What We’ve Lost in Translation


December 11, 2019

Word is that the USCCB is going to tweak the New American Bible but leave it in place as the basis for the lectionary. Please, your excellencies, give it up. The NAB is a train wreck. It cannot be salvaged. It is, by turns, drab, ungrammatical, clumsy, and stupid. It turns good verbs into verbal nouns. Unlike Hebrew and good English, it prefers the abstract to the concrete, the general to the specific, and the vague to the precise. It twists itself into semantic pretzels to avoid the masculine in pronouns, nouns, and metaphors; but it cannot avoid them altogether, so it merely adds inconsistency to its other many faults. Get rid of it. The English Standard Version and the Revised Standard Version are available. They aren’t perfect, but they are tolerable at least, and often very good.

“Surely, Dr. Esolen,” someone will object, “you must be exaggerating. It may be drab, but it can hardly be stupid.

“You’ve never read academic writing,” I reply. A ten-year-old boy writing about riding his bicycle around town will probably write naïvely, but he will be lively enough. He will not have acquired the academic habit of not considering what his words mean. The boy will write about real things—shops, hills, trees, dogs, bridges, brakes, and streets. The academic often must be rapped on the head with a beanbag to see things.

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Let me give an example from the lectionary last week. It’s the vision of Nebuchadnezzar as recounted in the book of Daniel. The king dreamed of a man whose head was “of fine gold, its breast and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay.” This is the RSV, echoing the earlier English versions which gave us the phrase, “feet of clay,” to describe someone who cannot be relied on in a crisis, or something that seems staunch but is, in fact, ready to topple. Here is the NAB: “The head of the statue was pure gold, its chest and arms were silver, its belly and thighs bronze, the legs iron, and the feet partly iron and partly tile.” Tile?

What’s a tile? It is clay baked into a standard shape, usually flat, sometimes rounded. What prompted the translators to write “tile”? You can’t make a statue or the foot of a statue out of tile, in English, any more than you can form its face out of brick. What might a statue made of tile look like? No image comes to my mind—unless it’s of some uncouth modernist thing, with angles sticking out everywhere—because tiles are tiles and not clay which can be formed into any shape you wish.

Another example is from the lectionary for the feast of Christ the King. One of the thieves crucified at the side of Christ is mocking him, and the other thief feels a pang of conscience. “We are receiving the due reward of our deeds,” he says, “but this man has done nothing wrong” (RSV); “And we indeed justly, for we are receiving what our deeds deserved; but this man has done nothing wrong” (Douay-Rheims-Challoner). I suppose that if you are hanging on a cross, you will come straight to the point. Now the NAB: “And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” Corresponds? Nothing criminal? Who talks this way? A lawyer arguing before an appellate court, maybe. A professor, probably. A thief on a cross? The translators cannot have considered the drama of the specific situation.

But then they never do. They dwell in a fog of ideas. They do not feel the passions they try to describe. They are never present to the people and the scene. Think of the moment of Jesus’s death. How would you describe it? Saint Luke winds his narrative to the climax: “It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last. Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent!’ ” (RSV).

How can you spoil a moment like this? And when you are free to take from other translations all that you wish, too! Well, you turn the lyrical into the technical; you turn verbs into verbal nouns; you eliminate the little words that lead from image to image or thought to thought; and you muffle the emphatic by tucking it away in the middle of a sentence: “It was now about noon and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon because of an eclipse of the sun. Then the veil of the temple was torn down the middle. Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”; and when he had said this he breathed his last. The centurion who witnessed what had happened glorified God and said, “This man was innocent beyond doubt” (NAB).

Notice the distracting and clumsy rhyme: noon, afternoon. Notice how the failure of the sun—this is what the Greek says—is rendered technical, just as the numbers of the hours are rendered colloquial. Does Saint Luke say that the sun was in eclipse? No, he doesn’t. He says that the sun failed; this might have been an eclipse, but it might not. He is not thinking of the relative positions of the sun and moon and earth. That, too, would be a distraction here, an anticlimax. Notice that the NAB dislocates events which Luke knits together in a dramatic whole: the passage of the hours, the darkness, the failure of the sun, and the tearing of the curtain in the temple. Notice the ham-handed relative clause in the final sentence separating the subject centurion from the verb glorified; there is no good reason for this. Notice the final words in NAB: without doubt. Why the negative construction? Why introduce a hidden verb, to doubt? It’s not in the Greek. So why end with those words? The Greek and the RSV end on what the evangelist emphasizes: dikaios en, “was innocent.”

Your excellencies, the problems are not here and there, this and that. Every time I go to Mass, I must hear something put in a way that is either stupid or awkward or misleading—every time. A week or so ago, it was Saint Paul writing to the Thessalonians: “In fact, when we were with you, we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat.” That one? That one what? We use that one in opposition to this one, or to specify someone in a group: “Do you see that man with the cap and bells? He translated the Bible for Catholics.” Neither use is in play here. The man has already been singled out. He’s someone who won’t work. To call him that one simply to avoid saying he, isn’t archaic English, contemporary English, formal English, or colloquial English. It isn’t any English at all. No one speaks that way, and no one has ever spoken that way. No one writes that way, and no one but the NAB translator has ever written that way.

In the Greek, and in any sensible English translation, what Paul says should sound like a proverb: “If any man will not work, neither let him eat” (Challoner); “If any one will not work, let him not eat” (RSV). Clear and crisp, and not half-smothered in a noun clause.

The whole passage was a bungle. I will place the NAB next to the Challoner. Note that even though the Challoner uses language that harks back to early modern English, it is still the more direct, the more vivid, and the clearer in its progression of thought:

We instruct you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
And we charge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,

to shun any brother who conducts himself in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition they [sic] received from us.
to withdraw yourselves from every brother who lives irregularly, and not according to the teaching received from us.

For you know how one must imitate us. For we did not act in a disorderly way among you,
For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; for we were not unruly while with you,

nor did we eat food received free from anyone. On the contrary, in toil and drudgery, night and day we worked, so as not to burden any of you.
neither did we eat any man’s bread at his cost, but we worked night and day in labor and toil, so that we might not burden any of you.

Not that we do not have the right. Rather, we wanted to present ourselves as a model for you, so that you might imitate us.
Not that we did not have the right to do so, but that we might make ourselves an example for you to imitate us.

In fact, when we were with you we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one [sic] eat.
For indeed when we were with you we used to charge you: if any man will not work, neither let him eat.

We hear that some are conducting themselves among you in a disorderly way, by not keeping busy but minding the business of others.
For we have heard that some among you are living irregularly, doing no work but busy at meddling.

It’s no wonder we find it so hard to hear the words of Paul from the pulpit. What I have cited above is typical of the NAB when the translators are not skating near to heresy or doing their best to muffle the text. Please, bishops, put the undead to rest.

Photo credit: Shutterstock.com/Vibe Images


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