By Neuhaus, Richard John
First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life , No. 159
Back in May 2001, I wrote in this space, under the title "Bible Babel," about the translation that is the unfortunate New American Bible (NAB). It is a subject that should not be dropped. Not, mind you, that I expect anybody to do anything about it any time soon. But some day, please God, there will be a real reform of the misguided reforms of recent decades, and the NAB (along with the Revised NAB and the Amended Revised NAB and whatever version of the NAB that crops up in this Sunday's Mass guide) should be on the agenda. Robert Louis Wilken has written wisely that the Bible is the lexicon of the Church and the liturgy is the grammar of the Bible. Among Catholics subjected to the NAB, and all are now subjected to it, the lexicon takes a terrible beating.
Everyone who has sung or listened to Handel's "Messiah" knows the words: "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6, KJV). Magnificent. Here, as of this week's amended Missalette, is the New American Bible: "For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace." Try singing that. Whether under the rules of literal accuracy or of what, taking liberties, translators call "dynamic equivalence," that is no more than a pedantic transliteration of the Hebrew. It is not a translation. It is a string of possible signifiers. It is not English. To be fair, the passage is not representative. Most of the NAB is English, albeit of a down-market variety.
One has to wonder what those in charge of Catholic translations thought they were doing since the NAB project was launched. An answer commonly given is that they wanted to produce the most literally "accurate" translation of the Hebrew and Greek texts. It is usually said that Catholics are not biblical literalists, but that appears not to hold in this instance. Even literalism does not explain the many eccentricities introduced in the NAB. Probably the best known of all psalms is Psalm 23, "The Lord is my shepherd." In the KJV and the RSV, the psalm concludes with, "I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." Readers of the Douay-Rheims express the confidence that they will "dwell in the house of the Lord for length of days." That is very open-ended and may be very much like "forever."
Even the more recent and trendy New Revised Standard Version invites me to believe that "I will dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long." My whole life long will, please God, be life eternal. Then comes the NAB: "I will dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come." For years to come? It inevitably prompts the question of how many. Ten? Twenty? Fifty? Whatever the answer, it would seem to be far short of forever. Note that there is nothing in the Hebrew that requires or even suggests such a change. But what's the point of doing a new translation unless it is different from earlier translations?
The problems begin with the very first verse of the Bible. In the English tradition, solidly grounded in the Hebrew as well as in Jerome's Latin translation, Genesis 1 begins with the majestic words, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." Here is what the NAB offers us: "In 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. Compare that with the English tradition, followed almost exactly by Douay-Rheims: "In 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." Apart from the NAB's deaf ear to poetry and theological suggestiveness, the very first words of the very first verse of the Bible raise a question of no little importance. …