Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Translations Compared

My friend Ros raised the issue of which version of the Bible to buy. Another friend remarked "the one you will read" a la Billy Graham. But I hope to offer some additional guidance.

First, a warning, two of the translations actually spell out the name of God. This might cause offence.

Second, an explanation. I think it makes it easy to see the differences by comparing how each translation treats a common and well-known passage from the Bible: Psalm 23

The King James Version, more properly the Authorised Version, is probably the loveliest of all the translation. It is not without problems. I think of the end of Isaiah 13 almost immediately where the KJV translators translated dragons and satyrs. But for sheer aesthetic value, the 1611 version of the KJV (with Apocrypha) is the pinnacle of aesthetic and literal consideration.

KJV

1 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. 3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. 4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. 5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.


But the KJV, for all its beauty, is not a Catholic translation, per se. For its contemporary we turn to the Douay-Rheims. It is not nearly as lovely all of the time. The below quote is proof. The D-R translators were as slavish to the Latin as the KJV translators could be the to the Greek of the NT. And that's important. The D-R is a translation of the Vulgate, and although Bishop Challoner revised it to be closer to the original languages it still suffers from an over dependence on the Latin.

Douay-Rheims

1 (22-1) A psalm for David. The Lord ruleth me: and I shall want nothing. 2 (22-2) He hath set me in a place of pasture. He hath brought me up, on the water of refreshment: 3 (22-3) He hath converted my soul. He hath led me on the paths of justice, for his own name’s sake. 4 (22-4) For though I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I will fear no evils, for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they have comforted me. 5 (22-5) Thou hast prepared a table before me against them that afflict me. Thou hast anointed my head with oil; and my chalice which inebreateth me, how goodly is it! 6 (22-6) And thy mercy will follow me all the days of my life. And that I may dwell in the house of the Lord unto length of days.


Many years later the Revised Standard Version, one of a long line of updates to the KJV was produced with a version made available for Catholics. It is among the best permitted for Catholics, and is an even better translation than the Protestant version. The Protestant version has numerous problems in the New Testament (Holy Spirit is an it; the Pericope Auldterae, i.e. John 7:53-8:11 is in a footnote, and so on). The Catholic version could not obtain the imprimatur until these were fixed. It suffers from several problems still though. The RSV still uses thees and thous when referring to God, even though Hebrew does not contain this distinction, and it is one of many translations to not translate Is 7:14 as virgin. Still many conservative Catholics prefer this version or its revision by Ignatius Press for its overall fidelity to the original languages. It also still maintains a high aesthetic style.

RSV-CE

1 A Psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want; 2 he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; 3 he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. 4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. 5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.


More recently the RSV has been updated with a version again prepared for Catholics and another for Orthodox. The NRSV suffers from a number of translation problems, not least of which is its decision to often impute politically correct and gender neutral readings on a text where to do so obscures the meaning.

NRSV

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; 3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake. 4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.


The official Catholic Bible in the United States is the New American Bible. This is the version all the readings at Mass are drawn from. So far all the versions I have cited have maintained a high aesthetic style, and the NAB is the first to have very pedestrian and sometimes even ugly lines of text. Psalm 23 is almost not up to the task of showing this. But if you've been reading along then you know this Psalm has a natural rhythm, not unsurprising for poetry. The NAB merely makes these declarative statements with no eye for aesthetics.

NAB:

1 A psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack.
2 In green pastures you let me graze; to safe waters you lead me;
3 you restore my strength. You guide me along the right path for the sake of your name.
4 Even when I walk through a dark valley, I fear no harm for you are at my side; your rod and staff give me courage.
5 You set a table before me as my enemies watch; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6 Only goodness and love will pursue me all the days of my life; I will dwell in the house of the LORD for years to come.


Outside the United States, like in Britain and Ireland, the Mass readings are taken from the Jerusalem Bible. While in fresh, modern text, the translators very consciously tried to maintain a literary quality. They retained J.R.R. Tolkien has a translator, although he demurred in later years as to the extent of his contribution. Nevertheless, his influence is clearly evident. This version is still quite controversial for, among other things, deciding to spell out all of God's names. Usually the name of God is obscured by The LORD and so on. Here it is spelled out, although with the popular conjectural pronunciation. Interestingly, in the Mass readings these are returned to The LORD. Also, this version is one of few to split the difference in Is 7:14 by translating almah as "maiden."

Also, its footnotes and introductions were enormously controversial, because they advanced the then still new High Criticism approach. Nowadays you can't actually get the version with those notes. The only version of the JB available is called the "Rearder's Edition."

JB:

1 Yahweh is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
2 In meadows of green grass he lets me lie. To the waters of repose he leads me;
3 there he revises my soul. He guides me by paths of virtue for the sake of his name.
4 Though I pass through a gloomy valley, I fear no harm; beside me your rod and your staff are there, to hearten me.
5 You prepare a table before me under the eyes of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup brims over.
6 Ah, how goodness and kindness pursue me, every day of my life; my home, the house of Yahweh, as long as I live!


In the 1980s, the JB was revised. The notes were no less controversial, and they joined the chorus of translations that translate almah as "young girl." Moreover, much of the literary quality was sacrificed under the pretense of increasing accuracy. It also introduced more "inclusive language" although not to the extent of the NRSV. The result is a now uglier and less accurate translation of Scripture.

NJB:

1 [Psalm Of David] Yahweh is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
2 In grassy meadows he lets me lie. By tranquil streams he leads me
3 to restore my spirit. He guides me in paths of saving justice as befits his name.
4 Even were I to walk in a ravine as dark as death I should fear no danger, for you are at my side. Your staff and your crook are there to soothe me.
5 You prepare a table for me under the eyes of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup brims over.
6 Kindness and faithful love pursue me every day of my life. I make my home in the house of Yahweh for all time to come.


The next two translations are firmly in the camp of "thought for thought" translations.

The first one, the Good News Translation, which until the 2000s was called Today's English Version, is very easy to read with simple language. It has a kind of aesthetic quality all its own. The simplistic language is intended for all ages, especially children and people who do not Speak English as a first language. One of the benefits of a version like this is that people who come to it not knowing what predestination or justification mean, are not necessarily going to be put off by these versions. Te Word is thus more accessible. The problem is that the simplicity can also allow the biases of the translators to get in the way. One other thing to note is that the GNT, when they changed the name also introduced inclusive language, abut again, not to the extent of the NRSV.

GNT:

1 The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything I need. 2 He lets me rest in fields of green grass and leads me to quiet pools of fresh water. 3 He gives me new strength. He guides me in the right paths, as he has promised. 4 Even if I go through the deepest darkness, I will not be afraid, Lord, for you are with me. Your shepherd's rod and staff protect me. 5 You prepare a banquet for me, where all my enemies can see me; you welcome me as an honored guest and fill my cup to the brim. 6 I know that your goodness and love will be with me all my life; and your house will be my home as long as I live.


Finally is the Living Bible. I include it because Our Sunday Visitor sells a Catholic version where they received permission from Tyndale to paraphrase the Deuterocanonical books and include them. The Living Bible is not a translation, it's a paraphrase, what one man (in this case) says each line means not what the line says. It too has a style all its own, and was quite controversial in its day, no less because he had an individual in the Old Testament cuss.

LB

Because the Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything I need!
2,3 He lets me rest in the meadow grass and leads me beside the quiet streams. He restores my failing health. He helps me do what honors him the most.
4 Even when walking through the dark valley of death I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me, guarding, guiding all the way.
5 You provide delicious food for me in the presence of my enemies. You have welcomed me as your guest; blessings overflow!
6 Your goodness and unfailing kindness shall be with me all of my life, and afterwards I will live with you forever in your home.


As you can see there's a wide variety, but none of them are perfect. Some are much less worthy than others. And I haven't touched on the versions where the Church has given approval to only the New Testament and Psalms versions (which I could have done since my example is Psalm 23).

I hope this helps to give an idea of the ups and downs, and I of course will answer any questions in the combox.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hound. I am surprised that you did not instead recommend that Ros learn Greek and Hebrew!

Pr. Lehmann said...

The most recent update is the English Standard Version. It lacks the deuterocanon, but I am told that an edition with it will be released in the not too distant future.

I've found it to have the readability of the NIV (a bad, but readable translation that you rightly didn't mention) but the strengths of the RSV in terms of actual translation. It's what I've used for the past 7 or so years.

Ogden Chichester said...

Pr. Lehmann,

You know full well I've told you countless times we Catholics desperately need an ESV of own.

I didn't mention the NIV because only the NT + Psalms received an imprimatur, and the UBS (who publishes the version) have made statements over the years hostile to my ecclesial tradition. Plus it sucks. ;)

Pr. Lehmann said...

The NIV sucks and is, as we speak, getting suckier.