43. How Ideology affects Translation: “Gender-neutral” vs “Inclusive” Language

I admit it: I am doing Bible translation1 because I want to see the Sindhi culture change.  I want to see people affected by the word of God so that they put Christ at the center of their lives.  As people use God’s word as their guide to life they will make an impact upon those around them.  I confess: I am involved in translation as an intentional change agent.  But (and this is a big “BUT”) I want the impact of the word to be as a result of the clear, accurate and relevant communication of God’s message, not because a particular translation ideology has distorted God’s message.

“Gender-neutral” (bad) or “Inclusive” (good)?

A current controversy in Bible versions illustrates well the way ideologies shape translation.  The past century has witnessed a global movement towards equal rights and opportunities for women.  In the west male dominated terminology (e.g., chairman) is being replaced by gender neutral, or inclusive, terms (e.g., chair). This trend in both oral and written English has also affected Bible translations: the TNIV and the NRSV are two popular versions that use “inclusive” language when referring to gender2 in order to reflect the inclusive intent of the original.  For example, in Psalm 1:1 the KJV has “Blessed is the man…,” whereas the TNIV has, “Blessed are those….” Opponents to these “inclusive” translations3 prefer the term “gender-neutral” claiming that the inherent patriarchal emphasis of the original text is being illegitimately concealed.  They believe that such translations reflect current politically correct biases rather than honestly representing the intention of original.

The difficulty is that all translation and interpretation is affected by ideology. We cannot ask if ideology should affect translation, rather the question is “Which ideology should influence translation?” Similarly, we cannot ask if the translator will be involved in shaping the culture, rather we must ask in which direction will the translator shape the culture.  Inclusive language translations conform to current trends and in so doing affirm the current, politically correct, egalitarian perspective.  On the other hand, translations that reflect the patriarchal emphasis of the original language and culture also affect culture by opposing that egalitarian perspective.  The translator is caught in a dilemma: they cannot help but choose and all positions reflect an ideology.

Navigating the Ideologies

A general rule of thumb for “meaning based” or “functionally equivalent” translations, e.g., the TEV and CEV 4, is that the form of the original text is sacrificed for the sake of meaning.  For example, the structure of Hebrew poetry in terms of parallelism, alliteration, etc., is often sacrificed in the receptor language for the sake of clarity of meaning. Our Sindhi translation reflects this philosophy since it utilizes a prose style to communicate the meaning of poetic passages.5

In the case of “meaning-based” translations, therefore, the question is “Are the patriarchal aspects of the original language part of the message God is communicating (that is, God is teaching us to be patriarchal), or are these aspects merely part of the language and context through which he gave his message (that is, patriarchy is a form of the original that can be changed to provide the same message in a new context)?”  In other words, is the patriarchal aspect of the original language and culture an affirmation of God’s creation intention for gender relations, or is God accommodating to a particular societal structure?  In other words, are the patriarchal elements inherent in the original language prescriptive or incidental? If the former is the case, then we are also required to exhibit patriarchal expressions and practices in our church, home and society and this needs to be communicated in translation.  However, if the latter is the case, then the message can be rephrased using non-patriarchal conventions without losing the essential message.

Kevin Vanhoozer argues that patriarchalism as prescriptive is improper interpretation:

The question is not whether Genesis is taken to be sexist but whether its author intends to promote sexism. The meaning of a communicative act depends not on its outcome (e.g., how it is received by readers) but on the direction and [purpose] of the author’s action.  Meaning, in other words, refers to … its intended result – not to its unforeseen consequences. To display a world where men rule, as the patriarchal narratives do, is not necessarily to commend it.  The difference between description and prescription is crucial….  In any case the main point of the patriarchal narrative is not to provide a blueprint for social order but to chart the history of God’s covenant dealings with Israel.  That the patriarchal narratives would be read as, and criticized for, promoting patriarchy is an unforeseen and unintended consequence of the text, and thus not part of is meaning (i.e., not part of what their authors were doing).6

What to do with the “brothers”?

An example of how ideological presuppositions affect translation can be seen in the epistle to the church in Rome. Paul addresses his readers as adelphos, translated in the KJV as “brethren,” yet his greetings in chapter 16 make it clear that part of his intended audience is women.  For a “meaning based” translation the question must be asked, “Is Paul deliberately using a masculine, patriarchal construct to provide a message of gender segregation (i.e., this is part of the meaning)? Or is he merely utilizing the common patriarchal idiom of his time without intending to reinforce cultural gender roles (i.e., this is part of the form)?” If the answer is the former, then the translator must reflect that gender distinction in the receptor language.  However, if the intent is to be inclusive of women without making an overt statement of gender distinction, then the translator of the meaning based translation is obligated to utilize the appropriate idiom in the receptor language.

In the case of our Sindhi translation, even though it is a patriarchal culture, a translation of “brothers” implies a male only audience.  Assuming that the patriarchal aspect of this idiom in the Greek is incidental to the meaning, we provided a meaning equivalent inclusive idiom in the receptor language.  In this case we chose “brothers and sisters.”

As is the case with all translation decisions, there is a loss of content.  In the Sindhi translation the patriarchal flavor of the original context and idiom has been lost.  However, assuming that this was incidental to Paul’s meaning, based on the assumption that Paul is not advocating patriarchalism through his use of the word adelphos, this is both legitimate (because the meaning has been communicated) and necessary (because appropriate receptor language has been used).  On the other hand, patriarchal language is both legitimate and necessary for a literal or formal Bible translation which seeks to reflect, as far as is possible, the form of the original text.

Implications for translators who are shaping other cultures

Basically translators are required to make a choice from the following:

  1. Insist on patriarchal language as part of the transcultural message of the Bible. This would result in shaping the culture towards a more patriarchal society.
  2. Alter the patriarchal language of the translation according to the accepted practice in the target language.  This would affirm either the patriarchal or egalitarian bias present in the culture.
  3. Alter the patriarchal language to a more egalitarian stance than evident in the receptor group so that the culture is shaped towards that end.

Our Sindhi translation, occurring within a patriarchal society, aims for the second choice as much as possible.  Inclusive language is freely used when both men and women are intended (as with Psalm 1), but it is also natural and idiomatic in Sindhi to use the masculine singular pronoun as inclusive of women, even when the original may be grammatically inclusive.  With our basic presupposition that the patriarchal nature of the original language is incidental to meaning, we are free to utilize the conventions of the Sindhi language.  Nonetheless, we still cannot escape the ideological implications of our choices.


  • (1) Mark is currently involved in the translation of the Bible in the Sindhi language.
  • (2) The question of using gender inclusive language does not extend to using gender inclusive language for God.  We are only referring to those translations that use terminology that explicitly refers to both men and women, rather than assuming that women are included in a masculine idiom.
  • (3) Dr. Wayne Grudem and Dr. James Dobson are two notable examples.  Dr. Grudem approaches the issue from a scholarly, textual point of view.  Dr. James Dobson’s arguments are closely tied to a particular sociological understanding of the nuclear family.
  • (4) This translation philosophy can be contrasted with literal or formal translations, such as the NASB and ESV, which seek to reflect the idiom and structure of the original text as closely as possible, often to the detriment of clarity.  See CCI article 42: Clarifying Bible translation for further explanation.
  • (5) This form / meaning dichotomy, while helpful, is a somewhat simplistic as the meaning is often tied closely to the form, and poetry is a good example. Unfortunately the sense and impact of poetry usually do not translate well when the poetic form is retained.  For example, Amos 5:5 has a line with equivalent sound combinations that is impacting in Hebrew.  However, Moffat’s translation which seeks to reflect this – “Gilgal shall have a galling exile,” – sounds strained in English rather than maintaining the intended force of the original. See DeWaard and Smalley, A Translator’s handbook on Amos, (New York: UBS, 1979), p. 102.
  • (6) Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is there a meaning in this text? The Bible, the reader, and the morality of literary knowledge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 255.
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Author: Mark Naylor DTh (missiology)

I have been with Fellowship International since 1984. Karen and I served in Pakistan for 14 years and returned to Canada in 1999. I have continued to be involved in Bible translation traveling twice a year to Pakistan. My current role with Fellowship International and Northwest Baptist Seminary is as Coordinator of International Leadership Development