Dec 31, 2007

On the Use of “Man” in Biblical Translation

Online Edition – Vol. III, No. 1: March 1997

On the Use of “Man” in Biblical Translation

Those charged with the translation of biblical and liturgical texts into English are often urged to use words like “humanity”, “people” or “persons” in preference to “man” when translating Greek anthropos and Hebrew adam. Those in favor of the newer terms point out that “humanity” etc. are synonyms of generic “man”. In some passages ­ not all ­ this is correct. So why is “man” preferable to “humanity” in rendering anthropos even in the passages where they are synonymous?

The preference becomes clear in considering “man” as a productive morpheme (or basic building unit of language), in contrast to non-productive morphemes.

These terms are somewhat forbidding but the concepts they express are straightforward. Suppose we invent on the spur of the moment a completely new English verb to convey, say, the crashing of a computer’s hard-drive. Let’s imagine our verb is “to klink”. If I ask any English speaker to give me the past tense of this verb, the response will invariably be “klinked”, e.g., “Yesterday my Macintosh klinked.”

We can confidently predict the past tense of “klink” because the morpheme -ed/-d is currently the only productive past tense forming morpheme in English. This wasn’t always the case. We still have vowel-changing verbs like “drink” past tense “drank” and “sink” past tense “sunk”, but this vowel-changing morpheme is no longer productive in English. It is part of the learned, or static grammar of the English speaker, but not of the internalized dynamic grammar.

The same is true of the vowel-changing plural morpheme by which “mice” is the plural of “mouse”. It too is a non-productive morpheme, and no longer actively operates in the creative grammar of English speakers. Thus, even a (relatively) recent addition like the slang word “souse” has the plural “souses”, not “sice”.

English “man” remains a pre-eminently productive morpheme. This is obvious from the fact that speakers are continually using it spontaneously and un-reflectively in the creation of new compounds, not only in such terms as “manpower”, “hit-man”, “bag-man”, “airman”, and “manned flight”; but even in words we have seen emerge in our own adult lifetime, such as “point man” or “pacman”.

A few moments’ consideration will show that “humanity”, “people” or “person” are not productive in this way. Of course, an agency or a pedant might coin a compound using these morphemes, but it doesn’t arise from the natural, spontaneous grammar that English speakers have internalized; you’d need to be instructed to say “pointperson”.

Now Greek anthropos was also a supremely productive morpheme, naturally used in the formation of words like “philanthropos“, “anthropomorphos“, etc. Like “man” and unlike “humanity” and “person”, it served as an elementary “building-block” of the language. Hebrew does not form compounds, but mutatis mutandis the same productive status was enjoyed by adam and ish.

How is this relevant to the question of biblical translation? Every language expresses certain fundamental contrasts or oppositions that belong to its universal vocabulary, and consequently only universal, elemental, productive words will serve; thus: man and God, man and beast, man and nature, and so forth.

Suppose, in responding to certain pressures which come from outside the language, we render these oppositions by substituting “humanity” or “human persons” for “man”. It might be argued in a given case the substitution almost overlaps “man” in the sense of being synonymous with “man”. But are we really translating what the original speaker said? Only in a very limited sense.

This might be clearer if we imagined a translation of the Greek theos kai anthropos by “divinity and humanity”. Even if we ignore the fact that the new words are nowhere near as universally intelligible as “God and man”, it is still plain that the new wording does not belong to the elementary vocabulary that is the common property of speakers of every age, social class and occupation, but rather it enters the language (as it were) through a narrow door, through legal and philosophical discourse.

There is an important asymmetry to be noticed here. The phrase “divinity and humanity” is restricted in sociolinguistic terms, but “God and man” isn’t. The former belongs to a particular milieu that the sociolinguist can identify, but the latter does not belong to an identifiable milieu it is universal.

Now it is a linguistic fact not merely a subjective matter of aesthetics that if we put the words “What God has joined, let humanity not divide” into the mouth of Jesus, we change the language of the Gospel, even if we don’t change the meaning of the words, even if we don’t put the doctrine at risk. In the revised English, Jesus is speaking like a lawyer. In the original, he speaks … well, like a man.

To repeat, it is not just a matter of how widely the meaning of the new words is known; the point is that in departing from the fundamental lexicon here we are departing from the language we are supposed to communicate by translation.

Note that the claim that English “man” no longer means what anthropos means is false. This is demonstrable from the fact that no rival productive morpheme exists. Some words (like “humanity” or “persons”) can be pressed into service to carry part of the semantic weight of “man” in particular expressions, but none is remotely close to filling its place in the active grammar of the speakers.

Such elemental productive morphemes can and do change over time, but a language can no more “lose” such a building-block without compensation than arithmetic can lose division or multiplication. The scenario in which an English speaker is pictured trying and failing to call to mind the English for terra or unus or homo is strictly speaking nonsensical. This is clear to anyone not blinded by ideological passion.

This is the bottom line: in the short term, it may seem prudent and advantageous to employ words like “humankind” as interim solutions to a vexed pastoral problem. But in the long term such compromises may change the language in which God has revealed himself.

Where the Bible and the liturgy speak to us in the elemental, universal terms of existence, we cannot replace them with legal, philosophical or political contrivances without changing the nature of the documents themselves.

– Helen Hull Hitchcock






The Editors