Sunday, May 27, 2007

Bernie asks about Bible translations

We have an apostate from the Catholic Church named Bernie who thinks he so smart. He asks the following:

I still don't understand. If the Roman Catholic Church is the one true church and all others have errors, then why can't the Catholic Church produce the best Bible translation?

Well, first of all we Catholics WROTE the NT and that original text is the "Best Bible" that there is. Translations are ephemeral contemporary phenomena that become less useful with time. For example, the KJV is practically worthless these days for many reasons: forced translations, poor original language texts, anachronistic vocabulary and grammar, etc. There will never be a definitive vernacular paraphrase of Scripture. In each time period, older versions will be supplanted by newer ones for good or ill.

As I tried to explain to you, no translation is ever perfect. It cannot be. One always has to make compromises in trying to translate from one language to another. We have an old saying in Italian: Tradutore traditore! (The translator is a traitor!) Any serious biblical scholar will tell you that certain portions of Scripture are difficult to interpret and can be understood in different ways. It is simple Protestant arrogance to think that there is a one-to-one correspondence between the words of the Bible and what it is trying to convey. In many cases the same verses give us several different pieces of information. So any serious study of the Biblical text has to take account of the original languages and cannot be restricted to any vernacular paraphrase.

There are two tendencies in biblical translation: literal and dynamic. Literal translations try to convey an almost mechanical translation from the original languge to the vernacular. It does not take into account figures of speech, hyperbole, or other literary devices which are hard to translate. Dynamic versions try to use linguistic equivalents in the translation to make it more readable. It tries to give one the flavor of the original as a reader of the language might have understood it, but it deviates from the literal meaning of the text and sometimes, makes many compromises in the translation. In the end, neither method is perfect.

We have several excellent Catholic versions in English: the DRV, NAB, JB, Challoner, Confraternity, Kleist-Lilly, and Knox. These have good study notes and critical apparati. We use the NAB at Mass in the USA and it is perfectly fine. But to make the NAB and JB more readable, the translators made them less literal.

The most literal version remains the RSV. It was done by Protestant translators who tried very hard to avoid figures of speech. But they still made some translation decisions that I do not carte for and so I always have my Greek NT and other language helps to elucidate complex passages. The RSV-CE has corrected some of these dubious renderings, but even it is not perfect.

Why would we use a Protestant translation instead of making a new one for ourselves? For one thing, the actual content of the biblical text is not in question between Catholics and Protestants and there are fewer problems when a translation remains as literal as possible. Why waste time and effort reinventing the wheel? The RSV is good enough and readily available. For another, as an apologist, I like to use an ecumenically common version as much as possible so we can all be talking about the same text. Thirdly, the RSV uses modern word order and syntax and is just plain more readable while tacking close to the literal meaning. Nevertheless it is choppy in some places reflecting what you have in the origianl text. The NAB and JB were designed really to be read at the Mass and have tried to smooth over some of this chopiness. The other Catholic translations are older and not as readable or current in their language.

Modern biblical scholarship is an ecumenical effort. One of the most widely used books by Protestant seminarianss on the Greek NT is written by Fr. Max Zerwick S.J. And during the composition of the RSV, NEB, GNV, and NRSV, Catholic, Orthodox, and Jewish scholars were consulted.

The really serious question you have to face Bernie is that in ALL the good translations James 2:24 says that "Justification is not by faith alone but by works." In essence, the Bible openly, literally, and diametrically contradicts the false premise at the heart of the prot apostasy. I think you need to deal with that plank in your own eye before you start questioning us about the splinter you perceive in ours.


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