Tuesday, September 12, 2017

A Millennial’s Thoughts on Bible Translation

By  Alex Blechle Pray Tell blog

This post is especially for millennials, from a millennial.
Biblical translations are a fickle subject. Many people have opinions on which translations are the most “correct” or “orthodox”, which is great – but a little scholarship might change your opinion. Let me take a crack at it.
So, I’m going to walk through some common mistakes or misunderstandings that tend to sneak up on people concerning translations. These bolded statements are from conversations that I have had with students my age. A majority of this conversation will be focused upon the New Testament side of things, because, well… I don’t know Hebrew very well!
“I read the King James Version because it’s the most reliable translation.”
Sorry. The KJV is poor in quality compared to biblical texts in the 20th/21st century. I promise I do not have a prejudice against “thy” and “thou”. The KJV is a “literal” translation from Hebrew and Greek into English, which is a great thing. The only problem is that the KJV only used a few older Greek manuscripts in the creation of the New Testament. To be a bit more technical, the KJV uses almost solely the Textus Receptus, while we now use a dynamic, critical text, which means we have an overwhelming amount of researched Greek texts that have helped us create a more reliable New Testament. It’s not the KJV’s fault, but we just have a better Greek text to translate from.
“The Douay-Rheims is the most ‘Catholic’ Bible.”
Sigh. I’m sorry, Grandpa. This is not true either! The Douay-Rheims is a literal translation from the Latin Vulgate into English. Why is that an issue? Let’s be very clear here – the New Testament was written in GREEK. The Latin Vulgate, although beautiful, is also not the best translation in the world. The Douay-Rheims is a translation of a translation. You do not need to be a critical scholar who compares the critical Greek text and the Latin to understand that translating a translation cannot be as literal as starting with the first translation. Also, reiterating my point in the KJV post, our Greek texts are better now than in the time of Jerome. I am very aware that Jerome was closer to the time of Jesus than we are, but he also had limited resources. We translate from Greek instead of Latin for a reason.
So, which translation is best?
To continue reading, click here.


Evergreen Dissident said...

I'm not a Douay-Rheims only guy, but I think that many within Church need a bit of an attitude adjustment about the Vulgate and St. Jerome's work. Did the Church exaggerate in practice the importance of the Vulgate from the Reformation to the pontificate of Pius XII? Arguably. But there were reasons to use the Vulgate, and reasons to admire the work of St. Jerome. Jerome spoke the Greek of his day and Latin as living languages. He learned Hebrew in part from Jewish scholars. He had access to manuscripts that we do not have. That last point needs to be repeated. He had access to manuscripts that we do not have. I am a fan of modern biblical scholarship. I am grateful for the careful textual and critical work that scholars -- Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, Noachide, and non-believer alike -- undertake to understand the Bible more clearly. But with the new, we need to have appreciation for the old. Jerome did worthy work, work that is invaluable for Bible study, Bible translation, and Bible application.

Matthew Doe said...

So why do we get a post that appears essentially ignorant of the controversy about using Alexandrian text-type (of which the eclectic mix currently in favour is largely a modern variant) vs. Byzantine text-type (of which the Textus Receptus is largely an old variant)?

It is also very likely that we have lost source material "since the time of Jerome", and that the Vulgate conserves them at least in translation. Just like the Septuaginta conserves text traditions now lost to us. It is simplistic to assume, in both cases, that "original" beats "translation" straight up.

Furthermore, there exists one, and only one, biblical text that is guaranteed by the Holy Spirit to be free of errors concerning faith and morals, and that happens to be the (Sixto-Clementine) Vulgate, thanks to the Council of Trent. (And if you do not believe in that guarantee, then you happen to be anathema). Thus, de facto the Vulgate is the only basis which is absolutely secure, whereas for example modern Greek compilations of the NT could be contaminated by human error. (I'm not saying that they are, just that they could be...) Also, the Latin Vulgate is the basis of most of the written record of Latin Christianity. To simply dismiss it, and translations based on it, is not only ignorant but basically throws our entire patrimony into the bin.

Textual criticism, or at least how it is currently practised, has also been critiqued.

I guess knowledge and an appreciation of history and context are not the strong points of millennials?

Michael Demers said...

Matthew Doe:
The Council of Trent began in 1545 and ended in 1563. The Sixto-Clementine Vulgate appeared in 1592. Therefore, the "old" Vulgate edition referred to at Trent had been superseded.

peregrinus_sg said...

My beef with the author's take on the Douay-Rheims is actually more at the level of his argumentation. His argument would support the thesis why it isn't the best Catholic Bible, but it doesn't answer the thesis that it isn't the most Catholic Bible... how does one even try to define that, I wonder?

Surly Hermit said...

This millennial thinks that millennial's arguments are holier than a sieve. But I majored in physics and math, so logical reasoning is hardly my strong point.

"...while we now use a dynamic, critical text..."

Would someone please explain how a Greek text uses dynamic language? I always thought that was a feature of translations, not originals.

Tertullian said...

Yeah, I found this article more irritating than anything. I don't use the DR much and I don't think I even own a KJV, but his takedowns of both come off as smug, and he doesn't even really provide all the relevant information.

He could at least have mentioned that some Protestants and Orthodox defend the Byzantine text-type, even if he went on to argue in favor of critical texts. And there is more to translation than just what textual basis you used. Someone could well argue that the KJV's approach to literal translation makes it better than modern translations (I am reminded of Robert Alter's praise for the way the KJV translates Hebrew prose in his article "The eloquence of the King James Version").

As peregrinus_sg said, his DR section doesn't even address the question he posed. Nor does he address the common traditionalist claim that Jerome had better Greek texts than us due to his living much closer to the first century. Now, I've always found that argument pretty dubious (for one thing, don't our manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate have the same problems as our manuscripts of the Greek New Testament, in that they've been copied and recopied for centuries, it's not clear how close we can get to Jerome's original, there are several different versions of the Vulgate, etc). But if someone is going to go in on the DR, I at least expect them to address the leading argument in favor of it.

And while the Holy Spirit might not be "emasculated" if you don't call him he, he will be depersonalized if you call him "it," and that is a much more dangerous error, theologically and spiritually. I would sooner call the Holy Spirit "she" than "it."

Matthew Doe said...

Michael Demmers, that's not a sufficient representation of the historical situation. When the Council of Trent made its declaration, there wasn't a single authorised Vulgate text, but rather a wide variety of (recent) editions published by different people / institutions. Arguably, the declaration thus formally holds for the complete textual distribution of Vulgates at the time, where possible insufficiencies of one edition are corrected by the majority of others.

Now, the Sixto-Clementine edition of the Vulgate was basically an official attempt by the Church to create a standard text out of this variety. One would have to argue that this edition failed so badly at this task, perhaps for reasons of doctrinal bias, that compared with the distribution of texts sanctioned by Trent it would require correction. I don't think that this can be argued successfully, keeping in mind that Trent does cover the late medieval / early Renaissance editions then in circulation (i.e., a comparison with editions used in antiquity might interest scholars, but does not determine the dogmatic status).

Furthermore, the Sixto-Clementine Vulgate then became the official bible of the Church, and was used as such for almost 400 more years. The very same logic that Trent used to motivate its declaration then necessarily holds for the Sixto-Clementine edition, i.e., it is the continued usage by the Church, its Saints and Doctors, over centuries that allows a declaration of being free of error.

Anyway, the reason I put "Sixto-Clementine" in brackets as modifier is to distinguish the Renaissance Vulgates from the Old Vulgate of antiquity. Trent applies to the former, and the Sixto-Clementine is the best known variant of this, and I would suggest both sufficiently representative and confirmed in its own right by later usage.

As it happens, the original Douay-Rheims was not translated from the Sixto-Clementine itself, but from Vulgate texts belonging to that Renaissance variety. Thus arguably the original Douay-Rheims is "Trent-guaranteed" as far as a translation can be, even if one believes that the Sixto-Clementine is problematic. There recently has been an effort to translate the D-R back into Latin, and I guess one could now look at where the differences are...

Michael Demers said...

Matthew Doe:
Please see link below on "The History of the Latin Vulgate" by John E. Steinmeuller, D.D., S.Scr.L.


Jerry Mc Kenna said...

I hate to defend the KJV, but it is does have a long history at this point. It set a standard for English and it is often quite beautiful. The differences between a passage in the KJV and modern Bibles are usually slight. If you are Catholic and don't parse out verses as if individual verses have an independent meaning, the KJV is excellent.

The original Douay Bible has weaknesses, the Challoner revision elimintated many of them. We do have better texts, but this is part of our history (and for someone of my age it was the Bible we heard as children).

Anonymous said...

I am always confounded by someone who has to mention the "thee's" & "thou's" of the King James Version. The last thing on my mind when I think of the King James Version is the "thee's" & "thou's": I think of the way the translation flows & the way it sounds.
To my mind when someone has to mention the "thee's" & "thou's" of the KJV, the first thing that comes to mind (after the surprise that it had to be brought up), is that they really haven't ever read the KJV & are just searching for the easiest way to discredit the translation.
People who like the King James Version do not care about the "thee's" & "thou's."

Bob Short said...

Let me wade into this without causing too much trouble...

I am on the older end of millennial (born in 1986). My parents got their first communion somewhere around the first couple years of the New American Bible being used in the Church's liturgy in the United States.

For many cradle Catholics, the KJV tradition is something they may associate with literature but not exactly religion. Many of us are the 2nd generation after the liturgical reforms.

I don't think that he was going at the Douay Rheims very hard.

Calling it a translation of a translation is true. He isn't saying that it should be discarded, though "sigh, I'm sorry, grandpa" isn't exactly going to make him friends. At most parishes I go to in the Northeast, 70pct of the people in the pews are old enough to be my grandparent.

That being said, most of the grandfathers I talk to at the two parishes where I have strong links use modern translations (NAB, Good News, NLT, RSV) and not the DR. The only people I've ever met who use the DR for daily reading were traditionalists around my age or younger.

As part of the article's intended audience, I have no problem with it. I sense that he could've gone even deeper but it seems okay to me.

Funny enough, the comments on the Pray Tell blog contain accusations against modern bibles which were discredited by this very blog.

If I see that Fr Neuhaus article on the NAB linked into a combox one more time my eyes are going to roll so far into the back of my head I'll need to walk backwards for the rest of my days.

Yeah, "thees and thous" is kinda lazy short hand for what is dated about the KJV. I'd take umbrage with the vocabulary drift instead e.g. "suffer" meaning "allow", preposition/pronoun/conjunction shifts etc.

From the gospel of the day (The start of the Sermon on the Plain! an exciting day for us daily mass folks)

"for in the like manner did their fathers unto the prophets."

Phrases like this are quite opaque to even well read millenials. I took enough literature classes to minor in the subject if I wanted to and the oldest stuff I read was from the 1920s. Hemingway was many things to many people, but in this case he and his ilk banished the syntax of the KJV and the Douay Rheims into the far-off land of the past.

PS--I think he may have meant "eclectic text" rather than "dynamic text" to describe the modern Greek.

Timothy said...

God bless the late Fr Neuhaus, but please let's retire his article on the NAB. It's outdated and frankly a lazy piece. Also, let's not link to EWTN or Catholic Answers in regards to their translations guide. Both are outdated, as well.

Unknown said...

Well Bob Short, allow me, a fellow millennial, push back a bit on your points. I was born in Dec 1983, which I'm told puts me at the very edge of what can be considered millennial, but I think I'm still in.

I'm a recent "convert," to the KJV, having just picked up a wonderful Cambridge Paragraph Bible, edited by Dr. David Norton, and set in beautiful single column format. I phrases like the one you list above are anything but opaque to this millennial reader, and I claim no special literary ear, I majored in Accounting in undergrad.

What I certainly can claim is a great affinity for the RSV-CE, which has been my primary reading bible for the last three years or so, and so really, to my ear as I read, the KJV really just sounds like a more elaborate or dramatic version of a style and cadence I'm already very familiar with.

I suspect I'm not alone among millennials in this regard either, especially among those returned to a more orthodox (small "o") practice of the faith, especially due to the online ministries like Catholic Answers. Sites like that, for better or worse, are naturally going to draw millennials looking for a more robust presentation of the Faith, and sites like these almost always direct their readers to the RSV-CE as one of the best examples of a reliable translation. Therefore, I suspect many millennials, being pointed in the direction of the RSV-CE by many online ministries likely wouldn't have a hard time adjusting their ears to the KJV.

Evergreen Dissident said...

I would note that one of the best dynamic translations available today, The Message, relies on the Nova Vulgata as the base for its translation of the deuterocanonical books. While the Nova Vulgata is distinct from the previous Vulgate tradition, it nevertheless incorporates many of the insights of St. Jerome.

Bob Short said...

I guess the only point that I made which could be pushed back upon was a generalization that millenials did not cut their teeth on the pre 20th century classics of English literature and are thus not as well equipped to reach a fluency with the KJV that they would be have with a newer translation.

You're saying the RSV is adequate preparation for the King James, and that is wonderful. I find the Old Testament of the KJV especially hard going and I'm glad that is not the case for you.

I don't think this is what you're saying, but I would encourage you to see that there are a great many ways into a more robust, orthodox faith. Yes, it seems that many of those ways online are associated with RSV users, I have found that not to be the case in face-to-face interactions.

Whether it is joining a third order, the Cursillo movement, various ministries of the charismatic renewal, lay fraternities associated with Jesus Caritas, there are a great many paths into a Christianity which is less accommodating to the wider culture and more authentically framed as following Jesus, and many of them use scripture translations outside the KJV tradition.

Biblical Catholic said...


"Furthermore, the Sixto-Clementine Vulgate then became the official bible of the Church, and was used as such for almost 400 more years."

Although often repeated by traditionalists and other advocates of the Douay Rheims, it is, in fact, not true, and never was, that the Vulgate is, or was 'the official Bible of the Catholic Church'.

Sometimes you seem this claim carried to ridiculous extremes, such as you see in the works of otherwise rational, intelligent scholar Daniel Wallace, who makes the fairly asinine claims that not only is the Vulgate 'the official Bible of the Catholic Church' but that the Church teaches dogmatically that the Vulgate is infallible, divinely inspired and greater than the Bible in the original languages. The fact that actually believing such things would be outrageously stupid does not in any sense suggest to Wallace that perhaps none of that is true.

The Catholic Church has no 'official Bible'and never has. The Vulgate has only ever been 'official' in the sense that it was the official Latin translation, and even then, it was only 'official' in the sense that it was the Latin text that was always used whenever a Church document needed a quote from the scriptures, which is roughly the same sense that the NAB is the 'official' Bible of the American Bishops.

Matthew Doe said...

Prior to the 1960s entirely, and theoretically to this day, the Latin church runs on... Latin. The official Latin translation of the bible hence was (and to a degree still is - unfortunately, given the weirdness of the Nova Vulgate) the de facto official bible of the RCC. And of course, all the bishops everywhere would have operated from that text. That today the American bishops and the German bishops would work from a different translation, indeed, that even the American and the English bishops could use different translations, is a (IMHO regrettable) novelty. For most of history, the official Latin translation was simply the official translation, full stop.

Furthermore, not only were all official documents based on the Vulgate, but the vast majority of theological and spiritual writings by the Doctors and Saints of the RCC were based on it. And of course, this permeates even Catholic folk spirituality. The obvious example here are the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, which would be six if Catholics followed the Hebrew - but neither the Church, nor the Saints, nor the Doctors, nor the common folk did.

I have never read a single word of Daniel Wallace. But as mentioned above, it is simply an undeniable fact that only the Vulgate (to be more precise, the range of Vulgate translations common at the time of the Council of Trent, which IMHO is reasonably represented by the Sixto-Clementine Vulgate) has been guaranteed by the Holy Spirit as a viable edition of the bible concerning faith and morals.

Obviously, the original bible texts have been inspired by the Holy Spirit and are foundational for any bible edition. However, we do not have any guarantees that subsequent collation, copying, editing etc. have served this original inspiration. These were human processes, and like all human processes, they are prone to error. Not to speak of the general course of history, which likely often has been adverse to conserving the original inspiration (e.g., the best manuscript might have been lost).

This is not at all just theoretical. For example, is a manuscript better simply because it is older? Arguably, there has been a tendency to answer "yes" to this in the modern eclectic compilations of the NT. Whereas the opposing view is that being more common is more important than being older. What is right? Or take the whole discussion about whether the Masoretic text, so beloved in modern translations, could suffer from biases of a Rabbinic Judaism already in conflict with Christianity.

All these are questions of later human dealings with the once-inspired text. They cannot be brushed aside simply by saying that the originals were inspired. And in terms of these subsequent handling of scripture, it is correct that the Vulgate to this day is the only human edition that has a Divine guarantee. This does not mean that the Vulgate has no flaws, but it means that it has none that would impact faith and morals. Neither does it say that any modern translations are flawed or even invalid. But we do not have a Divine guarantee concerning that, just our human guesses about human efforts.