Another Bible Translation?

Another Bible Translation?

Photo credit: knowhimonline

As a catechist, I often feel pulled in different directions when it comes to the Scriptures. My own favorite translation for everyday use is the Revised Standard Version Second Catholic Edition (hereafter, RSV-CE2), but there’s also the beautifully traditional language of the Douay-Rheims (DR), what with its connection to our Latin heritage. Nevertheless, my classroom is equipped with the translation used in the Mass, the New American Bible (NAB), which is no longer available online at the USCCB website, where the new New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE) has replaced it. For purposes of scholarship, I also have handy a Clementine Vulgate and a Greek New Testament. Of course, when I use the Psalms, I prefer to use them as they appear in the Liturgy of the Hours, for the sake of plugging my students into the liturgical tradition of the Church, and that means using the Grail Psalter, which has in the last few years been revised by the monks who once taught me back in my seminary days, so that now we have the Revised Grail Psalter.


“The U.S. Bishops have announced a plan to revise the New Testament of the New American Bible so a single version can be used for prayer, catechesis, and liturgy.”

Catholic News Agency

Greeeeeeeeeaaat. Just what we needed.

Really, it’s a great idea. One of the reasons we American Catholics use so many different sources is that prayer, catechesis, and liturgy have different demands. We tend to prefer our prayer texts to have a blend of formality and accessibility that both reaches out to us and elevates us in our meditations. In liturgy, we have similar needs, although I think it needs a touch of the academic for the purposes of homiletics. Catechists long for a Bible that is clear in meaning, but also uses specific language that can be built upon catechetically.

Take, for instance, Genesis 1:2 (yes, I know this is an extreme example of cherry-picking). The Hebrew says, “tohu wabohu,” described by Dr. John Bergsma in his recently reviewed book as “a rhyming phrase that describes a situation of chaos, like our phrase ‘higgledy-piggledy.’ More specifically, ‘tohu’ means ‘formless,’ that is, ‘unformed’ or ‘unshaped.’ ‘Bohu,’ on the other hand, means ‘void’ or ’empty'” (p. 11).

Let’s compare translations:

Douay-Rheims: “And the earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the spirit of God moved over the waters.”

New American Bible: “The earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the water.”

New American Bible – Revised Edition: “And the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters.”

RSV-CE2: “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.”

Now, take my polls:

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Here are my own thoughts:

The Douay-Rheims only really reflects the emptiness of creation, and while beautiful, does not lend itself to my catechetical work.  The days of creation are ordered by God in response to that formlessness and emptiness.  As a catechist, I want a translation from which I can frame the paradigm that structures the entire creation account.  The Douay-Rheims would, however, be lovely material for prayerful meditation and liturgy.

The New American Bible does a little better in expressing the duality of tohu wabohu, but it isn’t grammatically clear.  Rather than having “formless” and “empty” both modify “earth,” the NAB equates the earth to a wasteland which happens to be empty.  Reducing the two adjectives to one noun and one adjective seems, in a sense, to keep the duality from striking quite as hard as it could.

The New American Bible – Revised Edition, for all its improvements over the NAB, reverts back to paralleling the Douay-Rheims rendering, with who adjectives for formlessness (the Douay-Rheims emphasized the emptiness).

Only the Revised Standard Version – Second Catholic Edition gets full credit.  It emphasizes both the formlessness and the emptiness factors, and renders them both as descriptions of the earth.  Plus, if you use the RSV-CE2, you don’t get the heavily modernist-influenced, let’s-all-pretend-Moses-was-secretly-a-pagan commentary that comes free with your copy of the NAB!

So, with these small observations noted in the eternal and completely reliable interwebz, I relay my hopes that the new translation of the New Testament will be better suited to all three – prayer, catechesis, and liturgy – than any of the old translations of this Old Testament passage.

What would you like to see in a new translation of the New Testament?

1 Comment

  1. 1) I think your last line about the NAB’s commentary points to our first priority: Don’t let heterodox scholars anywhere near this project. Everyone involved should be thoroughly grounded in, and consider himself bound to, the principles laid down in Dei Verbum and Divino Afflante Spiritu. A working knowlegde of Pope Benedict’s biblical theology wouldn’t hurt, either. If the Bishops ask nicely, perhaps they could persuade Messrs. Hahn and Mitch to let them peek at their notes for the new Ignatius Study Bible. Once we have commentary that thinks with the Church, we can relax a little on some of the finer points of translation. Which leads me to

    2) If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. When we consider pastoral needs, we too often play to the lowest common denominator. Note the arguments against the new translation of the Sacramentary, that Joe Pewsitter can’t understand words like, “consubstantial.” This attitude, along with a little ivory tower arrogance, has led recent translations to abandon the traditional phrasing of well-known passages, either to simplify or clarify points which often aren’t all that important. Most parishioners hate change. Ask any pastor: Announce something different, and you’ll smell the tar and feathers simmering away. Small-“t” tradition has its claims. Unless it actively hinders formation, leave it be. Phrases like, “Hail, full of grace,” “the gates of hell shall not prevail,” etc. have the weight of tans-generational consistency. Leave it to the catechists and homilists to explain, for example, that Jesus probably meant Sheol, rather than Gehenna. In fact, we’ve all but eliminated the word, “hell” from our readings, which could lead folks to wonder whether we still believe in such a thing. And that does hinder formation.

    3) Stop neutering and watering down the language. Jesus warned about multiplying words; someone should warn translators about multiplying syllables, often in the name of mollifying sensibilities. I note that Pope Benedict, in his Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 1, points out that rather than “astonished,” the Greek says the people were “alarmed” at Christ’s teaching. Jesus does not mince words. Jesus does not equivocate. Jesus is in your face. If He doesn’t make you at least a little uncomfortable, chances are you’re not getting the message.

    4) Please, please, in the name of all that’s holy, have somebody with an ear not made of tin READ THE BLESSED THING ALOUD! Why is the KJV still so popular after four hundred years? Why do we still hear it quoted so often, even by people who can barely read, despite its inkhorn words and archaic phrasing? Because it is beautiful. Its translators were Shakespeare’s contemporaries. They read it aloud as they worked, to ensure that when proclaimed, it would ring out, clear and memorable. We need that back. That’s why, when I pray the Psalms, I go back to the Douay-Confraternity translation. It sounds like poetry – the poetry of Wordsworth and Tennyson, not Rod McKuen and Adrienne Rich.

    We should try that sometime.