The King’s Anguish: Mistranslating the Holy Scriptures

If any man,” says the preacher, “can show just cause why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter forever hold his peace.”

At that the door is flung open, and in strides anybody from a dozen old movies. The screen­writers knew their trade. The one marriage service from which everybody remembers a line or two is that of the Book of Common Prayer. That language was memorable. It had cadence, balance, emphasis, and a simplicity and rever­ence befitting Christian prayer: an unashamed naming of humble things that can be seen and heard and touched, along with a majesty fit to honor the Creator of all things visible and invisible.

Why can’t we Catholics have hymnals and a lectionary faithful to the ancient texts and sensitive to the requirements of poetry and memorable prose? It’s not much to ask.

We don’t have them now. Sing “Rice-a-Roni” to a class of college freshmen, and they will finish the jingle for you. Begin the intro to The Brady Bunch and they will chime in, even if they haven’t watched the show in years. The aw­ful but catchy music does it. But what weekly communi­cant can remember more than a sentence of Eucharistic Prayer III?

Readers, examine your memories. “Greater love than this hath no man.” “What God bath joined together, let no man put asunder.” “My cup runneth over.” “Consid­er the lilies of the field, how they grow.” I’ll wager that your memories are like mine: When we think of a verse from the Bible, we recall the old language: King James, or Douay-Rheims, or an amalgam of several old-fashioned renderings. What we don’t recall are the words from our lectionary or our modernized hymnals. And there are rea­sons why not.

No Man’s Land

One of the results of our linguistic compromise with femi­nism is that we render many sentences vague, indirect, and impersonal. We also blur the Scripture’s frequent op­position of God and man. Consider again the words of Jesus, this time from the old Jerusalem Bible: “What God has united, man must not divide” (Mt 19:6, emphasis add­ed). We can imagine, can’t we, the temerarious man who would try? That’s the glory of the singular-collective man: It signifies everybody, but everybody conceived as one, and so it can summon an image of a particular man doing a particular thing. And that clarifies our position relative to God. For God is on one side of the sentence, and man is on the other.

What do we lose when we concede the natu­ral language? Accuracy, clarity, power, and memora­bility. Here is Jesus in Matthew 16:26, from the Challoner revision of Douay-Rheims, posing the ulti­mate choice:

For what does it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, but suffer the loss of his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?

Our lectionary:

What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in ex­change for his life?

What’s happened? Well, the subject of the Greek sentence is anthropos, generic man, masculine in gender and, more important, capable of calling up a specific image, that of a man who will meet a wretched fate if he gains the whole world but loses his soul. But to avoid that direct transla­tion, our jiggerers recast the grammar, turning the verb profit into an abstract noun, making the subject of the sen­tence the impersonal there, and dropping the clear he, sub­ject of the explanatory clause. Worse, they suppress the idea of man, generic or otherwise, by the vaguest of all indefinite pronouns, the stuffy little one. Nor does this one do a lot; there is profit for one to do thus and so, but one just sits bashfully in one’s little accusative nook, hoping that nobody will notice.

Thus the strong balance and contrast of Christ’s elo­quent words—”if he gain the whole world, but suffer the loss of his own soul”—are derailed. In the Douay, as in the original Greek, Christ proclaims a principle by summoning a specific image. We can all think of a man who thought he might gain the whole world, but who lost his own soul. The last misbegotten century provides a rogue’s gallery of such. And we can all put ourselves in that man’s place at the moment of decision: Ignatius of Loyola approaches us and says, “Francis, my friend, what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world?,” and it is no theoretical one we’re talking about, but this man, that woman, here and now.

Yet for all its poverty of style, the lectionary fails to avoid the masculine pronoun anyway, and falls into incoherent grammar to boot. Having begun with one, the translators could not proceed grammatically with­out sounding like a blueblood sniffing the bouquet of a claret: “One simply does not drink one’s wine, you know.” So they used his instead of one’s. But the possessive of one is one’s, not his! One ties one’s shoelaces, lest one fall on one’s backside. His would refer to somebody else’s. Replace one’s with his in the previous sentence, and see if you don’t suddenly imagine some awkward scene involv­ing Moe, Larry, and Curly.

I am not niggling here; only rarely does the no man’s land of the lectionary fail to render Holy Scripture flabby or unintelligible. Here’s a particularly bad case. First the good English:

None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to him­self (RSV, Rom 14:7).

Replacing “to” with “for” would bring it into contemporary idiom, though it is clear as it is. The Jerusalem Bible re­placed the proverb with an explanatory gloss:

The life and death of each of us has its influence on others.

Which, though forgettable, is at least clear and gram­matical. Now for a tongue that ear hath not heard, nor eye seen, nor bath it entered into the mind of man to conceive:

None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself.

That’s grammatical gibberish. The reflexive oneself requires a one to reflect, but there isn’t any. Replace no one with nobody, and you will see the problem. Oneself must refer to somebody else, thus reversing Paul’s meaning:

Nobody lives for one [the -self is now emphatic rather than reflexive], and nobody dies for one.

One is on one’s own, it seems. “Ah, Jeeves, people indeed are cold these days; why, no one will give one a lift, no mat­ter that one’s pig is endangered.”

Turn back, O person, and mend thy foolish ways! Even when the Greek reads aner or andres (adult males), the habit of unsexing may prove too strong: “As he was entering a village, ten persons with leprosy met him” (Lk 17:12). Alas, ye lepers, fled of most men, but abbreviated by translators! And the language is stilted, too:

“Who’s coming down the road, Jimmy?”

“Looks like ten persons with leprosy, Dad.”

“Ten persons with leprosy, eh? Last week it was six persons. I sure wish these persons with leprosy would stay on their own side of the gulch.”

Proceed in an Indeterminate Direction, Young Man The impersonal constructions and indefinite pronouns are only the leading edge of a stylistic low-pressure system roll­ing in, bringing their blankets of fog. The translators seem to fear pricking their fingers on the bristles of strong prose. They reverse E. B. White’s dictum: They prefer the vague to the precise, the abstract to the concrete, and the general to the specific. The losses in rhetorical force and in theological meaning are great. Consider:

There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey. When vintage time drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce (Mt 21:3334, lectionary).

Obtain his produce? Greek karpous is concrete, visible, tangible: fruits, literally things you pluck. Compare with King James:

There was a certain householder, which planted a vine­yard, and hedged it round about, and Jigged a wine­press in it, and built a tower, and let it out to husband- men, and went into a far country: And when the time of the fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the husband- men, that they might receive the fruits of it.

In each case where the translations differ, the King James translators choose a word that exactly and concretely ex­presses the sense of the Greek, and our lectioneers choose something in the ballpark, less precise and less interesting. For the man is no mere landowner but an oikodespotes, the ruler of a household; and he hedges his vineyard roundabout to protect it from thieves (the lectionary makes the hedge seem a decorative afterthought); and he leases it to men of the earth—farmers, not simply tenants; and it is in Greek the lovely season of the fruit drawing near, and the man sends his servants to take the fruit.

Jesus uses the image of fruit again and again, as does Paul. To translate karpous as produce is to bury the connection between this parable and all those passages that teach us the fruit of true faith and love. It also dulls the parable, importing into it the language of a wholesaler for Kroger’s. “Blessed is the produce of your womb,” said Elizabeth to Mary. “By their produce you shall know them,” said Jesus.

Sometimes the translators choose the vague to avoid the embarrassment of the specific, lest it prove too potent for our frail nerves. Here again is the parable of the ten persons with leprosy:

And one of them, realizing he had been healed, re­turned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him (Lk 17:15-16).

It’s clear enough, but note the King James:

And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks.

In which version do you see and hear the scene more clear­ly? In which does the leper act most dramatically? He does not simply realize he has been healed—he sees it! The man is staring in wonder at hands that look like hands and not tree rot. And he doesn’t simply return, he turned back—turned right around on the spot and retraced his steps to find Jesus and thank Him. And when he does thank Him, he does not simply fall at Jesus’ feet. That’s an act of humility before an important person, beseeching Him by clasping His knees. The Greek is clear: Epesen epi prosopon. He prostrated himself, falling face to the ground at the feet of his Savior. That is an act of worship.

We don’t want words too suggestive of homage, do we? Note the dilution of urgency in this well-known parable:

The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. He dispatched his ser­vants to summon the invited guests to the feast, but they refused to come. A second time he sent other servants, saying, “Tell those invited: ‘Behold, I have prepared mybanquet, my calves and fattened cattle are killed, and everything is ready; come to the feast.’ Some ignored the invitation….

The concluding moral? “Many are invited, but few are cho­sen” (Mt 22:1-5, 14). Yes, indeed. I’ve known men who wondered whether they had an invitation to the priesthoodthey searched their souls, then their unopened mail, and discovered that no, they had not been invited after all.

The Challoner does read “invited” for the first sectionKing James has the more urgent “bidden,” suggesting rather a polite command or summons than something you can choose to accept or not, indifferently. But for the climactic final line they and the Jerusalem Bible turn to the simple verb call, as of the summoning voice of God, with all its scriptural echoes and its immediacy: “Many are called, but few are chosen.” As for the formal invitation, with its stuffy image of receiving a card, Repondez s’il vous plait, it is nowhere to be found in the older translations, because it is nowhere to be found in the Greek. What those who reject the call do is more specific, more humanly understandable, and more ominous: They made light of it. That, of course, goes a deal beyond ignoring.

But the greatest danger of abstraction is meaningless­ness. Abstract words are difficult to use precisely. St. Paul is often abstract; therefore the translator must strive to make the words and the grammar absolutely clear, and to preserve as much of the underlying concrete imagery as possible. Here is Paul urging his followers at Philippi to be united in love:

If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels [meaning: compassion] and mercies, fulfill ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind (Phil 2:1-2).

Look at that fellowship (Greek koinonia). It implies that the Christians are united with the Spirit, and therefore with one another. For an abstract noun, it retains great warmth, be­cause it shows us the fellow men who are, in the Spirit, of one accord, of one mind. Now the lectionary:

If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing.

The phrase united in heart is not bad, but the rest is flat. The translators have muffled the powerful anaphora of if ... if, apparently thinking that any . . . any would do as well. They have unaccountably ditched fulfill, with its suggestion of fullness of heart, of overflowing joy; again, King James is closer to the original. But what’s happened to the fellowship? What can the question mean, “If there is any participation in the Spirit”? Is it possible for Phil to participate in the Spirit, but not Fred? If Phil of Philippi participates in the Spirit, whatever that means, and Fred of Philippi doesn’t, then how does one answer Paul’s question? “Yes, we have participation in the Spirit here at Philippi, yes indeed. Phil participates, and so does Penelope, but most of us are waiting to see what happens.”

The Mod Squad

If you see a man in a gray suit and tie and fedora, you’ll say, “That man is well-dressed, in an old-fashioned way.” If you see a man in a sweatshirt and jeans, you’ll say, “That man is dressed casually.” But if you see a man in a sweatshirt and jeans, with a tie and a fedora, you won’t say, “That man is old-fashioned,” or “That man is contemporary.” You’ll say, “That man is a fool.”

Our lectionary is the man in a sweatshirt and jeans, with a tie and a fedora. The translators couldn’t excise all the old forms without sounding like tax attorneys. So they excised most of them but left others in; and the odd incon­gruities are sadly comical. Here is the finale of the magnifi­cent hymn in Philippians:

Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

It’s not Douay, it’s not King James, but it will do. The periodic sentence is not sliced into lector-manageable pieces, the hieratic bestow is for once permitted to stay in the roomthe modifier at the name of Jesus retains its striking position preceding the subject of the final clause. But note how the introduction to the hymn has been revised. Here is King James:

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.

That word mind resumes, with great force, what Paul has been advising for his followers, namely that they be of one mind. Here then is the one mind wherein they are to abide. Our lectioneers miss the cue, or cannot allow the slight old-fashionedness of this use of mind, even though they would soon allow the far more old-fashioned bestow. So they unwit­tingly call up the image of a struttin’ Jesus:

Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus.

An attitude is a posture, a pose; the thumb-hooking slouch of a kid on the streets is a particularly unpleasant attitude. Paul is talking not about an attitude but about something that reaches the core of our beings. To see the difference, revise the words of Jesus thus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, your strength, and your attitude.” Doesn’t work, does it?

I don’t object to revision when the old forms are mis­leading or unintentionally silly. But the translator should never forget that Scripture must often and necessarily be strange. That is partly because we’re not living in ancient Palestine. But why should the feel of that culture and its traditions be lost? So when the lectioneers have Gabriel an­nounce the pregnancy of Mary’s relative Elizabeth, I weep for Palestine lost, and its richness of cultural meaning. Why the dead modern word? What dullard won’t know what kins­woman means? Yet what does that old word imply that the new word loses? Maybe an entire world wherein one’s most important bonds were forged among one’s family, one’s kin. A relative has something or other to do with me, perhaps by tedious marital connections. But a kinsman is of my kind, in English as in Greek.

How dull is the change? It’s as if the translators had eliminated a deeply personal word, like the verb abide (Greek meno, to stay, stand fast, abide) in “Abide in me, and I in you” On 15:4), with all its echoes of dwelling and steadfastness, and replaced it with a bald function word de­noting stasis and little else—a word like remain. Ah, so they have done, throughout the Gospels. Consider the lovely opening of this old hymn, and modernize it in the style of the lectionary:

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide,
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide.
Remain with me, the evening starts to wane,
It’s getting dark, O Lord with me remain.

Yet for all these semantic landmines, the real destruction is carried on quietly. Jesus did not write, but taught on moun­tains, in boats, and in the synagogue. Now, oral narratives require rhetorical devices to make them memorable: bal­ance, parallelism, repetition, and, most important of all, easy and frequent links from clause to clause, and passage to passage.

So, given the chance to preserve a taste of the preaching of Jesus, the lilt of His voice as He moved effortlessly from point to point, weaving His words to­gether into a coherent and melodious whole that could be remembered by His unlettered listeners, our transla­tors slice and dice, making it hard to follow the train of thought, and impossible to remember it in its entirety.

Here is Jesus speaking against the hypocrites of His day. First the choppy lectionary:

But do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation “Rabbi.” As for you, do not be called “Rabbi.” You have one teacher, and you are all brothers (Mt 23:3-8).

Now Challoner, with additional connectors italicized:

But do not act according to their works, for they talk but do nothing. And they bind together heavy and op­pressive burdens, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but not with one finger of their own do they choose to move them. In fact, all their works they do in order to be seen by men; for they widen their phylacteries, and enlarge their tassels, and love the first places at suppers and the front seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the marketplace, and to be called by men “Rabbi.” But do not you be called “Rabbi”; for one is your Master, and you are all brothers.

Not only is the and … and series faithful to the original; it builds to a climax, as Jesus, master preacher, loads charge upon charge against the scribes and Pharisees, accumulat­ing them in a sentence as heavily burdened as the niggling rules wherewith the Pharisees burdened other people. It is a breathless tour-de-force; alas, too old-fashioned to fit in our neighborhood, and therefore leveled for a rhetorical parking lot.

Alt., in the Name of the Law!

If the lectionary is poor, the hymnals are worse. I’m not only referring to the off-Broadway show tunes masquerading as folk music, but to “traditional” hymns, neutered and cauter­ized and blacktopped without shame. Here flattened lan­guage, theological deafness, incongruity of diction, and bad grammar unite. I need only place side by side an original poem with its mugged and beaten version from Today’s Missal:

Fairest Lord Jesus, Ruler of all Nature,
 thou of God and Man the Son!
Thee will I cherish, thee will I honor,
Thou my soul’s glory, joy, and crown.

Beautiful Savior, King of Creation,
Son of God and Son of Man!
Truly I’d love thee, truly I’d serve thee,
Light of my soul, my joy, my crown.

Fair is the sunshine, fairer still the moonlight,
And all the twinkling starry host;
Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer
Than all the angels Heaven can boast.

Fair is the sunshine, fair is the moonlight,
Bright the sparkling stars on high,
Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer
Than all the angels in the sky.

What, O revisers, did this poor poem do to you, that you had to mangle it and then tag it with the theological non­sense of angels floating in the stratosphere, somewhere be­tween weather balloons and the space station?

Perhaps the revisers had no malice against Fairest Lord Jesus. Perhaps they were only incompetent. But who told them they should bother the poem in the first place? Space won’t permit an excursus into the bad theology behind most of the revisions; but why should they do to religious lyric what they wouldn’t dare do to Shakespeare? Or would they dare? My gosh, it’s Yorick! I used to know this guy!

I’m well-acquainted with sins of translation, having committed my share. But the revisers of our lectionary en­joy enviable advantages. They don’t have to worry about meter and rhyme. They are free to work from past transla­tions, and they have millennia of tradition and commentary to assist them. They can often do the wisest thing—noth­ing—and be congratulated. As for the compilers of hym­nals, they should simply choose the songs and let them be.

I know we’ll be seeing a new lectionary soon. My hopes aren’t high. In the meantime, two generations of Catholics have grown up with the mind-erasing prose of the current version. Not to worry. There’s still The Brady Bunch.


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