Oct 15, 1997

The Vatican Norms for Scripture Translation

Online Edition


Vol. III, No. 7: October 1997


The Vatican Norms for Scripture Translation


A Closer Look

by Kenneth D. Whitehead

In response to the many translation questions which have arisen in recent years, especially those involving attempts to introduce so-called “gender inclusive” feminist language into liturgical and scriptural translations, the Holy See has now prepared and made operative a set of Norms for the Translation of Biblical Texts for Use in the Liturgy.

It would not be quite accurate to say that the Holy See has “released” such Norms, however. They remained confidential, until they were evidently leaked to the National Catholic Reporter and published by that newspaper in July. (In the early 1960s the NCR published copies of confidential papers submitted to Pope Paul VI by the Pontifical Birth Control Commission. As a result, many came to expect that the Church’s teaching prohibiting artificial birth control would be changed.)

Until last June, the Norms had been seen only by those bishops and translators directly involved in the revision of the American Lectionary; but they were included in a packet distributed to all US bishops before their vote on Volume I of a proposed new Lectionary, apparently revised in accordance with the same Norms. It was probably inevitable that they would be published.

Why the “secrecy”?

One reason for the confidentiality is that these are interim norms which responded specifically to the problems encountered with the retranslation of the American Lectionary. The Holy See is said to be rewriting its basic Instruction on the Translation of Liturgical Texts, a 1969 document better known by its French title, Comme le prévoit (As foreseen) — itself a document surrounded by no little controversy. Perhaps the new Norms will be incorporated into a definitive revision of that document.

Now that the Norms are in the public domain, it is worthwhile taking a careful look at them. They are really quite good. The single word that comes to mind to describe them is: “sensible.” The principal question they raise is, perhaps, why anyone would have to draw up Norms stating the obvious as plainly as they do. What could possibly be wrong with the basic requirement of accurately and exactly rendering in translation what an ancient scriptural text actually says? What has all the fuss been about? Who could possibly object to Norms such as these?

These questions, alas, leave out the power of radical feminist ideology to distort reality in the minds of too many of our contemporaries. The Holy See has been obliged to lay out these very concrete Norms in order to guide translators who might be tempted, in the present climate, to be guided by other considerations than purely translation criteria.

The Norms — What do they tell us?

1. The Church must always seek to convey accurately in translation the texts she has inherited from the biblical, liturgical, and patristic tradition and instruct the faithful in their proper meaning.

This Norm simply establishes that the Church must deal with translation questions in the same way that she is obliged to deal with all questions pertaining to the faith and to the transmission of the faith. The Church must “maintain the deposit of faith, entire and incorrupt, as handed down by the apostles and professed by the Church everywhere and at all times.” This is what a Catholic bishop promises to do at his ordination, and, on the simplest level, it means that if the ancient texts in which the revelation of Christ is preserved state that God is a “Father,” and employ, for example, masculine-gender nouns and pronouns referring to Him and to His words and actions, then these linguistic and grammatical features must be faithfully preserved in any translation.

The fact that Christ’s revelation of God as “Father” is precisely one of the doctrines most resented by feminists today, or that some women claim to be “excluded” when masculine nouns and pronouns are used in a generic sense-these things, strictly speaking, have no bearing upon the question of translation as such. The Church is always obliged to reproduce in modern translations what the ancient texts plainly say, regardless of what anyone today might think about it. This first Translation Norm now clearly confirms this.

2. The first principle with respect to biblical texts is that of fidelity, maximum possible fidelity to the words of the text. Biblical translations should be faithful to the original language used by the human author in order to be understood by his intended reader. Every concept in the original should be translated in its context. Above all, translations must be faithful to the sense of sacred scripture understood as a unity and totality, which finds its center in Christ, the Son of God incarnate (cf. Dei Verbum II and IV), as confessed in the creeds of the Church.

Every translator of any text from any language to any other language is always obliged to maintain the “maximum possible fidelity to the words of the text.” This is what a translation is. It is not a paraphrase, nor is it a recasting or an adaptation. All of these things may be legitimate in their places, but none of them is the same thing as a translation. A translation purports, precisely, to render in a second language what is written in the original language.

The two paragraphs from Vatican Council II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, referred to in this Norm contain a brief capsule summary of salvation history-how God never ceased to hold out to man the hope of salvation from the time of the Fall of man itself; how he chose His own people in history, and provided them with patriarchs and prophets; and, finally, in the “last days,” how He spoke to us through His own Son (cf. Hebrews 1). This is the “totality” of meaning to which translations of Scripture must adhere: it is the entire history of our salvation in Christ.

Dei Verbum IV contains Vatican II’s celebrated statement that “the Christian economy…since it is the new and definite covenant, will never pass away; and so no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Certainly, no new “revelation” could possibly have arisen out of a modern ideology which, as one of its principal tenets, expressly rejects “patriarchy” — the very institution, as it happens, which God employed to set in motion his ages-long work for the sake of our salvation.

Thus, this Norm requiring fidelity to an original text reminds us that God’s ways are not necessarily our ways; and that we are obliged to accept God’s ways, not confuse them with today’s time-bound ideas of fairness, justice, “inclusivity”, or whatever.

It is laudable to desire to do justice (cf. Micah 6:8), but we should not be misled simply because a claim may be advanced in the name of justice. Rather, we have to determine whether such claims are compatible with everything that has been revealed and handed down — and this is plainly not the case with some of the assertions of feminist ideology. “Patriarchy” is not of itself unjust to women. Women are not “excluded” by standard grammatical forms whose plain meaning is clear, except to those who choose to misunderstand them.

3. The translation of Scripture should faithfully reflect the Word of God in the original human Ianguages. It must be listened to in its time-conditioned, at times even inelegant, mode of human expression without “correction” or “improvement” in service of modern sensibilities.

The common argument that the Scriptures were time-conditioned in their composition, and we now live in very different times, is only speciously plausible.

The implicit claim that is made in this argument is that our times are somehow better than former times. Does this claim hold up? We need only look at our times, and at what has become of human rights and human dignity today, not to speak of morality, in order to realize that we occupy no lofty moral stance from which we can presume to criticize the standards of former times.

Give us back the real Scriptures as they were originally written! The burden of proof that they can be “improved”‘ or “corrected” clearly lies upon those who wish to do so, and they should provide this proof (if there is any such proof), not merely assume that the feminist case has been proven, as the votaries of “inclusive language” typically proceed today.

The fact that God chose to deliver his basic revelation at a time that was “inelegant” means that the revelation remains just and appropriate as delivered.

3a. In liturgical translations or readings ‘where the text is very uncertain or in which the meaning is very much disputed, the translation should be made with due regard to the Neo-Vulgate.

This reference to the Church’s Neo-Vulgate Latin Bible as a standard in “very much disputed” cases is a salutary reminder that all Scriptures-and all Scripture translations-remain under the authority of the living Church, guided by the Holy Spirit. The Neo-Vulgate, of course, contains renderings which the Church has endorsed with her use and her authority.

The typical modern assumption that sacred Scripture is merely another academic subject or field of study, like archeology or ancient history, fails to recognize Scripture as bringing us God’s own saving words of truth, which “for the sake of our salvation [God] wished to see confided to the sacred Scripture” (Dei Verbum 11).

3b. If explanations are deemed to be pastorally necessary or appropriate, they should be given in editorial notes, commentaries, homilies, etc.

Incorporating “explanations” into translated texts results in mistranslations. This is true even if the intention is to “improve” or “correct” the text (Norm 3 above).

This Norm effectively nullifies arguments which lead to much scriptural or liturgical mistranslation-particularly those influenced by feminist imperatives. For example, it is argued that even though God revealed Himself primarily as “father”, and since God is really not a father in the same sense as a human father, rather “God is a spirit” as Scripture confirms (John 4:24), therefore masculine nouns and pronouns need not, and should not, be applied to God-lest the faithful mistakenly conclude that God possesses actual sex as a human being does.

The response is refreshingly simple: if the faithful need explanations, then by all means they should be given explanations-in “notes, commentaries, homilies,” etc.

Translation Norm 4 is divided into 6 subparts:

4/1. The natural gender of personae in the Bible, including the human author of various texts where evident, must not be changed insofar as this is possible in the receptor language.

4/2. The grammatical gender of God, pagan deities, and angels and demons according to the original texts must not be changed insofar as this is possible in the receptor language.

4/3. In fidelity to the inspired Word of God, the traditional biblical usage for naming the persons of the Trinity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is to be retained.

4/4. Similarly, in keeping with the Church’s tradition, the feminine and the neuter pronouns are not to be used to refer to the person of the Holy Spirit.

4/5. There shall be no systematic substitution of the masculine pronoun or possessive adjective to refer to God in correspondence to the original text.

4/6. Kinship terms that are clearly gender specific, as indicated by the context, should be respected in translation.

Each of these Norms prohibits a specific practice, known from various “inclusive language” translations to be a typical or favored translation device. Observance of the six prohibitions listed under Translation Norm 4 would by itself eliminate very many of the common errors found in contemporary scriptural and liturgical translations.

There is no need to comment individually on each one of these six parts. Taken together, they exclude such banal but nevertheless egregious errors, such as substituting “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier” for “Father, Son, Holy Spirit”; avoiding masculine pronouns referring to God by repeating the word “God”; referring to the Holy Spirit as “she” or “it”; changing either the natural or the grammatical genders found in original texts, etc.

5. Grammatical number and person of the original texts ordinarily should be maintained.

Translation Norm 5 contains a specific prohibition, in this case the practice of switching to the plural “they” to avoid having to say “he.” This is one of the most common errors stemming from feminist objectives, and it usually involves a serious mistranslation. It simply cannot be credibly maintained that the plural always means the same thing as the singular. One of the important considerations here is the Christological question which arises out of many Old Text Testament texts which prefigure Christ or refer to his coming (see comments on Norm 6/2 below).

Translation Norm 6 is divided into three subparts, each of which makes a specific point about translations intended to produce the full range of meaning of a given text.

6/1. Translation should strive to preserve the connotations as well as the denotations of words or expressions in the original and not preclude possible layers of meaning.

Scriptural texts, as everybody knows, often carry multiple layers of meaning. Focusing only on one preoccupation such as “male dominance” can thus seriously detract from a proper understanding of a scriptural text; and this, in turn, is bound to issue in a faulty translation. It cannot be repeated too often that a translator must focus on what the original text says, and try to reproduce that, including both the connotations and denotations of the words involved.

6/2. For example, where the New Testament of the Church’s tradition have interpreted certain texts of the Old Testament in a Christological fashion, special care should be observed in the translation of these texts so that a Christological meaning is not precluded.

A very important point is made in this Norm that many texts of the Old Testament must indeed be interpreted in a Christological fashion. The Old Testament is full of references to Christ and to his coming. This point has been made often and effectively. One obvious example of this can be seen in Psalm l, as the following comparison of the Revised Standard Version translation with Today’s English Version illustrates:


Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked
nor stands in the way of sinners;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord

Today’s English Version

Happy are those
who reject the advice of evil men,
who do not follow the example of sinners
or join those who have no use for God.
Instead they find joy in obeying the Law of the Lord…

Quite clearly, the Christological dimension has vanished from the second of these two translations; it has become just anybody at all who is “happy” in rejecting evil advice; there is no longer any suggestion that it is Christ who “delivers us from evil,” as he saves us tout court.

The casual, idiomatic tone of the second translation is not necessarily a virtue where scriptural translations are concerned. This Psalm was already ancient in Christ’s day; and the figurative use of “walk” and “stand” adds the poetic note that identifies the whole passage as ancient Scripture-something sacred. As Norm 3 above specifies, this is the way Scripture should be translated; idiomatic, everyday English is not the primary goal of scriptural translations; indeed it may need to be specifically eschewed.

6/3. Thus, the word “man” in English should as a rule translate “adam” and “anthropos” since there is no one synonym which effectively conveys the play between the individual, the collectivity, and the unity of the human family so important, for example, to expression of Christian doctrine and anthropology.

This Norm could not have been better stated. It makes an important and much misunderstood point in requiring that “man” be translated in a way that “effectively conveys the play between the individual, the collectivity, and the unity of the human family.”

“Man” in English does have multiple meanings related to all three of these things and more. There is no other word that expresses all these meanings properly, and most attempted substitutions for “man” fail. It is simply mistaken to claim that this word has now come to mean principally an “adult male human being.” We can consult any dictionary to verify the existence of the multiple meanings that this word has always had and still has. This is the case even in very recent dictionaries where, due to feminist influence, “adult male human being” has been moved to the head of the list of multiple definitions still correctly and necessarily listed for this word.

The fact is, all of the varied meanings of the word “man” in English simply cannot be rendered fully without using the word itself; this is the way the English language is structured; feminist perceptions and pressures will not change this fact. Speakers of English understand the various meanings of the word from context.

This Norm should eliminate such absurdities as the New Revised Standard Version’s rendition of Matthew 4:19 as “I will make you fish for people” instead of “I will make you fishers of men.”

A Very Large Step

The Vatican Norms for the Translation of Biblical Texts for use in the Liturgy are reasonable and sensible Norms. It is hard to see how any scholar could make a case on purely scholarly grounds that they are in any way defective or should not be applied. If some people object to them, this must surely be because of a prior ideological commitment, whether conscious or not, to contemporary feminist standards and attitudes.

English structure and usage are what they are. There is nothing at all “scholarly” about favoring “inclusive language” — and everything political — for it derives from the acceptance of at least some features of a false ideology, and feminists’ claim that they are “excluded” by standard English is insupportable. On the contrary, the structure of the language specifically includes women in its generic use of masculine words and grammatical forms.

Regardless of how reasonable and sensible the new Translation Norms manifestly are, many may now wonder how they will be effectively applied when so many people — and apparently most liturgists — have been persuaded by arguments for “inclusive language”.

While the translation problems are unlikely to be instantly resolved, the drawing up of these Translation Norms at this time and in this way certainly represents a very large step which the Holy See has had both the intelligence and the courage to take. Perhaps the Holy Spirit has not been entirely idle in the matter, either.

(Kenneth D. Whitehead is the translator of 20 books from French, German, and Italian, and currently working on number 21.)






Kenneth D. Whitehead