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Translations and Controversies

Online Edition: December 2011 – January 2012
Vol. XVII, No. 9

Translation is what opens the window, to let the light in. It breaks the shell, so that we may eat the kernel.

It pulls the curtain aside, so that we may look into the most holy place.

It removes the cover from the well, so that we may get to the water.…

In fact, without a translation in the common language, most people are like the children at Jacob’s well (which was deep) without a bucket or something to draw the water with; or like the person mentioned by Isaiah who was given a sealed book and told, “Please read this”, and had to answer, “I can not, because it is sealed” [Isaiah 29:11].

This concise explanation of the essential purpose of translation of sacred texts was written 400 years ago — in the translators’ preface to the King James Bible (Authorized Version), first published in 1611.

Four centuries have not altered this insight. Achieving this goal, however, may be difficult — especially when translating sacred texts. The King James translators observe:

For was anything ever undertaken with a touch of newness or improvement about it that didn’t run into storms of argument or opposition? … [The king] was well aware that whoever attempts anything for the public, especially if it has to do with religion or with making the word of God accessible and understandable, sets himself up to be frowned upon by every evil eye, and casts himself headlong on a row of pikes, to be stabbed by every sharp tongue. For meddling in any way with a people’s religion is meddling with their customs, with their inalienable rights. And although they may be dissatisfied with what they have, they cannot bear to have it altered.

The King James Bible, or “Authorized Version”, was intended to provide a uniform and accurate English Bible that would be used throughout all the churches in Britain — and to replace all earlier English translations that were judged inadequate, either because of deficiencies in the translation itself, or for doctrinal reasons. The title page still says, as it has for 400 years, “appointed to be read in churches”.

The historic project was initiated in 1604 by the new King James I, at a meeting with scholars and clergy from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, held at Hampton Court. The purpose of this undertaking, the translators’ preface states, was not “to make a new translation”, but “to make a good one better” by revising the Bishops’ Bible of 1568, which was itself a revision of earlier translations going back to Tyndale’s New Testament of 1525–6.

King James assigned six panels consisting of about fifty scholars to do the new translation: three for the Old Testament, two for the New Testament, and one for the Apocrypha (the books Protestants regarded as uncanonical). Two of the translating panels or “companies” met at Oxford, two at Cambridge, and two at Westminster Abbey. Each scholar (many of whom were also clergymen) produced a draft of his assigned segment, which was reviewed by all the others in the group, revised and redrafted as needed. This careful and exacting process took several years. The translations of various sections were finished in 1608. Finally, in 1610, a group of twelve of the company was selected for a final review of the entire work. At this meeting at Stationers Hall in London, one member of the group read the text aloud, and if anyone wanted to change anything, he would propose it, and any change would be decided by consensus. The completed translation was ready to be published in 1611, though the precise date when the Bible appeared in print is unknown.

Almost from the outset, the translating teams encountered accusations of “meddling” and incompetence, and had certainly been stabbed by sharp tongues — notably by the tongue of Dr. Hugh Broughton, a Puritan Hebrew scholar who was not included among the four-dozen scholars appointed to the translating committees. Broughton, who was known for his irascibility, was also working on his own revision of the Geneva Bible favored by Puritans. He accused the translators of being sycophants to royal authority, of self-promotion, and of ignorance of the original languages.

“The cockles of the seashore, and the leaves of the forest, and the grains of the poppy, may as well be numbered as the gross errors of this Bible”, Broughton wrote. He said the translators would answer on the Day of Judgment for their slackness and use of idle words. He said that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Richard Bancroft, the organizer of the translation project, would find “his eternal abode in hell”.

After the Bible was published, Broughton wrote an acid critique to be delivered to the king. His opening lines:

The late Bible, Right Worshipful, was sent to me to censure: which bred in me a sadness that will grieve me while I breathe. It is so ill done. Tell his Majesty that I had rather be rent into pieces with wild horses, than any such translation by my consent should be urged upon poor Churches.

The translating teams were all scholars of Greek and Hebrew, in addition to Latin, and they fully employed the original Greek and Hebrew texts of the scriptures, as well as consulting the earlier English translations — including the first, the 1525 translation by the English Lutheran William Tyndale, and the 1560 Geneva Bible, favored by Puritans because of extensive Protestant marginal notes added, and also for rendering certain words in the original texts in a way that reflected Protestant views — for example, the Greek word “episkopos”, bishop, was translated as “elder”, the word for “baptism” was replaced by “washing”, and “church” with “congregation”. Such alterations to the literal meaning of the text reflected Puritan doctrines, thus making the Geneva Bible unacceptable to the Church of England.

In addition, the King James translating teams also consulted the Catholic Douay-Rheims Bible, and incorporated some New Testament passages from the Douay translation into their version. The Douay-Rheims Bible was translated into English from the Latin Vulgate by members of the English College at the University of Douai, France, in order to uphold Catholic tradition in response to the Protestant Reformation. This version was published in 1582 (New Testament) and 1610 (Old Testament).

A century-and-a-half later, a revision of the Douay-Rheims Bible was published (1750-2), and it essentially remained the Catholic Bible in English for more than 200 years. It was revised by Bishop Richard Challoner (1691-1791), who used the King James Bible as a base text, altered to accord with the Vulgate. In the opinion of Cardinal John Henry Newman, the Challoner revision was closer to the King James version than to the original Douay.

The King James Bible is universally regarded as a classic of English literature. It has also had a profound influence on the English language. Many common expressions have their origin in the words of this Bible. We use hundreds of idioms from it, though often unaware of their biblical origin. (See sidebar).

That the King James Bible has had an unparalleled influence on the English language and is highly esteemed as a work of English literature is paradoxical, actually. The primary objective of the translators was accuracy — literal fidelity and conformity to the original texts in Greek and Hebrew — that, and avoiding the ideological influences evident in other English translations of the Bible.

Stylistically, the King James translators did not intend to be confined to ordinary contemporary usage. They often chose words and phrases that were somewhat antiquated. In fact the “thees” and “thys” that we associate with this Bible, and verbs ending in “eth” (like “withereth”, “runneth”, “groweth”) were already outdated in common parlance. One reason for this is that the translators aimed at a more elevated and sacred-sounding text that would be appropriate for the ceremonial worship of the Church of England — in contrast to the extremes of Puritanism, which stripped worship from any elements of ceremony, the use of images, vestments, etc.

A further reason for the choice of a more elevated linguistic style is that translators knew that the contemporary becomes outdated. They were aiming at a translation that transcended their own time. They did not regard themselves as creators of something new, but as faithful transmitters of the ageless inspired word of God. As one recent author observes, it was “more important to make English godly than to make the words of God into the sort of prose that any Englishmen would have written” (Adam Nicholson, God’s Secretaries, 2003. New York, Harper Collins, p. 211).

No translation is ever perfect, and from time to time it will need to be “maturely considered and examined”, as the translators’ preface says. “We never thought from the beginning, that we should need to make a new Translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one, … but to make a good one better…; that hath been our endeavour, that our mark”.

This year, 2011, the English-speaking Catholic Church received a new translation of the Roman Missal — the first major change since the 1974 translation, known as the Sacramentary, that has been in use for nearly forty years. It is not hard to see certain parallels with the aims of the King James translators, and the controversy that surrounded its publication in the events of today — four centuries later — in the new English translation of the Roman Missal.

It is worth noting, especially in light of the present controversy in which some have voiced objections that the new translation represents an attempt to “undo Vatican II”, that the use of the vernacular at Mass did not begin with the 1974 version.

In fact, immediately following the appearance of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, promulgated by Pope Paul VI on December 4, 1963, the project of rendering parts of the Missal — the people’s parts — into the vernacular was begun, and a provisional version of the Missal that included English was published in 1964. A comparison of the new Missal translation with the initial 1964 post-conciliar Missal shows that the Creed, Gloria, and Sanctus are very similar in the 1964 and 2011 versions. The 1964 Creed said “I believe” (not “we believe”). Phrases that were omitted from the Gloria in the 1974 version (“we praise you, we bless you…” etc.) were in the 1964 Missal.

The first complete Missal in English was a translation of the new Roman Missal, promulgated by Pope Paul VI by the apostolic constitution Missale Romanum on April 3, 1969. The full Latin text of the revised Missale Romanum was not published until the following year, and the English translation of the Order of Mass was also approved for use in 1970. The full English translation of the 1969 Missal was completed and approved in 1973, published in 1974, and has continued in use until the English translation of the third typical edition of the Missale Romanum, authorized in 2002 by Pope John Paul II, was published in 2011.

Many significant developments occurred between 1969 and 2011. The effect that these developments have had on the striking differences in the translations of essentially the same Latin original texts of the Mass is well known. Even a summary of these is beyond the scope of this article. (They have been detailed elsewhere in our pages. See our web section on translations, and the timeline: MissalTranslationHighlights2010.html). However, a few highlights may help give context to the reason for new translation and also to the controversy surrounding it.

The translation guidelines produced by the Consilium (the group of Vatican experts responsible for implementing the Council’s liturgical reform) appeared in 1969. Known as Comme le prévoit, these guidelines promoted an approach to translation called “dynamic equivalence”, which meant that an original text should be rendered into contemporary speech patterns to convey the basic idea the text intended, even if this meant altering or omitting words, phrases, or entire concepts in the original text.

The concept of “dynamic equivalence” was originated in the 1960s by the director of the American Bible Society, Eugene Nida, a Baptist minister, who died August 25, 2011. The objective of “dynamic equivalence” (or “functional equivalence”) translation was to produce a colloquial adaptation of the biblical text in the target language. The American Bible Society is a non-denominational mission-oriented organization, dedicated to translation and distribution of the Bible in the local idiom for mission countries, though it may be best known today for the “Good News Bible”. In 1968, Nida promoted the joint effort between the Vatican and the United Bible Societies (UBS) to produce interdenominational Bibles. And the “dynamic equivalence” approach to scripture translation profoundly influenced the translators of Catholic liturgical texts for four decades.

In 1975, a slightly altered edition of the Latin Missal was issued. At the same time, the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), the group assigned responsibility for translating liturgical texts in 1963, had adopted the “dynamic equivalence” view of translation that seemed consistent with the aggiornamento (updating) of Catholic worship that followed the Second Vatican Council — and also consistent with the rise of ideological perspectives from the secular world.

In the mid-1970s, the influence of feminism was very strong, along with its demands for so-called inclusive language, which meant that English nouns and pronouns that had always been used as collective or inclusive generics, words such as “man”, “mankind”, “he”, and “his”, were considered to exclude women. This ideological view strongly influenced the ICEL translators. “ICEL has consciously and intentionally implemented principles of inclusive language since l975”, wrote J. Frank Henderson in “ICEL and Inclusive Language” (in Shaping English Liturgy: Thirty Years of Liturgical Renewal. Peter Finn and James Shellman, eds. Washington, DC. 1990. Pastoral Press.) Furthermore, ICEL had taken upon itself the authority to produce original texts that were not in the Latin original.

The fact that the initial translation of the 1969 Missale Romanum was deficient and needed to be replaced was generally acknowledged, and the English-speaking bishops’ conferences favored a revised translation. However, there were marked differences of opinion about what a new translation should be. The ICEL group had dominated English liturgical translation for many years, and their “translators’ bias” became more and more evident to many bishops throughout the long process of re-translating the Missal during the 1990s. It also became clear that the bishops conferences had virtually no actual control over ICEL, which acted independently.

During these years, also, the Holy See became aware of problems with English translations. This first surfaced with the translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: the English translation of the Catechism was delayed for two years because the original version revealed this ideological bias, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) intervened to correct it. The CDF also intervened in the revision of the scripture translation used for the Lectionary, for the same reason — and the CDF issued a set of norms for scripture translation in 1997.

Thus, when the ICEL revision of the Sacramentary, completed in 1998, was presented to the Congregation for Divine Worship, it did not receive approval. Instead, an authoritative document on translation, incorporating and expanding on the CDF’s scripture translation norms, was issued: Liturgiam authenticam (2001). ICEL underwent a thoroughgoing reform, and a new constitution was approved in 2003. At the same time, a new group of bishops and experts from English-speaking countries, Vox Clara, was created to aid the Holy See in review and approval of new translations.

Thus, the new Missale Romanum, editio typica tertia, initially released by Pope John Paul II (with revisions in 2008), truly signaled a new era of liturgical reform. And the new English translation of the Roman Missal, with its careful fidelity to the original texts and its elevated style, is an achievement of profound and worldwide significance.

The translation undertaking is by no means over, however. Other newly translated liturgical texts will be forthcoming: baptism and marriage rituals, for example, and the Liturgy of the Hours await revision. The Lectionary, the Scripture readings for Mass, will involve review and possible retranslation of existing versions of the Bible.

The opposition to the translation principles of the Holy See and to the 2011 English version of the Roman Missal is reminiscent of the angry voice of Hugh Broughton four centuries ago — magnified and multiplied exponentially by the internet. Some disgruntled voices are using this instant and international technology to undermine the Missal, and all that it portends for the renewal and reform of Catholic liturgy, in every possible way: promoting petitions objecting to the implementation of the Missal (“What if we just said wait”, by Father Michael Ryan of Seattle); and delivering slashing critiques. Examples of the latter include the Catholic Biblical Association, Commonweal and America magazines in the US, and The Tablet in Britain, the dissident Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland, and the PrayTell blog, started in January 2010 by Father Anthony Ruff, OSB, of St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota, home of the Liturgical Press and the liturgy magazine Worship.

In the hundreds of blog posts from a relatively few voices, the principal objections to what they term the “debacle” (or worse) of the Missal translation can be reduced basically to two:

1) to the principles of translation in Liturgiam authenticam, which require fidelity to the original texts and freedom from ideological influences, and which replaced the 1969 guidelines that promoted “dynamic equivalence” and so-called inclusive language;

2) to what they deem unwarranted interference by the Holy See, who imposed these principles and the new texts on the Church.

A few illustrative examples from the Pray Tell blog:

I have good reason to believe it’s still possible to derail the missal. (I can’t say anything more than that.) I believe it is still useful to raise your voice at this point, and organize with others who feel the same way. Tell your bishop. Beg him to delay it. Make your views known. (Father Anthony Ruff, explaining his leaving ICEL’s music committee, February 10, 2011)

… what it [the translation] lacks in factuality it makes up with naked aggression. It speaks words of power and control rather than cooperation and consultation, much less charity. (Peter Jeffrey, quoted May 11, 2011)

To those of my colleagues who have toiled to make the Missal project succeed, I say, for the sake of the greater good, let it fail. It will fail of its own cumbersome nature and its insufficiency, and because there is no overriding reason why it should succeed. It will fail because it is being imposed, rather than responding to a genuine need. Stop supplying artificial life support. (Rita Ferrone, October 31, 2011)

We help people come closer to Our Lord by speaking intelligibly and clearly, not by mindless conformity with stupid authority. (Philip Endean, SJ, November 4, 2011)

The Barron video is high-class catechetical spin: … disingenuous and manipulative when the reality is one of authority perpetrating ritual violence. (Philip Endean, SJ, November 11, 2011)

The new translation is so defective and deficient both at the level of process and product that it has forfeited the right to command obedience.… For decades, arguably since the end of WWI people have begun to distrust authority which is demanded on an automatic basis because of rank, class or might. The crimes of the Nazi régime reinforced this suspicion.… The perpetrators of this new ‘translation’ have ensured that they and it have lost the moral authority to demand that it alone will be used. Murder will out. (Mary Burke, November 4, 2011)

To the extent that we make a choice to “obey” misguided authority, then, prima facie, we are complicit, and are at least materially co-operating with this misguidedness. (“Ligouri”, November 22, 2011)

You say it’s [the translation] beautiful. I think it’s ugly, almost laughably so.… One interesting dynamic I’ve noticed is that the only people claiming the new texts are beautiful are either A) people in officialdom who more or less have to say that, and B) right-wing Catholics. I have yet to see any exceptions. Is the “beauty” of the new text apparent only to bishops and ultraconservatives? How strange. (Fr. Anthony Ruff, December 6, 2011)

Perhaps is not surprising that the Missal translation of 2011 has been as fiercely “stabbed by every sharp tongue” as was the King James Bible in 1611. “For was anything ever undertaken with a touch of newness or improvement about it that didn’t run into storms of argument or opposition?”



Common Idioms from the King James Bible

The King James Bible is universally regarded as a classic of English literature, though that was not the aim of the translators. Many common expressions have their origin in the words of this Bible. English speakers use idioms from the King James all the time, though we’re often unaware of their biblical origin. Following are some examples, with Scripture references.

— kill the fatted calf (Luke 15:27);
— salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13);
— a sign of the times (Matthew 16:3);
— a drop in the bucket (Isaiah 40:15);
— a fly in the ointment (Ecclesiastes 10:1);
— as white as snow (Psalm 51:7, Isaiah 1:18, inter alia);
— by the skin of my teeth (Job 19:20);
— the apple of one’s eye (Psalm 17:8, Proverbs 7:2, inter alia);
— feet of clay (Daniel 2:33);
— whited sepulcher (Matthew 23:27);
— filthy lucre (I Timothy 3:3,8; Titus 1:7,11; I Peter 5:2) ;
— cast your pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6);
— fight the good fight (I Timothy 1:18, 6:12; II Timothy 4:7);
— eat, drink and be merry (Ecclesiastes 8:15, Luke 12:19);
— all things to all men (I Corinthians 9:22)
— a house divided against itself cannot stand (Matthew 12:25, Mark 3:25, Luke 11:17)


Helen Hull Hitchcock