On Englishing the Bible is available through Baronius Press when you purchase their beautiful Knox Bible. Russ begins this new series with a look at the Preface:
More than a century ago, Cardinal Newman agreed to prepare a new English translation of the Bible, but never lived to begin the project. In 1936, the bishops of England and Wales asked Ronald Knox to translate the Latin Vulgate into modern English – which he did single handedly over the next nine years. It would be a monumental task, arduous and somewhat thankless. On Englishing the Bible is his account of the ordeal, which manages to be both illuminating and full of Knox’s wit. Anyone wishing to know more about Knox’s translation – and the problems involved in rendering the sacred Scriptures into the vernacular – will be fascinated to hear from the translator himself how he tackled this mammoth project.
‘Wragg is in custody.’ So ended a newspaper paragraph, in the sixties of last century, about a case of child-murder at Nottingham; and it was not difficult for Matthew Arnold to arraign the industrialized society which turned the wretched heroine of such a tragedy into a bare surname. You may achieve this effect of mononymity without getting into trouble with the police; you can translate the Bible. The thing, I confess, took me by surprise. All my life I had been indifferent to the use of titles; complete strangers referred to me, sometimes in my hearing, as ‘Ronnie Knox’—if anything, it was the surname that was regarded as optional. Then I published a translation of the New Testament, and all at once I found I had gone back to my school-days; I was simply ‘Knox’. Moffatt said this, Knox said that; I had become one of these translator-fellows.
Let not this depersonalization be confused with fame. Not fame overtakes a Bradshaw, a Whittaker, a Baedeker; the man has turned into a book, has lost (like Wragg) the semblance of humanity; all may speak their minds freely of him, without fear of libel, thenceforwards. The thing is, a corresponding fixation takes place in the author himself. You may say what you like about him; you may not criticize the book with which his name is identified, on pain of an angry rejoinder. I have long since given up protesting when controversialists misquote me, or newspaper columnists credit me with the authorship of Limericks that are none of mine. But if you question a rendering of mine in the New Testament, you come up against a parental instinct hardly less ferocious than that of the mother-bear. I shall smile it off, no doubt, in conversation, but you have lost marks.
And yet, heaven knows, I ought by now to be accustomed to it. All the time I was translating the New Testament, my work was being revised by a committee of experts, briefed by myself to pick holes in it. Then I brought out a trial edition, imploring the general public to contribute its remarks, which meant new corrections here, there and everywhere. For some reason, when the authorized edition was at last produced, I fell to imagining that the voice of criticism would be silent; as if you could ever achieve the perfect compromise, or satisfy the beast of Ephesus by throwing sops to them! Of course some people will hate what I have written; why shouldn’t they? All the same, I get much more angry with the people who like me and don’t like my Bible, than with the people who like my Bible and don’t like me.
It is a humiliating reflection, that a careful perusal of the holy Scriptures should engender (or perhaps reveal) in one’s character this unreasonable streak of touchiness. I can only comfort myself with the thought that, among all the canonized Saints, none has been more frequently accused of touchiness than St. Jerome. Be the reason what it may, I have not always maintained that silence which becomes an author in face of his critics. I would turn round and hit back, generally in the pages of the Clergy Review, that admirable safety-valve by which a sorely harassed profession throws off its ill humours. At least I would make it clear to the public what I was trying to do; at least they should know what it was all about. Let them tell me that I had succeeded in ruining the Bible, not that I had failed in the attempt to make a pretty-pretty job of it.
But a further explanation is needed. I may be told that it was all very well to throw off an article, now and again, about Bible translation; by-products of the process, sparks from my anvil; but why republish them? It is an obvious criticism, but one which finds me still impenitent. I am inclined to think that a book of this sort has more permanent value than any translation I have done, or could do. The work of translating the Bible, really translating it, is being taken in hand in our day for the first time since Coverdale. Moffatt and Goodspeed began it, with their fearless challenge of the Authorized Version; their work has been followed up by a text issued with official sanction in the United States. Quite recently, the proposal for a new rendering has been gaining ground among non-Catholics in our own country. Meanwhile, the Catholic hierarchy in the States has entrusted a large body of Biblical scholars with a similar commission. They began with caution; their New Testament was merely a revision, with certain verbal alterations, of the Douay. The Old Testament, to judge by the single volume of it which has so far appeared, is on a far more ambitious scale. They seem resolved, if I may put it in that way, to out-Knox Knox in baldness of narrative and modernity of diction. The germ is spreading, and there will be more translations yet. Indeed, it is doubtful whether we shall ever again allow ourselves to fall under the spell of a single, uniform text, consecrated by its antiquity. And as each new adventurer sets out on his quest for that North-West Passage, the perfect rendering of Holy Writ, he will do well to take note of buoys that mark the channel. Let him ask, not how I did the thing, but how I thought the thing ought to be done. Often he will disagree, but his own ideas will be clarified, none the less, by the effort of disagreement.
In one respect, however – the complaint is general – I have taken my stand upon tradition. The text which my version follows, and, wherever a clear lead is given, the interpretation which it follows, must be sought in the Vulgate; that is, in the primitive Latin rendering of the Scriptures, as revised in the fourth century by St. Jerome. This is the text officially used by the Church; and although Rome has recently given us a quite new Psalter, it’s not likely that the Vulgate as a whole will be dethroned from its position of privilege within my lifetime. I should be very far indeed from claiming that the Vulgate gives you, everywhere, an accurate interpretation of its original. But you must have a standard text; and the Vulgate Latin is so imbedded in our liturgy and in all our ecclesiastical language that a serious departure from it causes infinite confusion. Meanwhile, the discrepancies between the Vulgate and the (long since abandoned) textus receptus are not really as disconcerting as my critics pretend. Where they are slight, they mostly get ironed out in the process of translation; where they are grave, the passage is usually of such difficulty that a footnote would have been demanded in any case. More than once, I have taken refuge in an ambiguous phrase, to by-pass the difficulty.
Here, then, are eight interludes in the business of translation, eight attempts to think aloud while I was doing it. The first has never been published in full; it was a paper read to the Conference of Higher Studies (which met that year at Upholland). The article on Bishop Challoner was contributed to a memorial volume brought out by the Westminster Cathedral Chronicle. The short talk which I have labeled Nine Years’ Hard was given recently on Radio Eireann. The remaining contents of the book are reprinted from the Clergy Review. To the editor of that periodical, whose friendship I have now enjoyed for half a life-time, and to those who sponsored the first appearance of the other essays, I take this opportunity of expressing my gratitude.
And not only to them, but to many others in many lands who have written to express appreciation of what I had done, and encouraged me to hope that, so far as human praise was worth having, I had not run in vain. May they be rewarded for all the pleasure, and pardoned for all the feelings of self-importance, which their delicate kindness has provoked.