pronoun diversity to clarify the referent the first time every time. While I do appreciate the desire to translate according to how people actually use the language, there are minimum standards of literacy below which a language loses the capacity to express everything it needs to.

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