Sunday, May 30, 2010

Beyond the New English Ordinary Form Missal: Other Issues With Approved Translations – Part 3

This should provoke some good controversy! I find some of the views in what follows rather problematic. See what you think.

Tridentine Community News (May 23, 2010):
In Part 2 of this column series [see below], we compared English translations of the Holy Bible. We provided an example of the same passage of Holy Scripture as translated in the Douay-Rheims Bible (used in most translations of the Extraordinary Form of Holy Mass), the New American Bible (used in the Ordinary Form in the United States), and the New Revised Standard Version (used in the Ordinary Form in Canada). Our argument was that the Douay’s use of hierarchical language when addressing God, along with other reverent constructs of English, are particularly fitting expressions of the content of the Bible, consistent with commonly-found English translations of the Ordinary and Orations of the Tridentine Mass.

We are always open to corrections and differing views. A reader of this column who happens to be a Biblical scholar e-mailed some interesting points that deserve mention:

1. When the Douay-Rheims was originally published, the language that it used was the common language of the day. It was not meant to be hierarchical language. That perception arose as “thee” and “thou” dropped out of everyday usage. Because nowadays most people only hear those pronouns used in Old English settings such as the works of Shakespeare, or in various Biblical translations, they have acquired a reputation of reverence which was not intended by the original translators.

2. In 1943, Pope Pius XII issued Divíno Afflánte Spíritu, an Encyclical which urged subsequent translations of the Bible to be made directly from the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. The Douay and various other translations had been made from the Latin Vulgate, which itself was a translation from the original languages. As a translation of a translation, the Douay is, in principle, less accurate than the NAB or NRSV, both of which are direct translations from the original languages.

3. In the over 400 years since the Douay was originally published, considerable advances in Biblical scholarship have taken place. Increasing familiarity with the original texts, improved communications between those conducting Biblical studies, and discoveries such as the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940s have resulted in more accurate translations being made in recent decades than have been possible in prior years.

4. Truly accurate translations might surprise us. For example, when our Lord addresses the Apostles in Matthew 4.19, and in the language many of us know, commands them to be “fishers of men”, the original Greek actually says “fishers of human beings”. Thus, accurate translations may require some adaptation on our part. It is not safe to make a blanket assumption that seemingly more modern expressions are inaccuracies, when in fact the contrary may be the case.

5. By and large, hierarchical language was not used in the original Biblical texts. Desiring it as a part of current-day ideologies is actually imposing a notion that was not there to begin with.

6. It is not pastorally appropriate to suggest that the judgment of the Canadian and American bishops in approving the NRSV and NAB translations may have been flawed. Our bishops did so recognizing that these particular translations were the work of Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, and Jewish scholarly translating teams whose focus was accuracy. They are direct responses to Pope Pius XII’s encyclical and eminently suitable.

A Clarification of Our Own Thoughts

We cannot be cafeteria Catholics. We cannot accuse liberal Catholics of picking and choosing what they like, if we of a more traditional bent are guilty of the same. Our column was not meant to suggest that we approached the topic from a perspective of Biblical expertise. Quite the contrary: this author is relatively unfamiliar with the Holy Bible, and is not qualified to debate, for example, point 2 above. Our reader is one of this region’s noted experts on sacred Scripture, thus his observations bear weight.

We can agree to disagree on some points, however. A gender-neutral translation of Matthew 4.19 when “men” itself is widely acknowledged to be usable in a gender-neutral context is arguably an imposition of a current-day ideology, the very thing our reader seeks to avoid in point 5. Interestingly, the NAB uses “men” in this particular translated phrase, but the NRSV does not.

Our preference for the Douay-Rheims – for usage in the Extraordinary Form – is grounded in three areas:

First, hierarchical language (as we now perceive it) has intrinsic value. Our Protestant brethren use similar translations, such as the King James, in part because of that language. It’s an asset both aesthetic (subjective) and a matter of liturgical custom (objective).

Second, the vast majority of hand missals, and the English translations of the Extraordinary Form Roman Ritual book of blessings and Sacraments (the Rituále Románum and its abbreviated sister Colléctio Rítuum), use hierarchical English and Douay-Rheims translations of Biblical passages. One might draw an analogy to High Anglican services, whose Tridentine Mass-like rituals and Old English verbiage would seem familiar to those who attend the Extraordinary Form. In the English-speaking world, there is a culture of language around the Extraordinary Form. One cannot simply replace the Biblical passages with the NRSV or NAB; those readings would have a form inconsistent with the remainder of the Missal. Changing the rest of the Missal and Ritual into comparably less-hierarchical English would be a jarring, rather non-pastoral change to established traditions.

Third, over the past forty years, there has been only one newly-published hand missal for the Extraordinary Form that has an Imprimátur (the approval of a bishop): the Baronius Press Daily Missal. That missal incorporates…you guessed it ... Douay-Rheims readings. The bishop who gave the approval, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska, is intimately familiar with the Extraordinary Form; this was no casual sign-off. Like the bishops who approved the NAB and NRSV, Bishop Bruskewitz made an informed decision, one that we must respect.
[Comments? Please e-mail Previous columns are available at This edition of Tridentine Community News, with minor editions, is from the St. Josaphat bulletin insert for May 23, 2010. Hat tip to A.B.]


Anonymous said...

Ah! An issue near and dear to my heart.

The question of "thee" and "thou" in English once having been the familiar rather than the formal is both quite correct and, interestingly, a strong argument for its reintroduction where it has been infelicitously relegated to inferior status.

Inside the "thee and thou as familiar" argument is the recognition that Christ himself told us to call God "Abba" -- which isn't a stand-offish term. God wants us to approach Him with childlike simplicity, knowing that He is our loving Father and God of all creation at the same time.

Older forms of English used both "thee and thou" AND "you", thus teaching us by making careful use of the language. One great shame about the NAB translation is that it produces a one-dimension rendition of Holy Writ. To the un-dying shame of the translators, the "lame-duck" translation of the Missal, rather than making careful distinctions, merely shaves with Occam's razor. To those who have never seen a well prepared meal, Burger King is just fine, thank you. In a pinch, fast food will still provide something akin to nourishment, but once we have tasted of the rich fare which is (and should be) ours for the asking, why would we choose the inferior product.

Here are just a few examples.

"All the angels and saints" clearly includes St. Michael, St. John, Ss. Peter and Paul and Our Lady, but the older form is superior precisely because the individual saints were enumerated for a purpose.

More anon.

God bless,

Chris Garton-Zavesky

Fagans said...

I hate to sound contrarian PB, but I agree with the party of the first part.

Jordanes said...

"Fishers of human beings" is the same as "fishers of men," since "men" means "human beings."

Pertinacious Papist said...

Chris, magnificently-written.

Fagans, could you possibly be any more obscure? "First part"? You agree with Chris? You agree with "Part 1" of this series? You agree with what? Are you controverting Part 2? Part 3?

Jordanes, I agree. Isn't it rather sad when one has to point out the obvious to people? What DO they teach in schools these days?!

Anonymous said...

A linguist friend of mine has been heard often to complain that the tendency toward simplification in modern English will eventually lead to a reduction of speech to a primal state of grunts and monosyllables. Somewhat cynical exaggeration as that may be, it expresses justified frustration with the rapid change in the language toward simplicity at the expense of precision.

The subjunctive has all but disappeared. Outside of England the distinction between shall and will is mostly unknown. Expressions such as "as far as X is concerned" are reduced to literally illogical strings such as "as far as X." Sports commentators sometimes seem to have forgotten the entire tense structure of the language. And yet, some want our scriptures to sound familiar. Without arguing that familiar register in scripture may be a bad idea, I only say that at the rate the language is shifting, new translations will have to be made regularly to keep the translations up to date.

The scriptures should be understandable but there is no harm in their having an aura of timelessness or in their being a standard for language as well as a source of inspiration. The King James Bible was a standard for literacy for centuries.

Literally exact translation in the colloquial form, btw, is impossible. The play between 'agapo' and 'phileo' in the passage in which Jesus asks Peter three times, "Do you love me?" is probably impossible to catch in modern colloquial English.

Translators have to make choices that effect meaning. There is always a tension between the original meaning and register of the source language and the choices available to the translator in the target language. Personally, I don't think the translator should modernize the meaning with anachronistic sentiment or content that simply isn't in the original.

Fagans said...

I'm with the biblical scholar. That is how Fattie rolls.

Joseph said...

Isn't it interesting that second person singular pronouns such as Thou (subjective case) and Thee (objective case) and Thine (possessive case) as well as the adjective Thy were actually both second person singular familiar. You/Yours (subj/obj and possessive cases)and your (poss adjective), like the French vous, were either second person plural or second person singular, polite form. This is why the Society of Friends (the Quakers) still use Thou/Thee/Thine and Thy. It, like Abba, was meant ot be familiar language like Abba (more like Papa than Father)

It is only when You/Your and Yours began to dominate and drive out Thou/Thee/Thine and Thy from usage that those words showed up only in speech used largely in worship (less subject to the ongoing changes in language) and therefore took on a more formal usage.

They were never meant to be used formally. Thou/thee/thine and thy has historically been familiar and intimate words just like Abba.

Anonymous said...

The Greek word in Mt.4:19 is the genetive plural of 'anthropos' which only a pedant or someone with a political ax to grind would translate as "human beings"

In the English poem that says
'Men are we and we must morn when even the shade of that which once was great has passed away,' would anyone ever assume that women are not included? Somehow 'Human beings are we...' just doesn't cut it.