Feb 15, 2007

What Words Will We Use in God’s Word? Challenges & Concerns in Scripture Translations for Liturgy

Online Edition – February 2007

Vol. XII, No. 10

What Words Will We Use in God’s Word?

Challenges & Concerns in Scripture Translations for Liturgy

by Father Ralph Wright

There is much talk about translation into English these days: the new Missale Romanum, the ongoing revision of the American Lectionary, the Instruction on translation, Liturgiam authenticam, the Vox Clara commission, the reorganized International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), and now the International Commission for Preparing an English Lectionary (ICFPEL) to produce a Lectionary for the other “anglophonic” regions of the world.

There are many factors involved in this process but it is very important that the English versions of scriptural and liturgical texts that are being produced are faithful to the originals, dignified and wherever possible memorable. The old maxim lex orandi, lex credendi applies here: the way we pray mirrors the way we believe or, to put it in other words, the words we use for prayer in various ways influence the content of our faith.

To develop a new English Lectionary, ICFPEL has opted to go with the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), a translation that was rejected by the Holy See for liturgical use several years ago.

The question does need to be asked as to whether the criteria used by the committee of scholars who did the NRSV were sensitive enough to fidelity to the original, to the euphony or beauty of the translation itself, to the legitimacy of “man” in its generic sense and to the legitimacy of translating nouns by pronouns.

Among the problems is the use of a pronoun for the noun anthropos (Greek generic man). It is often the more memorable passages of scripture that are rendered bland by this procedure. To give but two examples:

John 15:13

RSV – Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

NRSV – No one has greater love than this to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Matthew 4:4

RSV – Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

NRSV – One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

To make the point clearer — Jesus is talking about homo sapiens. What’s more, He is addressing not another homo sapiens, but Satan. To use a pronoun to characterize the kind of being that does not “live on bread alone” is clearly inadequate. The fact that mortal does not sound right nor human beings, nor others, nor people reveals the predicament that we are in by putting the generic sense of the word man off limits. Further instances of this aspect of the inclusivity drama will be given later in this essay.

Another case where the NRSV opts for the non-memorable at the expense of the memorable for no apparent reason is in the translation of Caesar by the word “emperor”. In Chapter 22 of Matthew’s gospel (Mt 22:17) Jesus is asked the question “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”, which becomes “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” And in the NRSV, His answer has become “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s”, in place of “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” in the RSV. The loss in terms of euphony or memorability is self-evident.

Again, in the dialogue with Pilate during the Passion narrative, the NRSV says, “If you release this man you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor”; and a few lines later Pilate says “Shall I crucify your king?”, to which the answer is given “We have no king but the emperor” (Jn 19:12).

Those who are concerned about faithfulness in translation might point out that besides the euphony and memorability that Caesar in these contexts provides more aptly than the general word emperor, it also has a richness of association that is removed from the English reader by this new translation. The word Caesar is packed with literary and cultural associations that add to its meaning and are easily explained. Even though Caesar has not come into our language in the same way as it has in German (Kaiser) or Russian (Czar) it still, one is tempted to say, has special resonances for the Roman Catholic.

Changing Singulars to Plurals

The way singulars and plurals are employed in translations deserves serious attention, because this change, too, may alter the meaning of the text in various ways. Let me explain.

It is wonderful to realize that love is essentially something that is offered by one person to another. The mutual love of the Father and the Son eternally and mysteriously is the third Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Holy Spirit. God creates each person out of love and each person’s eternal beatitude consists in, through grace, freely returning that love. Sure, there are many billions of us, but as human beings we love and are loved individually. This is a necessary part of our being a person.

We are called to love everybody, every human being, that God has created — most of whom we never meet. But we wish them all well and pray for their eternal salvation. And we believe that Jesus loves each individual one of them. Our loving, our wishing well, if it is to be love, has to be for each individual one of them. We can’t love humankind — except analogically.

This is a necessary foreword since it is easy for us to forget the individual person-by-person nature of the Body of Christ, the Church. It is easy for a congregation to say “We believe” for “I believe”. It is easy for a couple to say on their wedding day “We do” to the pre-vows promises rather than “I do”. It is easy for a country to write a declaration that says “We hold these truths….”

Yet recent preoccupations with so-called “inclusive language” have obscured this truth in some recent translations of the Greek New Testament, the original version of the Word of God as it has come down to us recorded by the inspired authors. With the recent claim that the gender-neutral use of he is no longer legitimate in English, translators have been compelled to reach for plurals to translate singulars. This is a perilous strategy.

To start with the obvious, the sacred authors regularly use plurals when referring to the activity of more than one person. When they wish to speak of the activity of one person they refer to that person in the singular with the appropriate grammar. If the translator uses plurals to translate singulars how can it be claimed that this is accurate, faithful, translation?

The Second Vatican Council was particularly concerned that translation into the vernacular should be scrupulously faithful to the original. In the Holy See’s principles of translation for the liturgy, Liturgiam authenticam, Section 57, we find:

b) In the translation of terms contained in the original text, the same person, number, and gender is to be maintained insofar as possible.

Yes, we (plural) are called to love God and one another. But it is only as a singular individual person that I am able to do this. It is an act of my own will. No one, not even God, can compel an individual person to love. This truth is the nearest we can get to understanding the mystery of evil.

All the plurals — the “Those who…”, and the “They who…” and the “All who…” — when used to translate the singulars of the original Greek, do an injustice to the reader.

To illustrate this point, I will quote ten passages from Saint John, comparing the NRSV with the original Revised Standard Version (RSV), and with the Greek, phonetically rendered, in parentheses.

The NRSV, as mentioned above, is proposed for a new Lectionary to be used in English-speaking countries throughout the world other than the United States; however, the same problems affect the Revised New American Bible used for the Lectionary in the US, which is also in process of revision.

John 3:20-21

NRSV – All who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

RSV – For every one who does evil (pas ho phaula pratton) hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true (ho de poion ten aletheian) comes to the light that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.

John 6:40

NRSV – This indeed is the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in Him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day. (pas ho theoron ton huion kai pisteuon eis auton)

RSV – For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him, should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.

John 6:54 & 56

NRSV – Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood (ho trogon mou ten sarka kai pinon mou to haima) have eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink…. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.

RSV – He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.

John 11:9

NRSV – Those who walk during the day do not stumble because they see the light of this world. (ean tis peripatei en te hemera)

RSV – If any one walks in the day, he does not stumble because he sees the light of this world.

John 11:25

NRSV – Those who believe in me even though they die, will live and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. (Ho pisteuon eis eme)

RSV – He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.

John 12:25

NRSV – Those who love their life (ho philon ten psuchen autou) lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

RSV – He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

John 14:21

NRSV – They who have my commandments (ho echon tas entolas mou) and keep them are those who love me and those who love me will be loved by my Father and I will love them and reveal myself to them.

RSV – He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.

John 14:23

NRSV – Those who love me will keep my word, (ean tis agapei me) and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.

RSV – If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.

John 15:5

NRSV – Those who abide in me and I in them (ho menon en eme kago en auto) bear much fruit because apart from me you can do nothing.

RSV – He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.

I John 4:16

NRSV – God is love, (ho menon en te agape) and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

RSV – God is love, and he who abides in love, abides in God, and God abides in him.

These quotations show how easily the beauty of a piece of prose can be tarnished. But that is not all. The translation of a singular by a plural is not a matter of small consequence. It is a singular individual who loves, hates, believes, walks in daylight, abides in love and so on, not a collective. A singular noun, pronoun or verb should be translated in the singular.

Let us take the English translation of the new Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church as an example. In the English translation, published in March 2006, both generic (inclusive of both sexes) and specific (a male member of the species homo sapiens) senses of the word anthropos (man) are used.

The very opening lines of the Compendium uses man in this generic sense:

1. What is the plan of God for man?

God, infinitely perfect and blessed in Himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in His own blessed life.

The Compendium also uses “humanity” or “the human person” appropriately. For example:

3. How is it possible to know God with only the light of human reason?

Starting from creation, that is from the world and from the human person

Like man, the gender-neutral he, him and his, have a meaning that transcends sex (maleness) and refers to the person. It is being used in this sense when it is used with reference to God.

It may be timely to reflect that though in every language new words are emerging constantly to cope with new concepts or things — each language has its own inherited DNA, or genetic code, alive and operative in its written and oral tradition. There is only a limited extent to which this may be controlled or governed by academic or political fiat.

Having made the above comments about the extraordinary decision to translate singulars in Greek as plurals in English so as to avoid using the neutral he, the following observations are both relevant and critical at this time.

Persistent Inadequacies

Most people who have heard or read the Lectionary in the United States over the last five or six years will be conscious of its many inadequacies. The letters of Paul have regularly been translated into new levels of obscurity — in many places one feels that the person in charge of the translation did not have English as his first language. There are many oddities of language and expression, and compromises have clearly been made for the sake of “inclusive language”. For example, in the cherished, almost proverbial, statement quoted above from the pericope of Jesus’ temptation in the desert: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (RSV Mt 4:4) where the anthropos of the Greek is translated by the pronoun one.

The United States Conference of Catholic of Bishops is in the process of reviewing the Lectionary, section by section. (It might be prudent, at this stage, for the US bishops to wait and see how the ICFPEL English Lectionary turns out, and if the Holy See will require amendments.)

Generic Man

We should re-examine the whole generic man issue. “Son of Man” and “Behold the man!” have resisted all paraphrase and stand as the evidence of the continuing validity of the generic sense. The attempt to eliminate the generic sense of man over the last twenty-five years has not succeeded. (Do we really need catechesis to explain that the word man has two distinct meanings?) There are numerous places where faithfulness to the original Greek would strongly endorse the return of man in our English texts.

The new Compendium in English proves that generic man is still very much alive.

Further, Pope Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, also supports this claim. In this encyclical, the word man is used generically some fifty-seven times. Instances of the use of the gender-neutral he (him, his, himself) are also scattered throughout the encyclical. Are we to say that a word that is legitimate, valid and has been consistently used in the English version of the latest papal encyclical is not valid for the translation of the original Greek of the Word of God?

Here are some examples that illustrate the “inclusivist” problem with the NRSV:

Matthew 4:19

NRSV – Follow me, and I will make you fish for (anthropoi) people.

RSV – Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.

Matthew 5:16

NRSV – Let your light shine before (anthropoi) others…

RSV – Let your light so shine before men.

Matthew 10:32

NRSV – Everyone who acknowledges me before (anthropoi) others…

RSV – Everyone who acknowledges me before men…

Matthew 13:25

NRSV – The kingdom of heaven may be compared to (anthropos) someone who sowed good seed in his field but while everybody was asleep.

RSV – The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field but while men were sleeping…

Matthew 19:6

NRSV – Therefore what God has joined together let (anthropos) no one separate.

RSV – What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.

Matthew 19:12

NRSV – There are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by (anthropoi) others.

RSV – There are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men.

Matthew 21:25

NRSV – Did the baptism of John come from heaven or was it of (anthropoi) human origin?

RSV – The baptism of John, whence was it? From heaven or from men?

Luke 18:27

NRSV – What is impossible for (anthropoi) mortals, is possible for God.

RSV – What is impossible with men, is possible with God.

Mark 8:33

NRSV – You are setting your mind not on divine things but on (anthropoi) human things.

RSV – For you are not on the side of God but of men.

John 3:19

NRSV – People (anthropoi) loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.

RSV – Men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.

Mark 2:27

NRSV – The sabbath was made for (anthropos) humankind and not humankind for the sabbath.

RSV – The sabbath was made for man not man for the sabbath.

John 10:33

NRSV – You, though only a (anthropos) human being, are making yourself God.

RSV – Because you, being a man, make yourself God.

Philippians 2:6

NRSV – Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God did not regard equality with God something to be exploited, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in (anthropos) human likeness. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.

RSV – Have this mind among yourselves which was in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of (anthropoi) men. And being found in human form He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.

In the above quotations the word anthropos and its plural anthropoi have been translated as: people, others, someone, the adjective human, the pronoun one, the abstract humankind — all in the attempt to avoid the legitimate, valid and literal translation: man (men).

As mentioned in connection with the translating singulars by plurals, this is not accurate translation. Besides the lack of faithfulness to the original that this involves, it sacrifices the beauty of the prose.

There are other hazards, too. In the First Letter of John, where the Greek adelphoi (brothers) is translated brothers and sisters, there is a place where the Greek word adelphos (brother) is rendered believer in the NRSV:

John 2:11

NRSV – But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness.

RSV – But he who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.

Here the translators’ pre-occupation with so-called “inclusivity” has led to a flagrant mistranslation. We are called to love our brother. This is a term, like neighbor, from which no one should be excluded. But in translating brother as believer, meaning is changed, restricted, reduced to a fellow Christian.

Changing Words Changes Meaning

One final observation in this very limited glimpse of the NRSV’s translation: changing words in the biblical translation may affect the Liturgy in unanticipated ways. For example, the NRSV translates the Greek word arton (bread) as loaf of bread in the accounts of the Last Supper (Mt 26:26; Mk 14:22; Lk 22:19; I Cor 11:23).

Not only is this a departure from what has been the normal translation of the word for the vast majority of English versions of the Bible since Tyndale, but there seems to be no reason for it. “He took the bread” can be traced through all the history of its usage right up to the present day.

Do the translators truly think that it is so important to add the modifier loaf to the word bread — especially when unleavened bread, a symbol of the Passover, is used for Mass? The Lectionary for solemn reading at Mass should match the words of Institution in the Missal, where the priest will say, “He took the bread…” .

This brief glance at the NRSV translation of the Bible suggests that there must be many instances throughout this text where great care must be taken if the “pebbles” of infelicities and inaccuracies are to be prevented from lurking in the “shoe” of a new English Lectionary.

If the translation for the new Lectionary is done well, it could be the most elegant, intelligible, prayerful and accurate English Bible available to the Catholic anglophonic world. We wait in hope.


Father Ralph Wright is a Benedictine monk of the St. Louis Abbey who teaches English at the Priory School. He is the author of several books of poetry, including Christ, Our Love for All Seasons (Paulist). His most recent article in the Adoremus Bulletin was “God and Man in the New Compendium”, May 2006.




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Father Ralph Wright, OSB