Biblical translation is an inexact science: a truth of which I was reminded on a recent visit to the American Bible Society’s Museum of Biblical Art in New York, where I enjoyed a brisk walk through a fine exhibit, “More Precious than Fine Gold: The English Bible in the Gilded Age.”
The curator, Dr. Liana Lupas, pointed out the Modern American Bible, a New Testament translation by Frank S. Ballentine, published as the 19th century was drawing to a close. One suspects that Mr. Ballentine’s labors were influenced by a commitment to Prohibition, then a hot cause among many American Protestants; his translation of Luke 5:30 has the Pharisees inveighing against Jesus’ eating with “saloon-keepers and prostitutes,” where the original Greek clearly indicates “tax collectors and sinners.”
Then there was the translation by Julia Evelina Smith (1792-1886), the only woman ever to have translated the entire Bible by herself. Miss Smith was unhappy with the King James Bible (which strikes me as the only great work of art ever produced by a committee); to her mind, the Authorized Version did not hew closely enough to the original Hebrew and Greek, a putative fault she intended to repair in her own Bible.
That her literal, word-for-word translation was not altogether successful is suggested by her rendering of Proverbs 15:17: “Good a ration of herbs and love there, above an ox of the stall and hatred with it.” (Which, in case you’re lost, King James’s committeemen translated, “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, then a stalled ox and hatred therewith.”)
U.S. Catholics are unhappily familiar with unappealing biblical translations, for we are regularly subjected at Mass to the supremely clunky vocabulary, syntax, and cadences of the Revised New American Bible (RNAB), as further gelded to satisfy the more perfervid American Catholic feminists. The results of the latter preoccupation are clear in the butchery of 1 Corinthians 13:1, where what the Revised Standard Version (RSV) renders euphonically (“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels . . .”), the RNAB Lectionary renders as if its primary audience were the editors of the neo-bolshevik Chicago Manual of Style: “If I speak with human and angelic tongues . . .”
The RNAB is also striking for its ability to drain the Bible of the poetry evident even in its historical books. Take two examples from the twenty-first Sunday of the Year:
RSV: “And if you be unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:15).
RNAB: “If it does not please you to serve the LORD, decide today whom you will serve, the gods your fathers served beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now dwelling. As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
RSV: “Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?’ But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples murmured at it, said to them, ‘Do you take offense at this?’” (John 6:60).
RNAB: “Then many of his disciples who were listening said, ‘This saying is hard; who can accept it?’ Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this, he said to them, ‘Does this shock you?’”
A new and thorough revision of the RNAB is promised by the U.S. bishops’ conference (which holds the copyright, and thus enjoys the royalty income, from the RNAB’s mandated monopoly as a liturgical text).
But while that lengthy process is underway, the bishops should authorize the use of the beautifully printed and bound RSV-Catholic Edition Lectionary published by Ignatius Press, which is read in many Anglophone countries. The effect of the RSV Lectionary on the RNAB revision could be similar to the effect that familiarity with the 1962 Missal should have on the celebration of the Novus Ordo Mass: drawing out the shrapnel, so that ugly wounds are healed.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. Mr. Weigel’s syndicated Catholic press column, “The Catholic Difference,” is the most widely circulated Catholic press column in the country, reaching a combined readership of some two million persons each week.