Ideology and Translation
The Blog of Nathan D. Smith

InĀ my disagreement about gender-inclusive language with Dr. Craig Carter, I have found one sure point of agreement between the two of us: ideology should not govern the translation of the Bible. The problem we have encountered is that we cannot agree on what constitutes ideology in translation. Carter has posted some additional thoughts under the title "Inclusive Language and the Doctrine of the Trinity." Here follows a general response to Carter's argument. My primary purpose in this post is not to argue for gender-inclusive idiom per se (I don't as yet have a fully-formed opinion on the matter), but to come to the defense of translators who employ such language and have consequently been portrayed by Carter as compromised by "egalitarian ideology."

Defining the Issue

First of all, a discussion of gender-inclusive idiom in English (e.g. the use of "they" as a generic singular pronoun) must be rightly divided from other issues. Translators are concerned with communication. The reasons for a change in a language's idiom are not material to the practice of translation, whether or not said changes are wholly or partly the result of an ideological movement to which the translator objects. In the context of Carter's posts, this ideological movement is purportedly feminism. I will accept for the sake of argument that feminism is indeed the engine behind the rise of gender-inclusive pronouns in English (though I think it is a claim wanting evidence), but even then I think that the concerns with feminism are irrelevant.

Another area where careful delineation of the issues is in the doctrine of the Trinity (per Carter's post) or any other theological matter. If there is indeed a movement to remove the use of gendered pronouns ("he") and nouns ("father," "son") from describing God, it is a separate issue from gender-inclusive idiom. The former deals with the proper address and nature of God, while the latter deals with how English-speakers indicate a generic individual. Or: the former is a matter of theology and the latter is a matter of conventions. Carter's initial assertion was that translators who use gender-inclusive pronouns are motivated by ideology. I believe that this charge was based on a confusion between gender-inclusive idiom and other issues relating to gender. In other words, gender-inclusive idiom may be required by the task of translating the Bible into modern English and need not be motivated by ideology at all. Indeed, to demand that gender-inclusive language not be used is itself a form of ideology.

Contemporary Idiom and Intelligibility

One of Carter's chief arguments against updating translations to reflect new gender idiom is that the old translations are still intelligible to most readers. That may or may not be true in every case (though it stands to reason the deprecated forms will become less intelligible as they fall out of use). As an example, Carter provides Matthew 16:24

If anyone wants to follow me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

I am inclined to agree that most modern readers could understand that "he" in this context is generic and can refer to women as well as men. I would go so far as to suggest that the average modern English speaker could even make sense of the Episcopal Church's Rite 1:

It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto thee, O Lord, holy Father, almighty, everlasting God.

But the question is: is mere intelligibility the goal of translation? It seems to me that translations ought to target the contemporary and natural speech of those who will be hearing the result. Sure, we could go back to thees and thous (and by so doing relieve much confusion about singular v. plural in the New Testament), but that would not be the sort of translation which would be most natural for modern readers. If Carter wants to fight ideology through translation, he may have to accept a stilted, dated translation.

Diachronic Study and Style

Carter's must unusual argument comes in defense of Milton, Shakespeare, and the like:

The problem is that, once the concession is made that traditional language is exclusive of women (which is never was), then the integrity and credibility of all the texts of Western civilization are placed in question. Since everything prior to 1970 uses "non-inclusive language," everything is open to suspicion of being "patriarchial" and thus non-binding. This applies to the concept of classic texts in literature, law, philosophy and history, as well as all theological texts up to and including Holy Scripture itself.

Thankfully this is not now nor has it ever been the case. We can track the changes in language through diachronic study. In so doing we can know how to interpret literature based on its context. The use of "he" as a generic pronoun is not a marker of patriarchy but of an older idiom for a generic person. Carter himself admitted that modern readers could tell the difference (see above). I find it particularly ironic that he mentions Holy Scripture as a potential victim of this misunderstanding, seeing as this could be easily remedied by updating translations to use the new gender-inclusive idiom! Changes in English today are not going to destroy our appreciation of ancient English literature. It is doing just fine, thanks to diachronic study. Indeed, it has survived many changes in idiom.

We can safely update our translations to use contemporary idiom without undermining our own literary foundations. I should also note a criticism of Carter's that the new idioms do not sound good. Style is of course in the ear and on the tongue of the beholder. We all must from time to time accept that changes in language will make our favorite stylistic flourishes passe while newer, distasteful elements will achieve hegemony. That is, contemporary English style may change without our approval or consent.


Carter's treatment of the topic of gender-inclusivity utilizes arguments from many fronts: sociology, theology, literacy, literary history, and style. However, none of his arguments against the use of gender-inclusive language in Bible translations stand on their own merits. Moreover, Carter's war on inclusive language appears to be motivated by the desire to oppose liberalism and not the desire to produce accurate, modern Bible translations. Bible translators who use gender-inclusive language out of a desire to produce good translations should not be called ideologues for failing to comply with Carter's own ideology.

Date: 2009-08-17 09:30