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When You Can’t Say “He” or “She” — Mondays with Mounce 261

Categories Mondays with Mounce

Please understand a bit of obscurity, but I am in a country where I cannot be too specific, but I have been having an incredible experience with language and wanted to share it with you.

In Chinese, the word for “he,” “she,” and “it” are all pronounced the same: “TA.” They are written differently but pronounced the same. So you can imagine the challenge of the translator trying to communicate my lectures. At one level, it is easy; TA does not have to distinguish between genders and can be “gender inclusive” without trying. But when I say something that is specifically male or female, the translation always takes longer. It sure would make English Bible translation easier if we had a similar word that was natural to our ears.

I was speaking about my “sister,” and the translator turned and asked if she was older or younger. I replied, “I only have one sister.” TA smiled (isn’t that a great word!) and said that their language does not have a word for “sister,” only words for “younger sister” and “older sister.” Fascinating.

Finally, as many of you know, it is the idioms that can be the most difficult to get across. I was talking about the gate and path in Matt. 7 and I said that we can’t “straddle the fence.” At the end of the talk I asked TA how TA handled the idiom. TA said that the language has an idiom, “a foot in each boat.” Whether you are straddling a fence or each of your feet are in different boats, the image is the same; you have to decide on one side or the other.

So if “straddle the fence” were a biblical idiom, how would we translate it? Would we keep the idiom even though the target language does not have the expression, or would we switch to a common idiom that has the same meaning, even if the metaphor is different?

And of course there is the question of whether or not we know the idiom of the target language well enough to know the difference.

Don Carson’s book that deals with translation has many similar examples from many languages, but I don’t think I really appreciated the difficulties until I was lecturing and watching my translator struggle to communicate.

TA did a great job.


William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics on the ZA Blog. He is the author of numerous works including the recent Basics of Biblical Greek Video Lectures and the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek. He is the general editor of Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV.

Learn more about Bill's Greek resources at and visit his blog on spiritual growth at

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