Lost in Translation
A Brief Commentary on the Issues with Modern Translations of Biblical and Liturgical Texts into English
by Servus Immaculatae
Ever since God scattered the peoples of the earth giving them different languages at the tower of Babel there has been a need for translations to be made of the writings of each land and people so that they could be shared with one another. And with Christ’s command to His Apostles:
“Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” (Matt. 28:19)
It was necessary that the gospel be preached in every language of the world. At first there was no need because of the special charismatic gifts of the Apostles of speaking in tongues (Acts 2 & 10), and within the Roman Empire the common language was Greek (Latin was used by the government and military). This made the scriptures easy to spread throughout the Empire because the Old Testament text used at the time of Christ was the Septuagint, which was the famous translation of the scriptures from the Hebrew by 72 Jewish scholars into Greek. Also, nearly all of the New Testament would be written in Greek. Even Matthew who, it is believed, originally wrote his Gospel in Aramaic [Chaldee or Chaldean] (as it was directed principally to the Jews) would soon after translate it into Greek himself.
Almost in the very earliest days, however, there were translations of the Sacred Scriptures into a very high Latin for use in the Sacred Liturgy. This is attested to by archeological findings in Chapels in the city of Pompeii, which was buried under around 5 meters of ash and pumice in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Thus the use of Latin in the Liturgy is nearly as ancient as that of Greek, and both borrow directly from the Liturgy of the Temple which was celebrated in Hebrew. In all three cases the language used was not the common language, however, rather it was very high forms of each language not used in common speech. The differences were somewhat akin to the difference between English today and that used at the time of Shakespeare.
The ancient text of Sacred Scripture in Latin, the Vetus Latina (no longer extant), was then revised and partially re-translated by Saint Jerome, Doctor of the Biblical Sciences, at the commission of Pope Saint Damasus I in 382. Jerome consulted ancient Greek and Hebrew texts (no longer extant) in making his corrections and then presented the finished work to the Pope for his approval. Pope Benedict XV in his great encyclical on Saint Jerome, Spiritus Paraclitus, gives a wonderful account of the labors of this Saint and his revision and translation of Sacred Scripture. And while the second of his three translations of the Psalms (known as the Gallican Psalter) would ultimately be used by the monks of Saint Benedict, for singing the Divine Office, and thus spread all throughout the West and was the one used in the official Latin text of the Scriptures, when it came to the Sacred Liturgy of Holy Mass Pope Damasus said that the texts were not to be touched because they were themselves protected by Sacred Tradition. And for those who attend the Traditional Latin Mass today this remains true for they were never changed.
Of course it wasn’t until the African Synod of Hippo, in 393, that the New Testament, as it stands today, together with the Septuagint books were approved officially by the Church as the official canon of Sacred scripture. It was a decision that was repeated by Councils of Carthage in 397 and 419. These councils were under the authority of the great Saint Augustine. (Everett Ferguson, “Factors leading to the Selection and Closure of the New Testament Canon,” in The Canon Debate. eds. L. M. McDonald & J. A. Sanders (Hendrickson, 2002) p. 320; F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Intervarsity Press, 1988) p. 230; cf. Augustine, De Civitate Dei 22.8)
The work undertaken by Saint Jerome has greatly impacted the Church in the West ever since, because it is this version of Sacred Scripture that many centuries later would be declared infallible and without error under the name of the Clementine Latin Vulgate. This was declared so by the Ecumenical Council of Trent as follows:
“But if any one receive not, as sacred and canonical, the said books entire with all their parts, as they have been used to be read in the Catholic Church, and as they are contained in the old Latin vulgate edition; and knowingly and deliberately contemn the traditions aforesaid; let him be anathema.” (4th Session, Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures, 8 April 1546)
Now then it seems that average Catholic, who is not a scripture scholar, should use a translation that is a faithful translation of the Clementine Vulgate, and thus we have in the oldest and still best translation of the Latin Vulgate in English: the Douay-Rheims Bible. Though the first edition of the Douay was actually translated from the Paris Vulgate, and when the famous Bishop Challenor made his revision of the Douay it was to bring it into line with the Clementine Vulgate. And it was in fact the Douay upon which the larger part of the original King James edition was based, though it of course was edited to suit the theology of the Anglicans. For a history of the Bible in the English language read more here: “English Versions of the Bible“.
The study of the Sacred Scriptures, however, suffered a great decline in the ensuing centuries until that glorious Pope of the 19th Century, the Pope of the Rosary, Leo XIII wrote his encyclical on the study of Sacred Scripture: Providentissimus Deus in 1893, which began a resurgence of the study of the Sacred Scriptures. Pope Leo before being elected to be a successor of Saint Peter had been a professor and saw the great need for a return to the intense scholastic study of the scriptures just as he would most highly recommend the use of Saint Thomas Aquinas for the study of Philosophy and Theology in his 1879 encyclical: Aeterni Patris.
Foreseeing this need themselves that great order to which Saint Thomas belonged, the Dominicans in 1889 founded at Jerusalem the famous École Biblique, which is still one of the great centers for biblical studies today. Pope Leo would then found the Pontifical Biblical Institute, and his successor, the great Pope Saint Pius X, would found in 1906 the Pontifical Biblical Commission. This last institution was a group of theologians, who provided answers to exegetes on what this or that passage of the bible might mean and what Catholics could believe about any particular passage. In its first years it carried a great deal of authority and weight which has since been stripped away. Still it is worth studying the pronouncements they made during the time they had an authority, and you can read more about that here: Rediscovering the Decrees of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.
This interest in the study of the Scriptures continued also with the next successor of Saint Peter, and as already mentioned Pope Benedict XV would write his encyclical on Saint Jerome in 1920. We find, however, from Venerable Pope Pius XII who wrote his own encyclical on the study of Sacred Scripture in 1943: Divino afflante spiritu, the following:
“Seeing that, in the year 1907, with the benign approval of Pius X of happy memory, to the Benedictine monks had been committed the task of preparing the investigations and studies on which might be based a new edition of the Latin version of the Scripture, commonly called the Vulgate, [Letter to the Most Rev. Abbot Aidan Gasquet, Dec. 3, 1907; Pii X Acta IV, pp. 117-119, Ench. Bibl. n. 285 sq.] the same Pontiff, Pius XI, wishing to consolidate more firmly and securely this “laborious and arduous enterprise,” which demands considerable time and great expense, founded in Rome and lavishly endowed with a library and other means of research, the monastery of St. Jerome, to be devoted exclusively to this work.[Apostolic Constitution Inter praecipuas, June 15, 1933; Acta Ap. Sedu XXVI (1934), pp. 85-87. ]” (DAS, #8)
And indeed in 1914 this task of a revision of the Vulgate was undertaken. This work was to essentially recreate the text of the vulgate as it had been produced by Saint Jerome, and thus to do again the work done in creating the Clementine Vulgate. This work would be finished in the 1960s, but remains but a scholarly work.
Pope Pius XII also spoke about translations in his encyclical:
“Nor is it forbidden by the decree of the Council of Trent to make translations into the vulgar tongue, even directly from the original texts themselves, for the use and benefit of the faithful and for the better understanding of the divine word, as We know to have been already done in a laudable manner in many countries with the approval of the Ecclesiastical authority.” (DAS, #22)
This however opened the door for those not interested in true scholarship, but rather those with an agenda to begin the destruction of the Liturgy in the west. In the 1940s we then saw the introduction of the Pian Psalter (or Bea Psalter), which was commissioned under Pope Pius XII, which tried to put the psalms into clearer classical Latin with an eye to the original languages. The problem with this was first that the chants all no longer matched up with the text, and much more disturbingly the translation was done more for the purpose of greater understandability instead of an authentic traditional text. Thus many priests and religious began to ask the question: then why not just use the vernacular for the Liturgy if all that matters is understanding the text? This however missed the point, but would sadly feed into a non-traditional and anti-orthodox mentality in regard to the study of scripture and its translation in the vernacular, which would eventually result in a great impact on the Sacred Liturgy.
Thus despite Blessed Pope John XXIII’s beautiful Apostolic Constitution, Veterum Sapientia, on the great importance of the Latin Language being promulgated in 1962 there was a flood of new translations of the Sacred Scriptures into the vernacular tongues of many countries, but especially in English, and all of these rejected the Latin Vulgate and sought out the “original languages”. These new Translations were/are fraught with many problems. One major problem with them was that many of them were clearly translated with an agenda and sought to use the process of translation as an opportunity to inject their own aberrant philosophies and theologies into the sacred text. A very good look at some of these problems was taken up by Thomas A. Nelson the founder of TAN Books in his “What Bible Should you Read”. This idea of translating with an agenda even found its way into the documents of Vatican II in the document on the Sacred Scriptures, Dei Verbum, which suggested that:
“Easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful. That is why the Church from the very beginning accepted as her own that very ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament which is called the septuagint; and she has always given a place of honor to other Eastern translations and Latin ones especially the Latin translation known as the vulgate. But since the word of God should be accessible at all times, the Church by her authority and with maternal concern sees to it that suitable and correct translations are made into different languages, especially from the original texts of the sacred books. And should the opportunity arise and the Church authorities approve, if these translations are produced in cooperation with the separated brethren as well, all Christians will be able to use them.” (DV, #22)
The two worst offenders among these modern so called “Catholic” edition of the Sacred Scriptures are the New Jerusalem Bible and the New American Bible.
The New Jerusalem Bible is a translation made exclusively from the extant Hebrew text. The Hebrew text that we have is called the Masoretic text (MT), unified around 100 AD, transmitted by scribes, and it then takes on a life of its own evolving in format (spacing, punctuation, etc), but also the text was changed because of things that were unseemly to the Jews (thus it is a specifically anti-Catholic text), and by the 6th century they began putting in all the vowels because people needed to be reminded how to pronounce it properly. The oldest existing version of the MT, however, is only from the 10th century AD, and thus very modern. I will let Saint Alphonsus explain further the problems with this text:
There is no doubt that the Hebrew text, being the original text, deserves, when considered by itself, to be preferred to all the versions; but the learned generally agree in saying that the original Hebrew is no longer perfectly exact. Indeed, Salmeron, Morinus, and others teach that the Jews have altered it out of hatred to Christianity; many, with [Saint Robert] Bellarmine, think that many errors crept in through ignorance, or by the negligence of copyists. It should especially be remarked, that after the fifth century the Jewish doctors, called Masorites, have added to the Hebrew text signs that one never had seen, that is, points that should have taken the place of vowels, and that became the occasion of numerous equivocations and discordant interpretations. (The Divine Office – Explanation of the Psalms and Canticles)
And he continues by reiterating the superiority of the Latin Vulgate:
The Council of Trent, therefore, did not wish to do for the Hebrew text what it did for the Latin text of the Vulgate; for the latter it has declared to be authentic by presenting it as exempt from all error, at least in what concerns the dogmas of faith and moral precepts. Hence, in his dissertation on the transmission and preservation of the holy Scriptures, Xavier Mattel concludes that, there being given no matter what Hebrew passage or text, and the Vulgate not agreeing with it, one should keep to the Vulgate: “Not,” he adds, “ that this version is more authentic than the Hebrew text, but because it may be believed, on the one hand, that the passage in question is no longer to be found in the Hebrew as it was there primitively; and on the other hand, that this primitive text is found exactly reproduced in the Vulgate the only version that has merited to be approved by the Church.” (The Divine Office – Explanation of the Psalms and Canticles)
Thus this rejection of the Vulgate has been a most dangerous path to take, and even worse to then rely entirely upon the gravely impaired Hebrew text.
Then we come to the New American Bible, which was originally conceived as an experimental text when first published, yet very quickly became one of the most popular editions in English. This was so much so that it even became the basis for the Lectionary of the Novus Ordo even though the document on the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, said that: “the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.”
The New American Bible has all manner of problems in its translation, which you can see in the above mentioned work by Thomas A. Nelson. But the most disturbing aspect of this translation, which are many and varied, can only be topped by the accompanying commentary which includes actual out and out heresy in the footnotes. One glaring example is the note on Genesis 6:5 which reads: “Both biblical sources go back ultimately to an ancient Mesopotamian story of a great flood, preserved in the eleventh tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic.” So we are to believe that this portion of the Sacred inerrant Word of God is actually just a story based upon an ancient epic of devil worshiping pagans? And this is by no means the only problem found in the footnotes. We can find a discussion about another issue in the footnotes by the Rev. Monsignor Charles Pope here… New American Bible: Problems on Purgatory.
But the greatest tragedy has been the translation of the Sacred Liturgy in the vernacular in English, which was clearly done with an agenda, which to all appearance was not and is not consonant with the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Faith. And when it became so very clear that this was so the Bishops of the English speaking countries were tasked by Rome to correct the grave issues with the text, but this process took more than an agonizing decade to complete and wasn’t all the much of a change, though it correct some serious theological problems created by the former translation.
This problem of achieving a faithful translation of the Liturgy into English has far ranging effects because it affects not just the English speaking nations, which include many you might not expect (i.e. Nigeria), but also it is upon the English translation that the countries of Asia base their own vernacular translations. Thus these bad translations are causing problems all over the world. And things simply don’t have to be this way as we can see in the beautiful English translation of the Byzantine Liturgies in the United States, or that found in the English-Latin hand missals for the Traditional Latin Mass, or even the text used by the so called “High Anglicans” who worship using more or less an English language version of the Traditional Latin Mass retaining the ceremonies and ritual using a beautiful translation of the text. And it will not be until a faithful and authentic translation can be made in all humility and without any politics and being based upon the authentic Latin text that we can finally begin to repair the damage of many decades to the faithful by this great wound in the Sacred Liturgy.
Let us pray to Saint Jerome, Pope Saint Damasus I, and Pope Saint Pius X for this change to take place.
This is well a researched and informative. Thank you so much for taking the time to share it. It is appreciated!