Is a translation ever 'merely' cultural?

An article about Bart Ehrman by Louis Markos, titled "Erhman Errant," made the rounds in academic social media last week, leading finally to a response from the man himself. I didn't read it because I generally don't care what people think about Bart Ehrman one way or the other.

However, this morning T. Michael Law posted a quote from the article that piqued my interest. Markos makes a strange argument for masculine language in Bible translation for "man" and "mankind." He says that since God refers to everyone (male and female) as "Adam" in Genesis, we should continue using masculine language for people-as-a-group:

Blomberg, along with the translators of the NRSV, NLT, CEV, and NIV 2011, take it for granted that the convention of using “man” or “mankind” to designate the human race is merely cultural. It is not. It is God himself who originally made the designation: “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created” (Genesis 5:1-2; ESV). The Hebrew word translated “Man” at the end of the passage is “Adam.” God not only refers to our race by the name of the first man that he created, but views all of mankind as being included in Adam. Those who defend traditional, non-neutered translations of the Bible are not blinding themselves to new research, but preserving the Bible from new agendas that would co-opt it.

This is not convincing. I would argue that God's use of "adam" does not apply a masculine label to humanity, but instead radically broadens the meaning of 'adam so that the term transcends gender particularities. This is important when we turn to other texts that use a single, masculine term to mean any person, male or female. Examples include legal texts, and references to "the new man" in Paul. Since these terms apply to both men and women, we should use language that does the same.

What I'm really amazed by, however, is this idea that any use of language is "merely cultural." There is nothing "mere" about culture and language; it is like the air we breathe. Every idea that we have ever thought—whether about God or about the world—is expressed in language. And language is a cultural medium. The process of translation is a cultural engagement that may be more or less radical, but there is nothing about this process that transcends culture. It is culture. When Markos argues for the terms "man" and "mankind," he asserts the ongoing relevance of the ancient culture's understanding of gendered language. But he doesn't—and we don't—live in that ancient culture. In our culture, the words "man" and "mankind" mean what they mean; there's no way out.

What is evident reading this paragraph is how fundamentalists reject the process of translation itself. By approaching the Hebrew and Greek text as the literal words of God, dictated in full, they believe that we can express a "timeless" and "universal" truth through English translation, something beyond "mere culture."

The problem is that those Hebrew and Greek texts were already rooted in time and place, already particular. We create our own rooted and particular English texts through cultural engagement and translation. There's nothing at all "mere" about this complex and contingent process. Without it, there is no thought.