(This is Neil) The April issue of the Catholic Biblical Quarterly has an interesting article by Emil A. Wcela, the retired auxiliary bishop of Rockville Centre in New York, with the promising title “What is Catholic about a Catholic Translation of the Bible?” The question, we will see, is both very easy to answer and presently unanswerable.
It is easy to answer if we look at canon law and read, “Books of the sacred scriptures cannot be published unless the Apostolic See or the conference of bishops has approved them” (825.1). The Canon Law Society of America has added a qualification, “In practice, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has reserved to itself the approval of vernacular translations of the scriptures if they are to be used in the liturgy, e.g. as part of the Lectionary.” (Canon 838.2 notes, “It is for the Apostolic See to order the sacred liturgy of the universal Church, publish liturgical books and review their translations in vernacular languages, and exercise vigilance that liturgical regulations are observed faithfully everywhere.”) So, a Catholic translation is a translation with official Catholic approval.
But surely our question is not merely a matter of authority. There must also be some sort of rational argumentation that can clarify “what is Catholic about a Catholic translation of the Bible.” This is where it gets rather difficult.
We can at least begin by ruling out some bad answers to the question.
First, as Bishop Wcela says, “A ‘Catholic’ translation of the Bible does not have to be made by Catholics.” We might even say that it is desirable for Catholics to cooperate with other Christians in the translation of the Bible. According to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Catholic Church “cooperates willingly with other Churches and ecclesial Communities in the making of translations and in the publication of common editions in accordance with what was foreseen by the Second Vatican Council and is provided for in the Code of Canon Law.” This is because the church “sees ecumenical cooperation in this field as a valuable form of common service and common witness in the Church and to the world” (see here). A Catholic translation of the Bible does not even require any Catholic sponsorship at all; the Revised Standard Version is the obvious example here.
Second, a “Catholic” translation of the Bible is not simply the most “accurate” or “precise” translation. In translation, Bishop Wcela tells us, “Human emotions, familiarity and doctrinal issues will always play a role.” He provides us with three examples.
By the end of the 4th century, Jerome had managed to translate the prophets from Latin into Hebrew. And, thus, he translated Jonah 4:6 as saying that the Lord prepared hedera to grow over Jonah’s head as a protective shade. The older translation, based on the (Greek) Septuagint, claimed that the plant was cucurbita. Was it ivy or a gourd? Augustine wrote to Jerome, saying that this issue had caused tumult in Africa, and asking him to replace “ivy” with the familiar “gourd.” Jerome said no. Augustine replied that he did not wish Jerome’s translation to be read in the churches. (Scholarship, alas, has not settled the controversy.)
In the 19th century, Francis Kenrick, then coadjutor bishop of Philadelphia, later archbishop of Baltimore, prepared an English translation of the Bible from the (Latin) Vulgate and the original Greek. He translated μετανοεῖτε in Matthew 3:2 as “repent,” not the more familiar “do penance.” The Bishop of Charleston was not happy, perhaps because translation from the Greek tended to appear Protestant. The Bishop of Louisville also criticized a Kenrick note that suggested that baptizo meant “immersion,” because, as he put it, “the Baptists here have been exulting over it too much.”
More recently, Fr Gerald Fogarty has written that the New American Bible’s rendering of Matthew 28:6, “He is not here. He has been raised, just as he promised,” in place of the older, “He is not here, for he has risen even as he said,” seemed to some to diminish Christ’s authority through rendering him passive.
Perhaps, then, we should look at history to help us identify what makes a Catholic Bible “Catholic.” Catholic scholars first translated the Bible into English during the late 16th and early 17th centuries at Rheims and Douay – hence the Douay Rheims Bible. This translation, Wcela says, was full of archaisms and Latinisms – “If thou be a prevaricator of the Law, thy circumcision has become prepuce,” “But they incontinent leaving their nets followed him.” Thus, from 1749 to 1772, Bishop Richard Challoner revised the translation – “If thou be a transgressor of the Law, thy circumcision has become uncircumcision” (Rom 2:25), “And they immediately leaving their nets followed him” (Matthew 4:20).
The production of a Catholic translation based on Hebrew and Greek had to await Pope Pius XII’s encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), which called for translations to be made from the original texts. The Pontifical Biblical Commission, less than ten years earlier, had told inquiring Dutch bishops that only translations from the Vulgate could be used in the Liturgy. An existing American translation project was radically changed in midcourse after the publication of Pius XII’s groundbreaking letter.
The question of translation in general became even more pressing after the Second Vatican Council because of vernacular liturgy. The Consilium, meant to implement Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium, issued an instruction on translation, Comme le prévoit. The instruction says that a liturgical translation cannot “merely reproduce the expressions and ideas of the original text.” It goes on to say, “Rather it must faithfully communicate to a given people, and in their own language, that which the Church by means of this given text originally intended to communicate to another people at another time.” (See Todd’s commentary here.) Needless to say, this claim would also affect any translation of the Bible which would be used in the liturgy of the Word.
And, thus, history brings us not to resolution, but to a conceptual impasse.
Should a “Catholic” translation of the Bible be distinguished by “formal equivalence,” which attempts to replicate the grammar, style, and feel of the original language while sounding like good English? Or should a “Catholic” translation – perhaps inspired by Comme le prévoit - be marked by “functional equivalence,” which attempts to “convey the meaning of the original text as one would when communicating today,” while still being faithful to the original language? The English priest-translator Ronald Knox tried to replicate the meaning, emphasis, and idiom of the original language. But even he, following Belloc, said that the translator should ask not “How shall I make this foreigner talk English?” but rather “What would an Englishman have said to express this?” The question, then, is whether the emphasis in translation is on the language being translated, or the receptor language? (We shall see that there has been a movement towards “formal equivalence.” But how decisive can this movement be?)
Recently, the question of formal vs. functional equivalence became most pressing regarding inclusive language. In 1994, the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments (CDWDS) withdrew an earlier approval for lectionary use of the New Revised Standard Version and the revised New American Bible psalter because of these issues. Then, the International Commission of English in the Liturgy’s translation of the psalter was determined by the CDF to be unacceptable and its imprimatur was taken back. (Eventually, in 1997, a lectionary was finally approved.) The question was whether the possibility of a Christological meaning tied to the specific word “man” in the Psalms outweighed contemporary pastoral considerations.
The question of translation was raised more generally by the CDWDS document Liturgiam Authenticam (LA), which was concerned in part with scriptural texts that would be used in the liturgy. Thus, LA potentially affected all Catholic Bible translation. Bishop Wcela tells us that LA argued for formal equivalence in place of functional equivalence. LA also claimed that a special liturgical language should be recognized. With this language, “the texts become truly memorable and capable of expressing heavenly realities.” (LA also reiterated that translations should be made from original texts.)
More controversially, LA suggested that in every territory there “should exist only one approved translation, which will be employed in all parts of the various liturgical books.” And most controversially, LA opposed the majority of uses of inclusive language, supporting “man” as expressing the “interplay between the individual and the universality and unity of the human race.” LA also proposed the Vulgate reading as decisive in cases of divergent readings of the text.
LA also confused readers when it suggested that the church “should not be subject to externally imposed linguistic norms that are detrimental to [her] mission.” But isn’t language always shaped by usage? LA also told translators to “avoid a wording or style that the Catholic faithful would confuse with the manner of speech of non-Catholic ecclesial communities or of other religions, so that such a factor will not cause them confusion or discomfort.” What of the “common witness” in ecumenical cooperation? And LA said that “In translating biblical passages where seemingly inelegant words or expressions are used, a hasty tendency to sanitize this characteristic is likewise to be avoided.” Bishop Wcela wonders if this means that we must return to the literal “any who pisseth against the wall” translations (see here for the Douay-Rheims translation).
So “What’s Catholic about a Catholic translation of the Bible?” Given that a “Catholic” translation requires official approval, and any successful Catholic translation will be eligible for use in the lectionary, we can suggest that a Catholic translation will be distinguished by “formal equivalence” more than “functional equivalence,” and by caution with regard to inclusive language.
But functional-equivalence Bibles – the Contemporary English Version, for example – are still approved for nonliturgical use, meaning that they can’t be judged to be completely wrong. And the inadequacy of literal translation has been recognized. For instance, the Pontifical Bible Commission, in The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, said, “The passage from one language to another necessarily involves a change of meaning, for they come up against other traditions of thought and other ways of life.” Furthermore, given some of the reception of LA, we can wonder what sort of precedent LA will actually set, and, more generally, where this history will end.
So, “What’s Catholic about a Catholic translation of the Bible?” It has official approval, and, beyond that, Bishop Wcela tells us “the devil is in the details.” The question seems simple and yet unanswerable.
What do you think?
about Todd FlowerdayA Roman Catholic lay person, married (since 1996), with one adopted child (since 2001). I serve in worship and spiritual life in a midwestern university parish.
about John Donaghy
John is a lay missionary since 2007 with a parish in western Honduras. Before that he served in campus ministry and social justice ministry in Iowa. His ministry blog is http://hermanojuancito.blogspot.com
He also blogs reflections on the lectionary and saints/heroes/events of the date at http://walktheway.wordpress.com
He'll be a long-term contributor here analyzing the Latin American bishops' document from their 2007 Aparecida Conference.
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