You Say Potato, I Say

By Johnson, Luke Timothy | Commonweal, August 11, 2006 | Go to article overview

You Say Potato, I Say


Johnson, Luke Timothy, Commonweal


A benefit of Catholicism's long historical perspective is its ability to discern the difference between the essential and the inessential, between the constant dustups that win headlines and God's slow and silent work in the world.

The current confusion among Catholics concerning English translations of Scripture is a case in point. The news stories focus on the struggles between Rome and American bishops and the Catholic Biblical Association over the inclusive language used in the New American Bible, struggles fraught with ideological and ecclesiological implications. Even for those accustomed to scandal, there is something unseemly about such wrangling over God's Word. Can't something as simple and straightforward as translating Scripture be free of controversy?

The translation of Scripture has never been simple or straight-forward--ask any translator--and it has certainly never been without controversy. Pope Damasus I commissioned St. Jerome in 394 to produce the Vulgate because there were so many competing Latin versions afloat. Despite this papal commission, St. Augustine objected strenuously, and with considerable point, to Jerome's translation of the Old Testament from the Hebrew rather than from the Greek translation known as the Septuagint. Augustine's reasons were not linguistic but theological (ideological) and pastoral.

English translations have always been controversial. The brilliant William Tyndale, whose English renderings affected every subsequent translation, was hounded and finally put to death by Henry VIII, then still "Defender of the Faith." Henry's daughter Elizabeth, in turn, strenuously sponsored the Bishop's Bible as a way of countering the ideological tendencies of the popular Geneva Bible, used by Bunyan and Shakespeare, which not only provided strongly Calvinistic notes that appealed to the English Puritans, but in its translation reduced New Testament "priests" to "elders" and "churches" to "congregations," thus threatening England's established episcopal order. The King James Bible (Authorized Version) by which so many fundamentalists swear, was the product of translation committees committed to restoring the traditional designations changed by the Geneva Bible.

The reason why translations stir controversy is that the stakes are high. We are, in a real sense, what we read, and especially when it comes to the public reading of Scripture in the liturgical assembly, it matters whether translations are faithful. But there is also the rub: What does it mean to be "faithful"? …

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