Translation Standards and the Quest for Biblical Meaning

Having been tempted by my friend Patrick, I purchased — it arrived today! — a side-by-side copy of Challoner’s revision of the Douay-Rheims Bible opposite the Clementine Vulgate. It’s a beautiful, hefty volume prepared with obvious care by Baronius Press. I flipped through it and immediately got sidetracked by textual comparisons.

Myriad copies of the Bible, in English, grace the market. There’s a smaller, but no less robust, market for Catholic versions. The major difference between Catholic and Protestant Bibles is that the Protestants removed the good parts that prove their heresy Protestant versions decline to include some “deuterocanonical” books accepted by Catholic and Orthodox authorities. So Catholic versions tend to include a bit more in the Old Testament.

Even in the Catholic-specific Bible market, you can choose from several dozen different editions, each offering slightly different translation standards and supplemental materials. Technically, the Catholic version is the Vulgate, originally prepared by St. Jerome in the fourth century A.D. The Vulgata Sixto-Clementina — the Clementine Vulgate revised, most recently, in 1598 under the leadership of Rev. Franciscus Toletus SJ during the pontificate of Clement VIII — governed until 1979, when the Nova Vulgata promulgated by Pope St. John Paul the Great became the textual basis for the Missal, the Lectionary and related liturgical texts issued in Latin after 1979. No English-language version is mandated by Roman ecclesiastical authorities as being authoritative, however.

That said, although Calvinist some people look to the King James Version as being the authoritative English-language Bible, for Catholics the pride-of-place probably goes to the Douay-Rheims version, published in phases between 1582 and 1610 by the English College at Rheims and Douay. This version translated the Vulgate, not the underlying source texts. The most recent revision to the Douay-Rheims, accomplished in the middle of the eighteenth century by bishop Richard Challoner, was approved for use in English-speaking countries and remained the dominant version until well into the twentieth century.
I presently own six different Bible versions across five physical volumes:

  • The St. Joseph Edition of the New American Bible (1970) [NAB] — this volume was given to me in elementary school as part of a multi-year preparation for the Sacrament of Confirmation. I’ve treasured it for nearly 30 years. It was explicitly approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for use in the United States and contains extensive footnotes, cross-references and brief introductory essays for each book. The NAB is still the version used in the English-language Lectionary in the United States. To the extent that there’s an “official” Catholic Bible in the U.S., it’s the NAB.
  • The New American Bible, Revised Edition (2010) [NABRE] — the USCCB’s second-edition official version, approved by Francis Cardinal George. It retains much of the extra contextual material of the NAB, like the maps and extensive footnotes, but updates the language based on new scholarship including access to the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s a bit more literal than the NAB but hasn’t yet made its way into the Lectionary. If you’ve never owned a Bible before and want one that’s easy to access with rich additional supplementary material, this one’s your best bet.
  • The side-by-side Sixto-Clementina Vulgata [Vsc] and Challoner’s Douay-Rheims [DRC], acquired this week. The Vsc is still an authoritative text of the Latin Church despite the recent release of the Nova Vulgata. DRC, beyond its historical value in the English-speaking world, is given pride-of-place by traditionalist Catholics. This one-volume compilation is probably a must-have resource for theologically aware Catholics with a rich sense of history and, ideally, some background in Latin.
  • Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition (2006) [RSV-2CE] — a revision undertaken in light of 2001’s Liturgicam Authenticam, this lovely volume by Ignatius Press doesn’t include much contextual material. It’s considered a solid, mainstream Catholic edition (it’s personally recommended by folks like Scott Hahn and Jimmy Akin). The RSV bridges the Douay-Rheims and the Authorized (King James) versions; it’s considered the first ecumenical English Bible, plus the original RSV is the source of the scriptural quotations in the English-language version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Edition of the RSV includes the deuterocanonical books and the “second edition” references the adjustments after LA.
  • New International Version (1984) [NIV] — I received a cheap NIV many years ago when I began prison ministry. This volume, published by the International Bible Society, was approved by the Michigan Department of Corrections and the Kent County Sheriff’s Department. Not theologically, of course, but because the volume is made of newsprint with a glued spine and a soft cover, it can’t readily conceal contraband into a secured facility or be used as a weapon if seized by an inmate. The NIV is a mainstream Protestant version, issued by academics rather than clerics and governed by a dynamic equivalence of the language. It’s meant to be accessible to the widest possible reading audience.

So funny thing. There’s been a long-running war in the Catholic Church — which might be close to sputtering out, Deo volente — regarding the logic of liturgical translations. One school of thought, formal equivalence, suggests that the most literal translation of the original source is the best. The other perspective, dynamic equivalence, suggests that ancient formations should be rendered in ways intelligible to modern readers. Many Bible translations fall somewhere in the middle. On top of that, you’ve got the question of what’s being translated. Original source material? The Greek Septuagint? The Vulgate? The KJV?

So in the spirit of “well, that’s interesting,” I present a table of two different verses with the resulting translation by version:

Scriptural Translations

VersionGenesis 1:1-2John 1:1-5Matthew 16:18
VscIn principio creavit Deus caelum et terram. Terra autem erat inanis et vacua, et tenebrae errant super faciem abyssi: et spiritus Dei ferebatur super aquas.In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum. Hoc erat in principio apud Deum. Omnia per ipsum facta sunt: et sine ipso factum est nihil, quod factum est. In ipso vita erat, et vita erat lux hominium: et lux in tenebris lucet, et Tenebrae eam non comprehenderunt.Et ego dico tibi, quia tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam, et portae inferi non praevalebunt adversus eam.
DRCIn the beginning God created heaven, and earth. And the earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the deep: and the spirit of God moved over the waters.In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him: and without him was made nothing that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
NABIn the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters.In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
NABREIn the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth — and the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters —In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
RSV-2CEIn the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.
NIVIn the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood.And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
Two passages, six translations, one Bible.

To a casual reader, these differences might seem minor. Mere wording. But much mischief flows from creative translation, particularly when the translator’s politics aren’t irrelevant. Consider, most notoriously, the translation of Credo in unum Deum — the first line of the Creed — in the English version of the 1970 Missal. Credo was translated as “we believe,” despite that the only logical translation is “I believe.” (For the folks at home: “We believe,” in Latin, is credimus; this error is so basic that, quite literally, a Latin 101 student should catch it.) It took a stern rebuke by Rome to prompt the U.S. bishops to tighten the translation standards.

Of course, if a blog post about Biblical translations seems obscure, think of it this way: History has a way of leaving the interpretation of events to the chroniclers of the day. In this age of “fake news” and gross political hypocrisy and what-about-ism, whose translation of History do you trust, and why?

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