The Book of Leviticus begins with the God of Israel (יהוה; YHWH) telling Moses to speak to בני ישראל (bene Yisrael). Different English versions translate this simple expression differently. The King James, Jewish Publication Society, American Standard, and Douay-Rheims versions all say, “Speak (un)to the children of Israel.” The New American Standard and Young’s Literal have instead “...the sons of Israel.” New Living and English Standard go with “...the people of Israel,” while the New Jewish Publication Society version has “...the Israelite people.” The New International Version and New English Translation read “...the Israelites.” Each of these translations conveys a different nuance in meaning. Which one is right?
Last week I wrote a post about “gender in the Bible” that sparked a lot of controversy. Responses ranged from (if I may paraphrase) “This is utterly trivial and doesn’t matter in the slightest!” to “This is damnable heresy and everything wrong with the world!” Thankfully, many other commenters did see the value of considering and discussing such issues in a reasonable manner.
The case of בני ישראל (bene Yisrael) is another example of how complicated even the simplest translation choices can be, especially when gender is involved. Something is always lost and/or gained in translation. It’s never possible to reproduce the original with 100% accuracy. This particular phrase (bene Yisrael) appears hundreds of times in the Hebrew Bible – and whether the translator says “sons” or “children” or “people” will make a big difference for how readers understand the text. One practical effect is that many women and girls understandably feel excluded if the Bible speaks only about “sons” and “men.” And some men have actually come up with extremely misogynistic interpretations on this basis, as well.
So which translation is “correct”? The fact is that all of them are partly correct and partly incorrect! That is the best that can be done when “carrying over” meanings from one language to another. The basic Hebrew word בן (ben) is masculine and means “son” when contrasted with the feminine בת (bat), “daughter.” However, due to the principle of “male representation” or “female markedness,” the same word that means “son” can also include daughters. Moreover, it can combine with other words to produce a very wide range of meanings. That is why “the people of Israel” is also a reasonable interpretation of בני ישראל (bene Yisrael).
These types of issues affect all languages, not only Hebrew and English. The Russian writer Ivan Turgenev wrote a famous novel called Отцы и дети (Ottsy i deti), which literally means Fathers and Children but is usually translated as Fathers and Sons. The moral of the story is to always read a translation “with a grain of salt” and try to find out as much as possible about the original. And, for instance, if the prophet Hosea (1:10/2:1) speaks about בני אל חי (bene el chay), know that the translations “children of the living God,” “sons of the living God,” and “people of a living God” are all expressing different aspects of the Hebrew text.