Monday, November 08, 2021

Why Archaic and Elevated Bible Translations Are Better, Especially for Liturgical Use

In an article last month, “Against Vernacular Readings in the Traditional Mass,” I spoke about why the traditional Latin Mass should remain in Latin for all of its parts, including the readings. However, I would not wish to be misunderstood as an opponent of vernacular translations of Scripture. On the contrary, there is an important twofold place for these translations: first, as a “support” to the congregation at Mass, either by way of their missals or from the pulpit before the homily; second, as a “mainstay” for lectio divina or personal meditation on Scripture. In keeping with the principle of St. Augustine, one should consult a variety of editions of the Bible because each will bring out meanings that the others do not. (The limit to this is merely a practical one: there are only so many Bibles one can juggle, and it is beneficial to have a “primary” Bible for the sake of memory and thorough familiarity.) Even knowledge of the original language of Scripture—Hebrew for the Old Testament and Greek for the New—does not obviate the need for other languages. For example, the Greek Septuagint offers invaluable insights into the Old Testament that the Masoretic text cannot supply.

This much is clear to me: for public proclamation of the Word of God, the translation we use should not be in “contemporary English” as it is spoken—or rather, cheapened and slaughtered—in today’s society. There are many reasons for this judgment in favor of archaic eloquence. Here I will present one set of reasons articulated by Fr. Luke Bell in his book Staying Tender: Contemplation, Pathway to Compassion (Angelico, 2020). Fr. Bell explains why he has chosen to quote from the King James Version:

Readers of early drafts of the book have suggested that this might be more difficult for people to get their head around than a modern version, so a word of explanation is in order. I don’t want you to get your head around it. I want it to get into your heart. I have chosen this version because it is poetic. T. S. Eliot observed (in connection with Dante) that “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”
       That is to say that what comes through it is more than what the mind can grasp, at least to begin with. It speaks first of all to intuition rather than to any analytical faculty. That in us which sees the whole is touched by the poet’s own vision of the whole, its words awakening in us what awoke the words in him or her. Just as an inspiration of the oneness of creation can sometimes come through the beauty of nature, so a sense of the one divine source of all meaning can sometimes be received through poetry. It is the genre of the transcendent. Through it can be heard an echo of the music of eternity.
       If all this is true of poetry it should be true a fortiori of versions of Scripture, which is above all the text through which the transcendent comes to us. If we word it so it reflects back to us the quotidian banalities of our own speech with all the limitations of its vision, reducing in effect what it speaks of to that of which we speak, then we tend to make it tamer than it should be. We risk the complacency of thinking we have mastered it replacing the aspiration that it should master us…
       An older version, written when the language was richer and less abstract, is more likely to make us pause before the mystery, to humble us before the numinous, to open us to what comes from beyond.
Frontispiece of KJV, 1611 ed.
In Anthony Lo Bello’s extremely interesting, if eccentric and occasionally erroneous, Origins of Catholic Words: A Discursive Dictionary (Washington, D.C.: CUA Press, 2020), we read this marvelous quotation from Theodore Dwight Woolsey (1801–1889), chairman of the American New Testament Committee and ex-president of Yale University, who wrote in 1879, concerning the impending revision of the King James Version:
We would here guard against a wrong inference which might be drawn from our remarks, as if in a translation for the nineteenth century the words most in use in the century, and most familiar to the ears of the people, ought always to take the place of others less in use, which, however, retain their place in the language. This is far from being a safe rule. One of the most important impressions which the Word of God makes is made by its venerableness. The dignity and sanctity of the truth are supported by the elevation of the style, and woe to the translator who should seek to vulgarize the Bible, on the plea of rendering it more intelligible. Understood it must be, and this must be provided for by removing the ambiguities and obscurities to which changes in society and changes in the expression of thought give rise. But as long as the English is a living tongue, the style of the scriptures must be majestic, and removed from all vulgarity. Indeed, it must be such as it is now, with those exceptions, few in number, which time brings with it, and most of which will hardly be noticed by the cursory reader.
Another one of the revisers, A. B. Davidson (1831–1902), professor of Hebrew in Ediburgh, commented on the same topic:
The antique cast of style must be retained. Nothing that is not absolutely wrong, or not absolutely out of use, should be removed. The modern vocabulary, and the modern order of words, and the modern cast of sentence must be avoided. Any change of familiar passages will grate on the ear, and even on the heart, of the devout reader.
These men were part of the committee that produced what we now call the Revised Version (OT, 1881; NT, 1885). As Lo Bello wryly remarks, “another point of view was that to be discovered in the literary principle of the Roman Consilium” in connection with translations of the Roman Missal:
The language chosen should be that in “common” usage, that is, suited to the greater number of the faithful who speak it in everday use, even “children and persons of small education.” (Comme le prévoit, 1969)
Hmm. Let’s take the liturgy, the highest and most sublime public activity known to man, and render it into the most commonplace language we can manage, easy enough for little kids and the uneducated to follow. And then let’s ask people to listen to this week in, week out, for decades of their lives. What wonderful results can be predicted! They will fall in love with this facile discourse! They will mutter the memorable words as they go about their day, as people in former times would sing folksongs or savor tales. Their dreams will be permeated with the phrases and periods of the New American Bible, like so many susurrant winds or heaving waves. The very discourse of Catholics in the home and in the market will be shaped by the resonance of ICEL’s prose, as once upon a time the English tongue was leavened with the lines of the Bard of Avon.

I’m afraid not.

What's that about not judging a book by its cover? 

The truth of the matter is that an elevated diction, unusual rhetorical tropes, a spacious and ponderous feel, are all highly suitable to signifying that this book is like no other book, and that it is worthy of our attention and our effort. We must, to some extent, strain to it, in order to find out what it is saying; its lack of immediate comprehensibility is a shield against contempt. Anything easily understood is viewed by us as beneath us, inferior to our own power of understanding; at best, it will be classified as “useful,” at worst as worthless. I remember hearing one Sunday at Mass the word “froward” in the Epistle that was read from the pulpit before the homily: I said to myself: “What in the world does froward mean?” Much later, I learned that it meant difficult to deal with, contrary, ornery. The word actually stuck in my memory better because I did not know what it meant.

That reminds me, too, of times when our children would ask us what something meant in a story or a poem or at Mass. Usually they asked us about something strange in a text—something that went beyond their reading comprehension. And the answer provided by my wife or me was often an occasion for a brief catechetical lesson.

It seems to me that there is so much wisdom to be found in the practice, common to every religious tradition on earth, of using more archaic and more solemn forms of language as part of the act of worship. I would be remiss not to mention in this connection the stellar example given to the English-speaking world by the Anglican Ordinariate, which has brought into Catholic life, for the first time since the Council, a truly lofty and noble register of vernacular. And I daresay “even children and persons of small education” are instructed, inspired, and intrigued thereby.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: