In Part 1, I raised a question: what is the worst mistranslation in our English Bibles relating to women?
Taking ‘worst’ in the sense of the mistranslation with the least shred of justification, we looked at the common mistranslation of 1 Corinthians 11:10, which takes a head covering to be a “sign” or “symbol” of man’s authority over woman. However, this creative paraphrase had the excuse that translators have struggled to understand Paul’s reasoning in that chapter. So, in the end I awarded the prize to the translation of ‘Junia’ as ‘Junias’ in Romans 16:7. This had zero reliable evidence to support it.
What if we now take ‘worst’ to mean the mistranslation with the most negative description of women?
For this category, I don’t think there is any rival to 2 Timothy 3:6.
2 Timothy 3:6
Paul is writing to Timothy with a pastoral purpose. In chapter 3 he is writing about the impact of certain false teachers. They are probably involved in magic (sorcery). He compares them in 3:8-9 with Jannes and Jambres, the magicians who opposed Moses, and in 3:13 uses the term goēs, which means a magician. They are targeting women. Paul says that the false teachers enter into homes and capture gunaikaria (literally, ‘little women’), who are laden with sins and led away by various lusts, always learning and never being able to come to a knowledge of the truth. Evidently the reason why the gunaikaria are led away and unable to come to know the truth is that they are under the sway of the false teachers.
Greek gunaikaria is the plural of gunaikarion, which is the ordinary word for a woman, with a diminutive ending added. Use of the diminutive often connotes affection, as in Mark 5:23 and 7:25 (‘little daughter’) and Mark 7:27-28 (‘little doggies’/’puppies’). Paul’s use of the diminutive in 2 Timothy 3 points to the women’s youth and immaturity. His pastoral heart goes out to them because their immaturity makes them vulnerable to the predatory false teachers. We can see a similarity here with Jesus’ concern for ‘little ones’, who should be cared for, not caused to stumble (Matthew 18:6 and parallels).
The path to negative mistranslation in English began in the latter part of the sixteenth century. Wycliffe (14th century), Tyndale (1526/1534) and Coverdale (1535) had omitted to translate the diminutive. But the Geneva Bible (1557/1599) added ‘simple’ to ‘women’. The King James Version (1611) then changed ‘simple’ to ‘silly’, probably following the lead of the Rheims New Testament 1582, which had ‘seely women’.
At least 19 English versions have followed the KJV in describing the women as ‘silly’. When the KJV was written, ‘seely’ or ‘silly’ was an ambiguous term. It could mean ‘defenceless’ / ‘deserving of pity’ or, like ‘simple’, it could mean ‘foolish’ / ‘empty-headed’. Only the latter meaning has survived into contemporary English. Subsequent translators may have re-used this word because they attributed to Paul the traditional cultural view that women are inherently defective in their nature. So, instead of these women rightly being ‘immature’ (CEB) or ‘vulnerable’ (5 versions), they are regarded as ‘silly’. Others describe them as ‘idle’ (2 versions), ‘gullible’ (5 versions), ‘weak-minded’ (2 versions) or ‘weak-willed’ (2 versions). But this is not negative enough for some. In the Amplified Bible they are ‘morally weak and spiritually-dwarfed’.
Translations which are so rudely negative about the women do not seem to me to be justified or realistic, given Paul’s emphasis on patient love for others (1 Corinthians 13), the warmth and respectfulness of his relationships with women (see Romans 16), and his evident pastoral purpose in 2 Timothy 3. When Paul points out to Timothy that the women are laden with sins and unable to learn, he is evoking Timothy’s sympathy for their desperate plight, in their captivity to the false teachers. We have here a diminutive indicating youth or immaturity, and plausibly connoting affection, but translators have proceeded as if Paul were contemptuous of the women. This fits well with the caricature of Paul the misogynist, but not with the pastoral context or the likely reality.
I would award the prize for the mistranslation with the most negative description of women to the Amplified Bible’s paraphrase of 2 Timothy 3:6, which portrays them as ‘morally weak and spiritually-dwarfed’.
Difficulties of translation
To retain a proper sense of perspective, let me emphasize that I am not suggesting that Bible translation is easy, nor should anyone think that I am trying to blame translators for not doing better.
First of all, to produce a good translation is inherently difficult. Because of the very nature of languages, and because each language sits within a different culture, exact translation is an impossibility.
Second, it is inevitable that translators are strongly influenced by their predecessors’ word choices. In a Bible translation project there simply isn’t time to spend hours on a single verse, reading around the literature which discusses it and re-investigating afresh every possibility of how it could be translated. If translators did that, no translation would ever get finished and published.
Third, it takes confidence and courage to depart significantly from what others have done before, which readers have become accustomed to. It has rightly been said: ‘every translation of the Bible has been condemned by someone as soon as it rolled off the press. It is preeminently an act of selfless love that the translator engages in this task at all’.
Most translations are very good most of the time, and we all owe a great debt to those who labor in this work.
In Part 3, we will consider another category – what is the worst mistranslation relating to women in the sense of the most misleading?