Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The "Softs" and "Male-beds" in Translation

You may want to read my previous post before proceeding with this one. If you get bogged down in my discussion of various English versions of the Bible, you have my full permission to skip to the last paragraph of this post.

As noted in my last post, the dear old King James Version of the Bible (1611), at 1 Corinthians 6:9, translated the Greek word arsenokoitai as “abusers of themselves with mankind.” At 1 Timothy 1:10 arsenokoitai is translated “them who defile themselves with mankind.” I take both of these rather ungainly phrases to mean “men who have sex with men.” The KJV translated malakoi, a word also found in 1 Corinthians 6:9, as “effeminate.”

The 1952 Revised Standard Version translated both malakoi and arsenokoitai in 1 Corinthians with a single word, “homosexuals.” This seems to me a particularly unfortunate choice as it has the effect of condemning persons for who they are rather than what they do. I also think that this translation reflects the understanding and misconceptions of homosexuality that were current in 1952. At 1 Timothy 1:10, the RSV translated arsenokoitai with the word “sodomites.” This, too presents difficulties. Arsenokoitai in Greek would not have meant “sodomite” in the sense of a citizen of Sodom, though it might mean “a practitioner of sodomy.”

The widely used New International Version (1978) translated malakoi as “male prostitutes,” a translation that is followed by several other modern English translations including the New Living Translation (1996) and the Holman Christian Standard Bible (2004). The NIV translates arsenokoitai as “homosexual offenders” in 1 Corinthians. I find this translation rather egregious as the word “offenders” occurs nowhere in the Greek text. I also question exactly what a “homosexual offender” would be. The NIV is also inconsistent in that it translates arsenokoitai as “perverts” in 1 Timothy.

The New Revised Standard Version (1989) also translates malakoi as male prostitutes, and arsenokoitai as “sodomites” in both of its occurrences.

The English Standard Version, an Evangelical revision of the RSV published in 2001, follows the RSV by combining malakoi and arsenokoitai into a single term “men who practice homosexuality.” It translates arsenokoitai alone with the same phrase in 1 Timothy 1:10. Since Paul used two distinct words in Greek, I question the validity of translating the two with a single term.

Curiously, the New King James Version (1982) translates malakoi as “homosexuals.” It translates arsenokoitai, in both of its occurrences, as “sodomites.”

The New English Translation (2005) translates malakoi into “passive homosexual partners” and arsenokoitai as “practicing homosexuals.” A footnote points out that the emphasis is on “actual behavior, not orientation.” This understanding seems to underlie the translation of arsenokoitai in several other recent versions, such as the NLT and the ESV.

Dr. Ann Nyland, translator of The Source New Testament (2004), has an interesting translation for arsenokoitai: “anal penetrators.” In her footnote to 1 Corinthians 6:9, she says that the word “appears to include rape” and “does not apply exclusively to males as receptors as it was also said for anal penetration of a woman.” She translates malakoi as "receptive male homosexual cross-dressers" which may (or may not) be accurate, but is even more awkward than the KJV's "them who defile themselves with mankind" for arsenokoitai.

So in translation the malakoi are treated as "effeminate," "male prostitutes," "homosexuals," "passive homosexual partners," or "receptive male homosexual cross dressers." The arsenokoitai may be "abusers of themselves with mankind," "sodomites," "homosexual offenders," "perverts," "practicing homosexuals," or "anal pentrators."

Obviously, the words malakoi and, especially arsenokoitai pose challenges for translators. The various versions largely agree that they represent practitioners of some homosexual act or acts. Recent translations are rightly careful to distinguish between acts and orientation. (The concept of sexual orientation did not exist in the time of the Apostle Paul). In my next post or two I want to examine whether Paul’s use of these terms in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 constitute a universal condemnation of all homosexual acts.

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