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Why Can’t Catholics Speak English?

In praise of the Ronald Knox Bible

It is an odd thing to go to the Bible section of the few remaining big box booksellers. You can get Bibles in metallic covers with notes directed at randy teenagers. You can get your dispensationalist “Left Behind” style Bibles, with equally appalling notes. You can find Bibles for law enforcement officers, or for nationalists seeking prophecies about America in the book of Daniel.

More seriously you can lose yourself in debates about translation style. “Formal equivalence” seeks to translate the Scriptures word for word and gives you phrases that can seem obscure. What is it to “cover his nakedness?” On the other side “dynamic equivalence” tries to go thought for thought but will usually desecrate Genesis with Clintonian phrasings like “have sexual relations with.”

But if you are an earnest Protestant you can junk all the cruft and debates, buy unbotched versions of the New American Standard or the English Standard Version and encounter the word of God. And there is always the King James.

What you can’t find is a good Catholic Bible in English. Well, let me explain.

When it comes to novels, journalism, and apologetics, modern English-speaking Catholics really have fielded an A-team over the last century. Hilaire Belloc, Flannery O’Connor, Muriel Spark and many others you’d name; we’ve done well. But I’ve often wondered, centuries after Trent and decades after Vatican II, whether I’ve encountered the faith in the vernacular either in the liturgy or in Scripture. Let’s review the options.

There is the New American Bible. This is an insipid translation overseen by the bishops according to the same rules that govern modern liturgy. Usually it is accompanied by baldly heretical study notes. The NAB privileges clarity in the way police reports do: it gives you a vague idea about the dead described therein, while working hard to cover the ass of the writer. The modern euthanized liturgy deserves a Bible this Xanaxed.

My fellow Latin-chanting Traditionalists urge on me the Douay Rheims, an English translation that beat the King James to print by three years. The Douay is based on St. Jerome’s Vulgate which in turn, they presume, was based on better manuscripts than we have today. In truth the DR is a Latin text cross-dressing as English. And a bad English get-up at that. Look at Hebrews 13:4 “Marriage honourable in all, and the bed undefiled. For fornicators and adulterers God will judge.” Couldn’t be bothered to work a verb in there, I guess.  These clangers, and much worse, run side-by-side with the Latin in the hand missals of traditionalist Catholics. They spoil our prayerbooks.

The mainstream option for believing Catholics is found in the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition, which is descended from the King James, but adds a few Romish flourishes like “Hail Mary, full of grace” in Luke. Like the NAS and other “formal equivalence” translations it has a kind of dignity and is usefully accurate. But I find it unmemorable and unexciting. You wouldn’t read it but for an intense feeling of religious duty to do so.

Enter Baronius Press, an English publisher heretofore firmly in the Douay camp. They’ve just reprinted the Knox Version of the 1940s, a “dynamic equivalence” translation produced by English Catholic litterateur and apologist Fr. Ronald Knox. This witty priest was asked to to complete the task that never was successfully forced on Cardinal Newman, though many tried.

Knox wanted his translation to be useful for approximately two centuries; it barely made it twenty years. Although it gained a wide readership and liturgical approval in the 1950s, the upheaval of the Church in the 1960s and 70s made Knox into a premature relic. But it is very useful for precisely this reason. He worked from the Vulgate but corrected with the Hebrew and Greek. He wanted a version that was 1) accurate 2) intelligible and 3) readable. And it was the last point that really exercised him.

In his series of short essays “On Englishing The Bible” helpfully packaged together with this edition, Knox explains, “We are in an odd situation. Nobody reads the Bible; popes and bishops are always telling us we ought to read the Bible and when you produce a translation of the Bible, the only thing people complain about is your rendering of the diminutive snippets that are read out in church on Sundays. ‘Of course,’ they add, ‘the book is all right for private reading’–in a tone which implies that such a practice is both rare and unimportant.”

Too right. Judging a Bible translation, particularly a “dynamic equivalence one,” the reader will jump immediately to their favorite passages and dismiss Knox instantly. In truth I’m a little uneasy with his Prologue to John’s Gospel, “He abode, at the beginning of time, with God.” But I adore Knox’s Psalms: “He gives me a resting-place where there is green pasture, leads me out to the cool water’s brink, refreshed and content.” Until finding Knox, I had assumed all dynamic translations of Scripture were semi-literate gimmicks, that they were necessarily unfaithful to text.

Instead of finding English word equivalents Knox asks “How would an Englishman say this?” Unlike committees which often make silly pre-fab decisions to always translate Greek word with English word y, Knox transposes the idioms, the formality, and tone.  And while it may seem like a silly thing to say, Knox is actually fluent in English the way few other translators seem to be. He understands slang as well as poetry. This allows him to remain much more faithful to the original and to English simultaneously. The results can be sumptuous. Consider Lamentations 2:18 “Round those inviolable defenses, cry they upon the Lord in good earnest. Day and night, Sion, let thy tears stream down; never rest thou, never let that eye weary of its task.” Prophetic and ancient-sounding as the text demands, but also recognizably English.

With Knox translating, St. Paul is so much more fully alive: disputatious, cajoling, sarcastic, awed and bursting with enthusiasm and humor. In the RSV and so many others Paul sounds like a man reading a committee’s letter on topics of theological interest to Corinthians–with a knife pointed at his back.

Even if the hierarchy has dumped Knox, for his translations of St. Paul and for the essays on the project itself, Baronius has made something well worth the money. His essays can be hilariously defensive and endearing all at once,  “In a country with a totalitarian prose tradition, any rendering of a Bible phrase which is not looted bodily from the Authorized Version sounds like bad prose,” he writes at his critics.

But there are compromises in the Knox translation. And the most fatal one is the use of sacral English: thy, thee, and thou. In the essays that accompany this edition, Knox expresses his wish to defy the English public and drop them for “you” and “your.” If he felt this way in 1949, why in the world would we deny him this wish in 2012? To preserve the short-sightedness of the committee that bullied him into it? Helpfully, a digital native has done the work for us–I think of this “Knox ‘You’ Translation” as the more fully realized version of the Knox Bible.

And there is something slightly “off” about this publication. So far Baronius has only issued a thick hardcover edition with gilded pages. Although it is beautiful and helpfully lays flat for study, Knox clearly intended this Bible to be read even by those who weren’t students. Where are the editions that could actually fit in a purse or in the flap of a computer bag? Knox wanted the Bible to be read in bed and on the subway.

Further, why can’t Catholics take a cue from the publishers of the ESV and simultaneously publish a Knox “you” version as an App, and a searchable web page? Why not use his translation as a way of updating your Latin-English Missals, and the Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary and put those in App form too. Knox, who was beloved for making the faith legible to British school-girls, clearly would want this for his work. Why be more faithful to the octogenarian’s remembered experience of Knox than to Knox himself? The modern Church may have put him in the trash, but that’s not a reason to pin him in a glass-case either.

Perhaps all this pleading is a way of making the point that the Knox translation of the Bible has whet my appetite for all of Catholicism to be translated into my language, combining the Church’s reservoir of scholarship with the daring and verve of its English literary heroes. There are good reasons to preserve Latin as the mother-tongue of the Church. But our prayerbooks, our missals, even our catechisms read as if they were written by an advanced but not fluent student of English. Mater, I love your Latin, restore it to the liturgy. Magister, grant us the English, you deserve to be understood.

[ed. — Read Alan Jacobs’ response here.]