Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, June 19

Is the ESV Literal and the NIV Gender Neutral?

This blog is purely on translation and not directly on Greek, but I have been thinking about this a lot lately so thought I would share it.

Most people say there are two translation camps, formal equivalent and functional equivalent (or dynamic equivalent). The longer I am in translation work, the more I see how simplistic this division is. There actually are five methods on translation with three sub-categories for the handling of gender language.

Translations are all on a continuum, overlapping one another, and hence it is misleading to picture them as different points on a line. I am guessing, but for example, about eighty percent of the ESV and the NIV are the same, once you account for different translations of individual words.

1. Literal. The most accurate meaning of the word “literal” when it comes to translation work is “word-for-word.” The only “translations” that do this consistently are interlinears. (I quote the word “translations” because interlinears are not properly translations.) The word “literal” should never be used of any other form of translation since all of them, every single one, despite their marketing, rarely translate word-for-word. They will say they translate word-for-word unless it does not make sense or misinforms, but that is a red herring argument. They are never consistently word-for-word, unless you can find a translation that translates John 3:16 as, “in this way for loved the God the world so that the Son the only he gave in order that each the believing into him not perish but have life eternal.” No Bible on the market is “literal.”

2. Formal equivalent. These translation try to reflect the formal structures of the original text, making the translation “transparent” to the original. This means translating indicative verbs as indicative, participles as participles, idioms with similar English idioms (if possible), and trying to use the same English word for the same Greek word if possible. Not to repeat myself, but please note that this is not “literal” the way most people use the word (and the way marketers present their translations). In every single verse there will be a significant diversity between the Greek and the English. All translations are interpretive; anyone who says otherwise is selling something (to quote the man in black). The ESV and NASB fall into this camp.

3. Functional (or dynamic) Equivalence. These translations argue that the purpose of translation is to convey the meaning of the original text into the target language. It may mean that a participle is translated as an indicative verb, or a few Greek words are passed over (such as conjunctions) to produce proper English style. This introduces an additional amount of interpretation and produces a more fluid, understandable translation. The NIV, CSB, and KJV fit into this camp.

4. Natural Language. This is an extension of functional equivalence, but it sees no value in any of the formal structures and tries to repeat the same message in the full idiom of the target language. Eugene Nida says that the purpose of a translation is to transport “the message of the original text … into the receptor language [such] that the response of the receptor is essentially like that of the original receptors.” The problem is that this camp will often introduce ideas simply not in the text in order to achieve natural English style and readability such that you don’t know if you are reading the Bible or the translators comments. This is the NLT.

5. Paraphrase. This term is used variously, but I use it, along with “thought-for-thought,” to categorize translations that are very loose with the Greek in putting the meaning into English idiom. These are not Bibles, but running commentaries, including the Living Bible, the Message, and J.B. Phillip’s wonderful The New Testament in Modern English. (My mom became a Christian reading this work.)

Formal and Functional translations also have to deal with the gender issue in an ever-changing English language. For millions of people, “man” and “he” are still generic, referring to men and women as a whole. For millions of other people, “man” and “he” only refer to males. We are in the middle of a sea change in language, and “they” is becoming the third person pronoun that can refer to women or men. Many people decry this, but grammar is descriptive, not prescriptive, and this is what is happening to English. A person may not like it, but that doesn’t matter. “They” was not marked for gender in Elizabethan English (check out Shakespeare), and it is coming back in vogue.

Like the five translation camps above, there is frequent misunderstanding about the meaning of these three gender terms. Let’s try to use them accurately.

1. Gender Neutral. This kind of translation would eradicate any and all references to gender. God would be a parent, and a child would not have a mother or father. I am not aware of any translation that does this, but the term “gender neutral” is so used (and misused) that I needed a category for it.

2. Gender Inclusive. This method would make everything inclusive, whether the original makes gender specific statements or not. So biblical statements about women would be translated as if it were true of both men and women. I am also not aware of any translation that does this.

3. Gender Accurate. These are translations that make references to men using male language, women with female language, but they differ on how to refer to a mixed (e.g., a crowd) or indefinite object (e.g., “someone”). The ESV and CBS will refer back to an antecedent such as “anyone” with the anaphoric “he.” The NIV uses “they.” The NRSV has other ways (much like the now defunct TNIV) such as using plurals or second person.

There also is the issue of an historical male referent who stands as an example for men and women, boys and girls. In Proverbs, does the father teach the son (who represents all the siblings), or do the parents teach the children?

The point of this blog is to encourage all of us to use exact language. The ESV is not “literal.” (Note that the ESV does not claim to be "literal" but rather "essentially literal"). The NIV is not “gender neutral.” (The NIV claims to be gender accurate.) But people commenting on these translations are often not as nuanced.


We need to distinguish between "singular they" and "epicine they". The former is a standard part of English back to before Chaucer, and only fell out of favor because the older grammarians didn't like using a plural verb with a singular antecedent. It's gender neutral because it's a plural. There may be languages with a set of gender-specific plurals, but the thought boggles the mind. Epicine they is the use of they as a singular personal pronoun. That's a modern innovation. My preference is to simply invent an epicine pronoun to take its place with the existing three 3rd person singular pronouns. I would love to see a Bible that does this, but I'm not holding my breath.

So appreciate this'

Just wanted to comment that, given the theme of the post, it's ironic that you claim to "quote" the Man in Black instead of paraphrasing him. =)

So how do we know we are reading an accurate account of what was intended then? Or does that depend upon my interpretation of my understanding of language. Sorry for the novice comment and question.

Best thing to do is read several translations. If you use the NIV and NLT, you can be pretty confidant you are reading what the Greek means.

I saw you noted the KJV as a more functional equivalency. I've always been taught/read that it was more formal. I realize not translation is ENTIRELY one way or the other, but I'm wondering if that was a typo or if you could shed more light on your perspective of the KJV translation.

I am still thinking about this. It is generally viewed as formal, but there is a lot of functional interpretation in it. If it is formal, then it is right on the edge with functional.

Appreciated the clear explanation without getting too erudite. However, you did nicely skip past the issue of denominational bias as it affects interpretation of translation accuracy. Regrettably, people have generally not been honest in this regard from the pulpit or otherwise.

I didnt skip it. Other than Catholic vs Protestant in a few places, I am unaware of any denominational biases. Certainly evangelical vs. mainline. Do you have an specifics?

My understanding is that most of the major publishing houses employ a committee method that is pretty inclusive of scholars from varying denominations. This is usually done in order to avoid doctrinal bias that could be introduced by a specific denomination. I can't speak to the Catholic translations other than to say that these are often not as much influenced by doctrinal bias as they are by the historical Latin Vulgate translation. I could be mistaken on that though.

Thanks! Love you posts! You wrote: ... unless you can find a translation that translates John 3:16 as, “in this way for loved the God the world so that the Son the only he gave in order that each the believing into him not perish but have life eternal.” No Bible on the market is “literal.” Young's Literal Translation (YNG) does come closer than others, though: :-) “for God did so love the world, that His Son — the only begotten — He gave, that every one who is believing in him may not perish, but may have life age-during.”