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Some Problems of Bible Translation

by Msgr. Ronald Knox

Transmute boldly render the sense by the corresponding sense without troubling over the verbal difficulties in your way. Where such rendering of sense by corresponding sense involves considerable amplification, do not hesitate to amplify for fear of being verbose . . . Sometimes, even, a whole passage must be thus transmuted, a whole paragraph thrown into a new form, if we would justly render the sense of the original; and the rule should stand that, after having grasped as exactly as possible all that the original stands for, with the proportion between its various parts, the distinction between what is emphasized and what is left on a lower plane, we should say to ourselves, not “How shall I make this foreigner talk English?” but “What would an Englishman have said to express the same?” That is translation. That is the very essence of the art: the resurrection of an alien thing in a native body; not the dressing f it up in native clothes but the giving to it of native flesh and blood.”

So Mr. Belloc told us, in a lecture he gave at the Taylorian in 1931. Is it any use to remember these principles, or ought they to be expunged ruthlessly from the mind, when you sit down to translate inspired documents for the benefit of a conservative public bred chiefly on texts, under the eye of a censor who has never reflected that the word concordat is derived from cor? Certainly there is no official translation of the Bible known to me which does not abandon, from the start, the dream of preserving its native idiom, which does not resign itself, from the start, to being a word-for-word translation. It is no use objecting that the Authorized Version is good English. The Authorized Version is good English only because English writers, for centuries, have treated it as the standard of good English. In itself, it is no better English than the Douay; Professor Phillimore used to maintain that the Douay was better. Only the Douay was written in the language of exiles, which became, with time, an exiled language. Lately, a generation which has revolted against the domination of the Old Masters has shown signs of revolting against Authorized Version English; Mr. Somerset Maugham, I think, led the attack. But whatever comes of that, it remains true that the Authorized Version is essentially a word-for-word translation, no less than the Septuagint, no less than the Vulgate. “For the Pharisees, and all the Jews,” except they wash their hands, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders”; is that English idiom? “For the Nazis, and all the Germans, except they say Heil Hitler! meet not in the street, holding their lives valuable”; is that English idiom?

Let me commit to paper some of the hesitations which make themselves felt when you sit down, trying to forget that you have ever read the Bible before, to contemplate a verse of the Vulgate, with the Greek printed on the opposite side of the page, and ask yourself, What is the English for this?

To begin with, every language has its obscurities; has words which do duty for two different meanings. The word “blood”, for example, has two quite different meanings in the two sentences, “Blood will tell” and “he is out for blood”. In the same way, neither Hebrew nor Greek nor Latin has two separate words for “earth”, in the sense of the terrestrial globe, and “land” in the sense of a particular region of it. When we are told that there was darkness over all the terra at the time of our Lord”s Crucifixion, how are we to know whether that darkness was world-wide, or was only noticeable in Palestine? The Greek does not help us; it would not help us if we had access to the original Aramaic of St. Matthew. In translating such a verse you must “accept the responsibility for creating this or that impression in the minds of (you hope) innumerable readers, of whom only one in ten ever looks at a footnote. It is the same with gratia; like charis, it may mean “grace” or it may mean “favor”. The Douay plays for safety; but is there really any sense in saying that our Lord grew in grace with men? And a similar difficulty arises over the printing of “spirit” with or without a capital S. in a verse like Matthew iv. I (“led by the spirit into the wilderness”); the old Douay had the courage to print “Word” with a capital W in the second verse of St. Luke. You cannot be a translator without being, to some extent, an interpreter; and the ways of the Catholic interpreter are not always plain or easy.

What obligation is there, again, of following St. Jerome’s rendering of the Greek, when his meaning appears to differ from that of the Greek? I say, “appears”; in some case the appearance is quite illusory. For example, why did the Wise Men receive an “answer” in sleep? Why did Simeon receive an ‘answer’ from the Holy Spirit that he should see the Christ? There is no suggestion, in either case, that a question had been asked; and the use of the word is one of those multitudinous touches which afflict the reader of our English Bible with distractions. The solution is very simple; St. Jerome’s responsum does not mean an answer. it means an oracle; it is a technical word for an oracle. The Greek had used chrematizomai, and St. Jerome, in his strict preference for verbal equivalents, did the best he could to give the oracular atmosphere without using the pagan word oraculum. The Douay, therefore, is translating a shade of meaning which is not there. The nearest you can get to the sense is, “a revelation”.

The same sort of confusion arises in a much more serious context. One of the leading differences between the Catholic and the Protestant Bibles is that the former gives “do penance” (from poenitentiam agere) where the latter gives “repent” (from metanoein). Rivers of ink flowed over the controversy; Catholic expositors were determined not to let it be supposed that sins were forgiven in return for a mere attitude of the mind, as opposed to a genuine alteration of the will. Perhaps, too, they were anxious to assert the principle of reparation, though here they had less support from the Greek. Challoner has kept to the old rendering; Lingard, in the new conditions of a Victorian world, not only adopts “repent” but sets store by the change. His admirable footnote says, “Though there can be no true repentance which produces not reformation, there is often a reformation which is not produced by repentance”. Protestant thought has boxed the compass, as usual; today, what it needs to be told is, that ‘turning over a new leaf’ does not, unless it involves regret, avail to obliterate the past. And meanwhile, what was the linguistic background of the whole dispute? Simply that St. Jerome had used poenitentiam agere, and St. Jerome must know. But, in point of fact, St. Jerome had to use poenitentiam agere; there is no other way of saying “Repent”, since poenitet has to be impersonal, except in the participle.

There are instances, however, in which the Greek admits of two rival interpretations, whereas the Latin only allows of one. The word pais can mean “son” or “servant”; which does it mean in Acts 13? “Westcott and Hort mark the end of the verse as a quotation from Isaias lii. 13, in which case we ought certainly to render “servant”. But St. Jerome has “servus” in Isaias, and “fihius” in Acts. If the translator is convinced (which I am not) that the passage in Acts is a quotation, is he bound to follow St. Jerome blindfold in an inconsistency? More annoying, because it is much more common, is the hesitation whether he can be allowed to translate verbum “a thing.” Here the ambiguity goes back behind the Greek; it is dabhr, not rhema, that does double duty and so creates a confusion. The Douay imitates, of course, Latin and Greek in their literalness. But could the shepherds really have said, “Let us go to Bethlehem and see this word which has happened?” Does it mean anything?

It is easy to say that the Vulgate must always be followed, because it enshrines Catholic tradition. But this is not always true. Almost any Catholic, if asked whether our Lady stayed with Elizabeth until after St. John was born, would reply, “Of course she did”. But if he will look in the Vulgate, or in the Douay, he will find that she did not. [n the Greek,. you can read it either way, since the aorists in Luke i. 37 can legitimately be taken as pluperfect. But St. Jerome represents them as perfects; can the translator go behind St. Jerome here, in order to follow a tradition? Or must he, at best, “do a straddle”—invent some formula which would fit either interpretation? And can he do that, without ceasing to be literal?

So much for ambiguities. But even where the sense is indisputable, the translator will be conscious that there is a right way and a wrong way of putting things; and the chances are that the literal way will be the wrong way. When Horace writes Da, puer, auguris Maecenae, we expect the phrase to be rendered, “Fill a bumper, slave, to Maecenas” augurship!; we conceive that the translator has not done his duty if he is content with “Give, boy, of the augur Maecenas”. Yet that is what we should, almost certainly, have got if the words stood in the Bible. We have all grown accustomed to “they shall not leave in thee a stone upon a stone”; but it is not English. The Jews lacked the useful phrase “one another”; they had to talk about man-stone being left on his friend. Must we really imitate their poverty of speech, under pain of discordance with the original? There is the same objection to “feared with a great fear,” and “desiring I have desired”; both locutions are intelligible, but, being quite unnatural English, they make the narrative seem remote, not part of ourselves; some people call it “dignified.”

Moreover, some idioms when translated into a different language lose all their meaning, and serve to darken interpretation. Tu dixisti, for example; evidently the Aramaic form of speech which underlies this was as definite as the modem American, “You said it.” If you were translating an American novel into French you would not translate, “You said it” by “Vous l’avez dit.” Are we bound, then, to translate
Tu thxisti by “Thou hast said it?” (“Thou hast said” by itself is not even grammar.) To be sure, the faithful mostly know what is meant; they have been told about it in sermons. But why must the Catholic clergy spend so much of their time in explaining that the Bible doesn’t mean what it says? . . . In one passage a Hebrew idiom has been obscured by Challoner who does not even allude to it in his footnote on the passage. When our Lady says, at Cana of Galilee “They have no wine,” there is no reasonable doubt that our Lord replied, “Let me alone”, the Jewish idiom for which is, “What have I to do with thee?” The Protestant Bible in translating the idiom literally, makes it sound much too harsh But Challoner has not dared even to be literal, he adopts without comment the far less probable interpretation, “What is that (the absence of wine) to me and to thee?”

The old Douay, in the same passage, is very illuminating. It gives the translation, “What is to me and to thee, woman?” without pretending that it is English. And the footnote says, “Because this speech is subject to divers senses, we keep the words of our text, lest by turning it into any English phrase we might straiten the Holy Ghost’s intention to some certain sense either not intended, or not only intended, and so take away the choice and indifferency from the reader, whereof (in holy Scripture specially) all translators must beware.” The principle is one of capital importance; where interpreters disagree, the reader must be given his choice and indifferency as mdch as possible, though Challoner does not seem to have thought so. But does that justify the translator in printing gibberish? Ought he not rather, in these rare cases, to resort to a paraphrase which will be vague enough to cover both interpretations? “Do not trouble me, woman”—something of that kind.

Metaphors, no less than idioms, have their difficulty for the translator. Sometimes their meaning is transparent enough; the scribes and Pharisees, for example, “sitting in Moses” seat , although the picture which the imagination conjures up is one of extreme discomfort. But is any picture conjured up at all, to the ordinary English mind, by “a horn of salvation?” And, if we must preserve all other metaphors in their exact form, out of faithfulness to the original, surely it is time we got rid of “bowels?” Cruden’s concordance gives some thirty instances of the word’s use, only seven of which have a literal acceptation; our own version is still more fond of the idea, which disfigures our translations of the Miserere and of the Benedictus. Surely, as a general principle, we do better justice to the author’s meaning when we translate viscera by “heart” (and cor by “mind?”)

There are, besides, certain words of very frequent occurrence which always strike the wrong note when you translate them literally from the Latin, because they are not familiar in the sense intended. “Just,” for example. Even when the connotations of the word are merely moral, it is not the word we want; the man who does not steal your umbrella is not “just,”he is “honest.” Far more frequently, justus in the Vulgate has a strictly theological sense; under the Old Dispensation the justus is a man who is right with God, because he is careful to keep the law, moral and ceremonial; under the New Dispensation he is simply a “justified” person (e.g. Romans V. 19). The Protestant translators preferred the word “righteous,” and the word “just” has therefore passed out of English usage in that sense. (At least, English authors do use it of the dead, as in Vaughan’s “dear, beauteous death, the jewel of the just”; but I think he got it from Shirley’s “Only the actions of the just smell sweet, and blossom in their dust”; and Shirley was a Catholic). Take, again, the word “flesh. ”It suggests to the modern Catholic ear associations of bodily self-indulgence; but in the New Testament it means, nearly always, the natural as opposed to the supernatural man, and especially where his mind is concerned. Or take the word “scandal.” To Protestants it means uncharitable conversation; to Catholics it means setting a bad example. But in the New Tetament it means anything which “puts you off, ”creates misgivings in you about the religious creed which you follow, or tends to do so.

You cannot, without sacrificing clear thought, treat words like these as mere counters, internationally available; each language gives its own twist to the more intimate ideas it tries to express. Nor can you even, without sacrificing clearness of thought, use the same equivalent for the same word in every passage where it occurs. “Thou art a scandal unto me,” “Whosoever shall scandalize one of these little ones,” “All you shall be scandalized because of me this night”— you cannot find a single English word which will fit all those three passages; except “scandal,” which is not, in any of the three passages, recognizable English.

And then there is the coupling of sentences There are nearly a hundred “ands” in the first chapter of Genesis, about fifty in the first chapter of St. Matthew, eighty or so in the first chapter of St. Luke. The ubiquitous waw leaves its trail, not only of monotony but of obscurity. “Thinking that he was in the company, they came a day’s journey and sought him among their kinsfolk”—no; that is wrong; translate “they had come a day’s journey before they looked (really, before it occurred to them to look) for him among their kinsfolk.” “Thinkest thou that I cannot ask my Father, and he will give me . . .”—no, that is wrong; anybody can ask for anything; translate, “Thinkest thou that my Father will not give me, if I ask him . . . ”And so on. Has the translator a right to recondition the whole system of sentence-coupling in the Bible? What makes the matter more urgent is that the conjunction in English is tending to die out, and we are concerned to budget for two hundred years hence. We say, “I must find my coat, I’ve left my handkerchief in it”, omitting the “for.” We say, “Don’t touch that wire, or you will get a shock”, not “lest you should get a shock.” We never say, “I didn’t ask for lamb, but ham”; we say, “I asked for ham not lamb,” or, “I didn’t ask for lamb, I asked for ham.” Consequently, sentences like, “Surely thou art one of them. For even thy speech doth discover thee,” or “Cast not your pearls before swine, lest they turn again, ”or “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” are out of date, and will come to wear more and more of an antique look as the years go by.

And, talking of that, what is the translator to regard as pure English? Is “to abide in a place”
over-antique; is “to stay in a place” over-modern? And so on. It is not till you sit down to translate the Bible that words begin to haunt you with the sense of their evasiveness, and their caducity.
Mortalia facta peribunt, neclum sermonum stet honos et gratia vivax. Here is a salient instance. For centuries people have laughed at the old Douay version, because in Galatians v. 4 it gave the rendering, “You are evacuated from Christ.” In 1940, what metaphor could be more familiar, or more significant?


Knox, R. Trails Of A Translator (SHEED & WARD, INC.).New York, NY, 1949).


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