Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
The Word of God in Our Own Words
The Bible is a community book. The believing community
experienced God—s action in their midst and told the stories.
After generations of passing on the stories orally, someone rose
out of the community and wrote them down. Others contributed to
the written stories—copying them, adding material, changing details,
refocusing the emphasis. Eventually, as people and cultures changed,
it became necessary to translate the stories into other languages
so they would still be available to the believing community that
had heard God speaking through these stories for ages upon ages.
So our story of translations begins.
Translators take on an awesome responsibility.
The believing community hears God—s voice in these texts that
have been preserved for generations. People have prayed with these
texts, meditated on them and shaped their lives by them. The Church
has "canonized" them, declaring them the inspired word of God.
But how far does inspiration go? The original work was produced
under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but is it not true that
the Holy Spirit has also been at work when the text was proclaimed,
copied and indeed translated? This discussion has been going on
since St. Augustine and St. Jerome disagreed on whether the Greek
translation of the Old Testament was inspired (Augustine for and
Jerome against)! In any case, we believe that when Scripture is
proclaimed in the midst of the believing assembly, the living
word of God is heard.
The Earliest Translations
The story of translations is full of surprises.
The first surprise is the idea that the word of God can be translated
at all. In other religious faiths, such as Islam, the holy books
are only official in their original language. Translations are
just aids to understanding. So worship must be conducted in the
original language of the text. In the Judeo-Christian tradition
that would mean that worship must be conducted in Hebrew, Aramaic
and Greek, depending on which books were being read. But in the
third century B.C.E. the Jews decided that the Torah (and then
the rest of Scripture) could be translated into Greek for Greek-speaking
believers. Through the next few centuries a Greek translation
of the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures was made, called the Septuagint
because of a story that 70 (or 72) translators produced identical
translations of the Torah. The Septuagint was an amazing accomplishment.
It was the first translation of a people—s holy books. The translation
moved from one language and grammar system (Semitic) to another
(Indo-European) and one alphabet (Hebrew) to another (Greek).
Perhaps Augustine was right: Perhaps they were inspired!
In the first century of the common era, when Christians
began to separate from Jews, they took with them the Jewish Scriptures.
Because Christianity spread primarily in Greek, the Bible for
Christians was the Septuagint (plus the books written in Greek
that were gradually added, such as the letters of Paul and the
Gospels). Here comes the second surprise! From the very beginning
Christians considered a translation, the Septuagint, to be the
official Scriptures. No wonder we are still working on translations!
During the first few centuries of the common era
several Greek translations were circulating. We still have at
least parts of four of them. But by the fourth century most Christians
were speaking Latin and no longer understood Greek. Several Latin
translations had also appeared. So Pope Damasus I (ca. 382) asked
St. Jerome to produce an official Latin translation.
Jerome was convinced that translations should be
made from the original language if at all possible. So he translated
from the best Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts he could find. He
did, however, make three translations of the Psalms: one produced
quickly (because the praying Church needed the Psalms) and now
lost; one from the Greek Septuagint; and one from the original
Hebrew. To Jerome—s dismay, the translation that made its way
into the official Latin version was the Psalter according to the
Greek. Jerome—s work, again a massive accomplishment, came to
be called the Vulgate, the common Bible.
Even after Jerome—s work, however, the other translations
did not quickly disappear. Writing in the sixth century, St. Benedict
in his Rule seems to be quoting both from the Vulgate and from
the Old Latin translations. The situation is not unlike our own.
We too have several translations, both old and new, available
Early English Translations
Throughout the ensuing centuries different cultures
and languages began to develop in Europe. Again Christians could
not understand the Scriptures, which were still being proclaimed
in Latin. So educated people attempted once more to make the word
of God available to the believing community. Among the first was
John Wycliff, who made an English translation in the 14th century.
The first English New Testament to be printed (1526) was done
by William Tyndale.
This effort was not viewed positively by Church
authorities. Wycliff—s translation was condemned. Tyndale was
burned at the stake. The Protestant Reformation eventually separated
Christians. On the one hand, the Council of Trent declared that
the Latin Vulgate remained the official translation for Roman
Catholics. An English translation was produced in France, however,
by exiles from Elizabethan England in 1609. This version had to
be translated from the Latin, thus a translation of a translation,
although a careful examination of this Douay version suggests
that the translators kept an eye on the Hebrew and Greek as well!
On the other hand, the Protestant tradition eventually produced
the King James Bible (1611), a masterpiece that greatly influenced
the development of the English language.
The 20th Century and Onward
Until the 20th century Christianity remained split
between Protestants who continued the tradition of translation
begun with the use of the Septuagint and Catholics who held to
the fourth-century Vulgate. In the early decades of the 20th century
several revisions of the King James Bible appeared, all with the
intent of adapting the language to contemporary English. The revision
best known to us is the Revised Standard Version. In 1943 Pope
Pius XII wrote an encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu,
that became a breakthrough for Roman Catholic biblical scholars.
In this encyclical the pope encouraged Catholics to make accurate
translations from the original languages—Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.
Work began immediately and sections of the Bible began to appear
as the Confraternity Edition. This translation eventually grew
into the New American Bible, published in 1970. About the
same time La Bible de Jerusalem appeared in France and
was also translated into English.
In the last decades of the 20th century these versions
were revised once more. One reason was to keep up with the rapidly
changing English language. Secondly, the Dead Sea Scrolls had
become available. These scrolls, dating from the mid-second century
B.C.E. to the first century C.E., gave us texts of the Old Testament
that were a thousand years closer to the original works. Up to
this point translators had been working from 10th-century Hebrew
manuscripts. But the scrolls also taught us something else: the
third surprise. There was apparently not one official version
of these biblical books even at the turn of the era! Several versions
of many books were found, some vastly different. Then we had to
remember that the Church had not canonized a specific version
of a book but the book itself. The word of God is living, and
every generation must work to hear it and pass it on to the next
generation. We may never consider God—s word to be static or fixed
in any version, whether in translation or even the original text!
It must live in the hearts of believers.
Various Translations: How do they differ?
Translations done under Roman Catholic auspices
presumably had an eye to the Douay-Rheims version. They are listed
first in the comparison below. The Douay-Rheims itself had been
slightly revised in the mid-18th century, but it remained a translation
from the Latin. The 20th-century versions, however, are all made
from the original languages. Various streams of revision of the
King James Version also appeared in the 20th century. Two
of them followed the KJV in the following comparison. All of the
most recent revisions were made by Roman Catholic and Protestant
scholars working together.
In this comparison of the first two verses of Psalm
47, the most significant problem faced by the translators is the
word nora, translated in both the Douay and the KJV as
"terrible." "Terrible" in modern English no longer connotes something
that fills one with terror or awe, so the word no longer conveys
the original meaning. The 1970 NAB uses "awesome," but that word
has now almost lost its meaning in modern American English. So
the 1991 NAB replaces it with "inspires awe." The Jerusalem
Bible used "dreaded," but perhaps that was too strong. So
the NJB replaces it with "glorious." The RSV keeps "terrible"
and the NEB uses "fearful." But the revisions of both use "awesome."
A close comparison will reveal other differences.
Douay-Rheims: O clap your hands, all ye
nations: shout unto God with the voice of joy, / for the Lord
is high, terrible: a great king over all the earth.
New American Bible (1970): All you peoples,
clap your hands, / shout to God with cries of gladness, / for
the Lord, the Most High, the awesome, / is the great king over
all the earth.
Jerusalem Bible (1966): Clap your hands,
all you peoples, / acclaim God with shouts of joy; / for Yahweh,
the Most High, is to be dreaded, / the Great King of the whole
New American Bible (1991): All you peoples,
clap your hands; / shout to God with joyful cries. / For the Lord,
the Most High, inspires awe, / the great king over all the earth.
New Jerusalem Bible (1985): Clap your hands,
all peoples, / acclaim God with shouts of joy. / For Yahweh, the
Most High, is glorious, / the great king over all the earth.
King James Version: O clap your hands, all
ye people; shout unto God with the voice of triumph. / For the
Lord most high is terrible; he is a great King over all the earth.
Revised Standard Version (1952): Clap your
hands, all peoples! / Shout to God with loud songs of joy! / For
the Lord, the Most High, is terrible, / a great king over all
New English Bible (1970): Clap your hands,
all you nations; / acclaim our God with shouts of joy. / How fearful
is the Lord Most High, / great sovereign over all the earth!
New Revised Standard Version (1989): Clap
your hands, all you peoples; / shout to God with loud songs of
joy. / For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome, / a great king
over all the earth.
Revised English Bible (1989): Clap your
hands, all you nations, / acclaim God with shouts of joy. / How
awesome is the Lord Most High, / great King over all the earth!
Choosing a Bible
So how do I know which translation to use? Three
of the translations approved by the Roman Catholic bishops are:
the New American Bible, the New Revised Standard Version
and the New Jerusalem Bible. The New American Bible
appears in the Lectionary for Mass in the United States, the New
Revised Standard Version in Canada. These three translations
use language we are used to hearing in church. The NRSV is the
most formal; the Jerusalem shows its French heritage. Other versions
can also be used for personal prayer as well. The Revised English
Bible is more informal. The Contemporary English Version,
designed for people for whom English is a second language, uses
a very simplified vocabulary and style.
The Bible is a community book. There are many translations
of the Bible, both old and new, in most of the languages of the
world. In every case translators have taken on the awesome responsibility
of clothing the living word of God with the language of their
people. The believing community will continue to need these translations
of the word by which we live. Pray for translators!
Next: The Assyrians (by Elizabeth McNamer)