American Catholic Press
16565 S. State Street, South Holland, Illinois 60473
by Msgr. Ronald Knox
Almost for the first time in my life, I am reading a paper before a learned audience con amore. As a rule, I find the process involves talking about something in which you are not interested, talking about something of which you have no knowledge, or talking about something about which there is very little to say—sometimes all three. Now, all I have got to do is to ventilate the ideas which have been simmering in my brain continuously these last three years; the ideas which, unless I am carefully controlled, I pour out freely in conversation. There is a great deal to be said about translating the Bible; most of that I claim to know, even if I know nothing else, and I am furiously interested in it.
Let us be precise; when I talk about translating the Bible, I mean translating
the Vulgate. I have every respect for the patient scholarship which is giving
us the Westminster Version, and I have sometimes found myself envying its compilers
their liberty. But, it is well known for all official purposes a Bible
That is not to say that, when you are translating a translation,
you must never look back at the original document. There will be
passages in which the Latin is patient of two different interpretations;
and here the original will put you right. This is especially true
in the Vulgate Psalms; only the original to which you must refer
is not the Hebrew but the Septuagint, which they follow almost slavishly.
Again, there will be passages in which the Latin translators have
thrown up the sponge, and simply given you a meaningless transliteration
of the Greek; in Acts 17:18, for example, the word spermologos is
The only considerable liberty I have allowed myself of going back
behind the Latin—and I have only done so tentatively—is
to restore, here and there, more plausible tenses to the verbs when
the Latin comes, directly or indirectly, from the Hebrew. In the
Psalms, particularly,1 I
do not see how you are to make any consecutive sense of passages
here and there unless you give a present where the Latin has a perfect
and sometimes where the Latin has a future. King David had, after
all, only two tenses to express himself in; and by the time the Septuagint
has translated his imperfect (or was it a future?) into an aorist
was written before the appearance of the new Latin
which may or may not be gnomic, and the Vulgate has translated the aorist
into a perfect which may or may not be the “perfect with have”,
a rich confusion has been introduced into the time-sequence which impels the
translator to put the verb in the present and call it a day. You must, after
all, translate with some reference to the context.
Two alternatives present themselves
at once, the literal and the literary method of translation. Is it to
Among the many good things Mr. Belloc has done, which are almost entirely unknown, is a little brochure of 44 pages, the substance of a lecture he once gave at the Taylorian, on “Translation.” The great principle he there lays down is that the business of a translator is not to ask, “How shall I make this foreigner talk English?” but “What would an Englishman have said to express this?” For instance, he says, if you are faced with the French sentence, Il y avait dans cet homme je ne sais quoi de suffisance, you do not want to write, “There was in this man I know not what of self-sufficiency”; you want to write, “There was a touch of complacency about him.” So with arms and the man. You have not translated the phrase when you have merely corrected the preposterous order, and written, “I sing of arms and the man.” “Sing” is only used like that by English poets when they are imitating Virgil, and you must not translate Virgil by imitating Virgil. The opening is also too abrupt; there is not time to give the words “I sing” a proper emphasis. You want something like, “My song tells of arms; tells of the man” and so on. Anybody who has really tackled the business of translation, at least where the classical languages are concerned, will tell you that the bother is not finding the equivalent for this or that word, it is finding out how to turn the sentence. And about this, the older translators of the Bible took no trouble at all. Take this sentence: “The Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders.” No, do not exclaim against the cumbrousness of Douay; that comes from the Authorized Version. The Authorized Version is supposed to be the fountain of pure English; but there it gives you an English sentence which would get any man the sack, and rightly, from Fleet Street. “For the Pharisees, and, indeed all the Jews”: holding to the tradition of their ancestors, never eat without washing their hands again and again”—there is the English of it.
Incidentally, let us never be taken in by the people who talk to us about the “effective inversions of order” which bring out the emphasis so well in the Bible. There are, indeed, such things as effective inversions of order. But what they mean is a sentence like, “If I by the finger of God cast out devils.” Here, the operative words, “by the finger of God,” have been taken away from the end of the sentence, where the emphasis would have fallen on them, and shipped round to the front, leaving the whole emphasis of the sentence wrong; “If I by the finger of God cast out DEVILS,” as if somebody had been accusing our Lord of casting out angels. There, of course, the Authorized Version knew better; it was Douay, feverishly keeping the order of the Latin, that gave us the piece of false rhetoric to which our ears, by annual repetition, have grown accustomed.
say, then, that the first thing demanded of a new translation of the Vulgate
is that it should break away from the literal translation of sentences. What
could be flatter than the first verse of St. John, as usually translated, “In
the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God?”
So much for sentences; and now, what of phrases? It stands to reason that no two languages have exactly the same idiom; that the English for “Comment vous portez-vous?” is not “How do you carry yourself?” If anybody has come across that extremely rare book, “English as she is Spoke,” he will know what I mean. The book was a phrase-book compiled by a Portuguese author for the benefit of English travellers in Portugal. And you do not need much critical insight to detect the fact that this well-meaning gentleman knew no English at all. He knew French; so he translated his sentences into French and then did them into English with a dictionary. Consequently, when he wanted to render a Portuguese idiom which meant, “to wait about, to kick one’s heels,” he could do all right for the first part of his process; he knew that the corresponding idiom in French was “croquer le marmot”—I have no notion why. The English, therefore, for kicking one’s heels was “to crunch the marmoset.” It is an extremely entertaining book; but, if you come to think of it, practically every translation of the Bible you have ever readinakes errors which are quite as ludicrous—only we are accustomed to them. Douay was consistent; it translated the Latin word for word, and if you protested that its version sounded rather odd, replied woodenly, “Well, that’s what it says.” In the eleventh psalm, for instance, you get the words “deceitful lips, they have spoken in heart and heart.” Even Challoner saw that that would not do, so he pillaged from the Authorized Version and gave us “with a double heart have they spoken” I don’t see what a double heart could be except an abnormal anatomical condition, or an obscure kind of convention at bridge; but anyhow it sounds a little more like English. But when the Latin had “renew a right spirit within my bowels,” that was what Challoner put, and when the Latin had “Examine, O Lord, my kidneys,” Challoner put that down too; only he changed kidneys to the obsolete word “reins,” hoping that his readers would not look it up in the dictionary. We are sensible of these Hebraisms, and most of us would like to see the last of them. But there are hundreds and hundreds of other Hebraisms which we do not because we have allowed ourselves to grow accustomed to them. We should have thought it odd if we had read in The Times General Montgomery’s right hand has smitten Rommel in the hinder parts; but if we get that sort of thing in the Bible we take it, unlike Rommel, sitting down. “Mr. Churchill then opened his mouth and spoke”—is that English? No, it is Hebrew idiom clothed in English words.
Constantly, then, you have to be on the look-out for phrases which, because
you have so often met them in the Bible, read like English, and yet are not
English. Many of them, beginning life as Bible English, have even crept into
the language; “to give a person the right hand of fellowship,” for example, or “to sleep with one’s
fathers,” or “the son
of perdition.” If the translator
is not careful, he will let these through the barrier by mistake, and he will
be wrong. When a public speaker urges that we should give Chiang
A propos of that, may I suggest some considerations about what are called “consecrated phrases” in the Bible, which, we are told, we must not alter in any way, because they have become so familiar? I quite admit that where a form of words has become stereotyped through passing into liturgical use, it is a pity and probably a waste of time to try and alter it. The words of the Our Father and of the Hail Mary have got to remain as they are. Again, there are certain formulas which are best left alone, or altered as little as possible, because alteration cannot hope to make them clearer, and they have already a supreme literary value of their own, depending on association; the words of Consecration, for example, or the seven words from the Cross. But it is, I submit, a grave error to sick to a form of words, in itself unnatural English, merely because a thousand repetitions have familiarized the public ear with the sound of it. Just because we are familiar with a form of words, we fail to be struck by its full meaning. For instance, I had a very interesting letter from an Irish Redemptorist, expressing the hope that I had found some better translation for arneito heauton (abneget semetipsum) than “let him deny himself”. This has become a consecrated phrase; and for years, now, nuns have been encouraging schoolgirls to give up toffee during Lent and write the fact down on a card as a record of “self- denial.” For years, Salvation Army lasses have picketed us with demands for a half-penny because it is “self- denial week.” The whole glorious content of the phrase, arneito heauton, let him obliterate himself, let him annihilate himself, let him rule Self out of his world-picture altogether, has become degraded and lost. That is what happens to “consecrated phrases.”
I have urged that the translator's business is
to recondition, as often as not, whole sentences, so as to allow for the
characteristic emphasis of his own language. I have urged that it is his
business to transpose whole phrases, so as to reduce them to the equivalent
idiom of his own language. And now, what of words? Here a consideration
comes which is often forgotten. The Bible is usually translated by a syndicate;
and the first thing a syndicate does when it gets together is to make sure
that all the members of it tell the same story. If you proposed to translate
the Aeneid in this way, each member of it translating one book, the first
item on the Committee’s agenda would be. What is going to
be our formula for translating the word “Pius” as applied to
the hero of the poem? They go away, after agreeing (say) on the word “dutiful,” which
does well enough. But if a single man translates the whole Aeneid, he very
soon realizes that “pius” takes on a different shade
of meaning with each fresh context; now it is “Aeneas, that dutiful
son, ”now it
is “Aeneas, that admirable host,” now it is “Aeneas, tha trained
liturgiologist.” The compilers of the Authorized Version evidently did
something of that kind with a word like dikaiosune in the New Testament,
or tsedeq in the old. They could see that Douay's renderiñg “justice,” was beside the mark nine times out of ten. What they did was to resuscitate a
more or less obsolete
For every common word in every living language has, not one meaning, but a quantity of shades of meaning. If you set out to give salus the meaning of “salvation” all through the New Testament, you find yourself up against St. Paul inviting the ship’s company during the storm to take a little food for the sake of their salvation. It is a capital heresy among translators, the idea that you must always render soand-so in Latin by such-and-such in English. We sometimes get the idea that this must be a holy principle; is it not, after all, we are asked, the way in which the Vulgate proceeds in translating the Greek of the New Testament? If anybody harbours that delusion, he is recommended to consult Plummer’s edition of II Corinthians; he will find there an appendix giving about 250 Greek words in the epistles, each of which the Vulgate renders in two or more ways. The word euclokein, he points out, is rendered in no less than ten different ways in the epistles alone. He appears to be scandalized by this procedure, which shows that he knew very little about translation. It is true, I think, that the Vulgate very often picks on the wrong rendering, the word with the wrong shade of meaning for that particular context. Over that, Plummer is welcome to have a grievance. But let him not demand that eudokein should be translated “be well pleased” wherever it occurs, simply for the sake of uniformity.
Words are not coins, dead things whose. value can be mathematically computed. You cannot quote an exact English equivalent for a French word, as you might quote an exact English equivalent for a French coin. Words are living things, full of shades of meaning, full of associations; and, what is more, they are apt to change their significance from one generation to the next. The translator who understands his job feels, constantly, like Alice in Wonderland trying to play croquet with flamingoes for mallets and hedgehogs for balls; words are forever eluding his grasp. Think of the delicate differences there are between the shades of meaning in a group of words like “mercy, pity, clemency, pardon,” or a group of words like “fear, terror, awe, reverence, respect,” or a group of words like “glory, honour, fame, praise, credit.” How is it to be expected, on the law of averages, that any such group of words in English has an exactly corresponding group of words in Latin, and another in Greek, so that you can say, for example, doxa always means gloria in Latin, always means “glory” in English? Tsedeq or dikaiosune can mean, when used of a man, innocence, or honesty, or uprightness, or charitableness, or dutifulness, or (very commonly) the fact of being in God’s good books. Used of God, it can mean the justice which punishes the sinner, or, quite as often, the faithfulness which protects the good; it can mean, also, the approval with which God looks upon those who are in his good books. Only a meaningless token-word, like righteousness, can pretend to cover all these meanings. To use such a token-word is to abrogate your duty as a translator. Your duty as a translator is to think up the right expression, though it may have to be a paraphrase, which will give the reader the exact shade of meaning here and here and here.
The translator, let me suggest in passing, must never be frightened of the word “paraphrase”; it is a bogey of the half-educated. As I have already tried to point out, it is almost impossible to translate a sentence without paraphrasing; it is a paraphrase when you translate “Comment vous portez-vous?” by ‘How are you?’ But often enough it will be a single word that calls for paraphrase. When St. Paul describes people as “wise according to the flesh,” the translator is under an obligation to paraphrase. In English speech, you might be called fat according to the flesh, or thin according to the flesh, but not wise or foolish. The flesh here means natural, human standards of judging, and the translator has got to say so. “Wise according to the flesh” is Hebrew in English dress; it is not English. You have not translated “Galeotto fu il libbro, e chi lo scrisse,” if you write,“The book was Galahad, and so was the man who wrote it.” Dante’s “Galeotto” (being paraphrased) means “a pandar”; and how (shades of Lord Tennyson!) is the English reader to know that?
The sentence, the phrase, the word—over all these the translator must keep watch; must beware of the instinct which bids him save trouble, or avoid criticism, by giving a merely photographic reproduction of his original. Nor does his task end there; his matter has to be duly chopped up into sentences. The first sentence of St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans has ninety-one Latin words in it. The second sentence in his epistle to the Ephesians has a hundred and eighty-two. I admit that these figures are exceptional, but it is the clear fact about St. Paul that he thought in paragraphs. St. John, on the other hand, has an insatiable passion for periods. And nothing, I fancy, is so subtly disconcerting to the modern reader as having ic his intellectual. food cut up into unsuitable lengths. The easy art of making it masticable has been learned to perfection by the journalists and public speakers whose thought he is accustomed to follow. If you want him to read Scripture without a kind of unconscious indigestion, you must prepare it more or less according to the current formula.
“The modem reader,” I have said; thereby, I am afraid, taking for granted a point which remains to be discussed. Ought the modem reader of the Bible to have the illusion that he is reading something written in the twentieth century? Or will he prefer to have these holy documents wrapped up in archaic forms, just as he prefers to see the priest at Mass dressed up in a sixth-century overcoat? The latter suggestion is not so improbable as it sounds. Unlike the French, the English have always been accustomed to having an archaic Bible. Douay and the Authorized Version were compiled in the time of Shakespeare; but neither was written in the idiom of Shakespeare’s time. Read a couple of pages out of any of the comedies, and you will be sensible of it at once. More than three centuries have passed; and as current idiom has changed, “Bible English” has become a sort of hieratic language; it is old, therefore it is venerable (for it is a fixed belief in the heart of the ordinary Englishman that the word “venerable” means “old.” Let him beware, then, who proposes to alter it. Let him try to render the sense of Scripture plainer to us by whatever means he will, but let him adhere (or rather, let him cleave) to the good old-fashioned diction which was good enough for our forefathers, and is still better for us because for us it is still more old-fashioned.
Upon my word, if I had been trying to translate the Bible a hundred years ago, or even at the time when it seemed as if Newman was to be entrusted with the work of translating the Bible, these arguments would have impressed me. For England, and indeed Europe generally, was then passing through a phase of romantic revival, and all our art and literature reeked of the past. Pugin, erecting Gothic cathedrals while you waited, Rossetti and Burne Jones covering yards of canvas with Arthurian legends executed in the very manner of Fra Angelico, William Morris pouring out synthetic medievalism, and all the poets, from Keats to Tennyson, dredging the Faery Queen to get hold of more and more odd words to impress the British public with—ah, it would have been child’s play translating the Bible then! I believe I would have executed a version of the Scriptures, compared to which the old Douay would have looked painfully modem, and almost colloquial. But that was a hundred or nearly a hundred years ago.
Today, we have boxed the compass. Rightly or wrongly, architecture is breaking away everywhere from the Gothic tradition. Our artists, instead of boasting themselves pre-Raphaelite, are looking round all the time to see what they can be Post, Poets speak in the language of the day, often in the strong language of the day. Prose-writers produce remarkable effects by breaking suddenly into italics, and filling their pages up with rows and rows of little dots. The young men will criticize Stevenson for caring so much about style, as if style mattered! The most damning criticism which can be passed on any work of art is that it is bogus; and how can any literature fail to be bogus that is deliberately written in the manner of four hundred years ago? Whatever else our contemporaries may worship, they will not bow the knee to the past; we have debunked the past.
Am I, then, prepared to haul down my colors, and pipe to this generation in the airs it has grown accustomed to, in the hope that it will dance? Must I translate the Bible in the idiom of James Joyce, or of Louis Macneice? I confess that I draw a different moral from the disconcerting change of fashion which I have been trying, very inadequately, to outline. It seems to me that elderly people, among whose number I am reluctantly beginning to reckon myself, have lived through enough vicissitudes of public taste to beware of catering exclusively for the mood of today. If the conventions of art can, in our times, be so rapidly overhauled, catering for the mood of today will mean, almost certainly, ministering to the nausea of tomorrow. The moral, surely, is that anybody who tries to do a new translation of the Bible in these days should aim at producing something which will not, in fifty or a hundred years’ time, be “dated.” In a word, what you want is neither sixteenth-century English nor twentieth-century English, but timeless English. Whether you can get it, is another question. The method I proposed to myself was this—to use no word, no phrase, and as far as possible no turn of sentence, which would not have passed as decent literary English in the seventeenth century and would not pass as decent literary English today. All these last three years, Murray’s dictioriary, in the full-size edition, has been more frequently in my hands than Forcellini, or Liddell and Scott, or Gesenius.
Strictly speaking, the thing is not possible. “Peter stood at the door without” sounds old-fashioned today; “Peter stood at the door outside” would have been incomprehensible in the seventeenth century. And I confess that I have preserved one or two archaisms; “multitude,” for example—“crowd” is such an ugly word; and “brethren,” so familiar in ecclesiastical use, and one or two others. Much more serious was the problem, what to do about “thou” and “you.” I confess I would have liked to go the whole hog, and dispense with the use of “thou” and “thee,” even where the Almighty was being addressed. They do these things in. France, but I felt sure you could not get it past the British public. Why not, then, have “thou” for God and “you” for man? That is Moffatt’s pnnciple, but it seems to me to break down hopelessly in relation to our Incarnate Lord.Who is to say, exactly when he is being addressed as God and when he is being addressed as Man? Moffatt makes St. Paul address him as ‘you’ in a vision, but the Lamb of the Apocalypse is “thou.” In a single chapter of the Hebrews, quoting from a single psalm, Moffatt gives us “thou art my Son,” and “sit at my right hand till I make your enemies a foot-stool.” I despaired in the face of these difficulties, and resolved to keep “thou,” with its appropriate form, throughout, at the same time abolishing third-person forms like “speaketh,” which serve no useful purpose whatever.
On the other hand, I confess that I have given more weight to modern usage in certain points; particularly over the conjunctions at the beginning of sentences or clauses. The conjunction, it seems to me, is tending to disappear. Nobody, nowadays, uses “therefore” at the beginning of a sentence. We say, I must be going, I’ve got to catch a ‘“bus, ”not I must be going, for I’ve got to catch a “bus.” No modem crowd would shout, “Not this man, but Barabbas”; it would be, “Not this man; Barabbas!” And I confess that I think our language is gaining in strength by depending more on emphasis, less on subsidiary parts of speech. Here, if nowhere else, I have confessed myself a child of the twentieth century.
I cannot guess what impression all these considerations will make on my audience; I only know that when I set them out like this, they convince me. But I am not, for that, too sanguine in the belief that anything will be done about giving us a new translation of the Bible—I mean, for official purposes. If such a step is proposed, I am quite sure that it will meet with opposition from a number of influential people—almost all of them priests—who will be honestly convinced that the Catholic public is being deprived of a priceless possession. We shall be told about the simple folk, always invoked on such occasions, who like what they have always been accustomed to. The faith of our grandfathers will be mentioned a great deal, and nothing will be said about the faith of our grandchildren. It is easy to organize opposition, where the discomforts attendant on a change will be felt by the clergy of today, while the benefits are for the clergy of tomorrow.
And yet, is the Douay, as it has come down to us through Challoner, really so familiar to us, so universally beloved? I understand that, for several years, during and after the Second World War it was impossible, in England or Scotland, for a Catholic to buy a copy of the New Testament. Would any other Christian denomination in the world have sat down under that? In my experience, the laity’s attitude towards the Bible is one of blank indifference, varied now and again by one of puzzled hostility. The clergy, no doubt, search the Scriptures more eagerly. And yet, when I used to go round preaching a good deal, and would ask the pastor for a Bible to verify my text from, there was generally an ominous pause of twenty minutes or so before he returned, banging the leaves of the sacred volume and visibly blowing on the top. The new wine of the Gospel, you felt, was kept in strangely cobwebby bottles.
No doubt certain passages, familiarized to us by being read out on solemn occasions—St. John’s account of the Passion, for example—have entwined themselves graciously in the memory. But let anyone take up the Douay version and open it at random in the middle of the epistles; what does he make of the strange bypaths of it? Take this passage, for example, from the Hebrews. For the priesthood being translated, it is necessary that a translation also be made of the law. For he of whom these things are spoken is of another tribe, of which no one attended on the altar. For it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Juda: in which tribe Moses spoke nothing concerning priests. And it is yet far more evident: if according to the similitude of Melchisedech there ariseth anothe priest, who is made, not according to the law of a carnal commandment, but according to the power of an indissoluble life.” My ear may be faulty, but I do not find anything very impressive about the cadences I have just read; and as for the meaning—one knows the sort of thing it means, because one has read it in the Latin; but as a piece of English it is gibberish; you can give it no other name. The Douay people knew how to write, and Challoner’s age was an age in which men could give you a good rendering—witness that extract from an old version Father Hugh Pope sent me, from the epistle of St. James, “And he says to the fine suit of clothes, Sit you here, that’s for quality”; there you have translation. But the Bible translated at Douay on the principle of Kelly’s Keys, and then watered down by Challoner to make it sound less rugged—was there any hope that this would give us desirable English?
Knox, R. Trails Of A Translator (SHEED & WARD, INC.).New York, NY, 1949).