Accuracy and Beauty

Just before his retirement as Bishop of North Sydney a couple of years ago, Paul Barnett, a noted historian and New Testament scholar, lamented the plethora of available biblical translations and called for modern Christians to come up with one that was at the same time accurate and memorable. He criticized the flatness of the English with which we had become content, and wondered if many phrases of the sacred text really become embedded our minds in such a way as to nourish us in times of loneliness, isolation and persecution.

It is a fair question, especially when we consider how recently the English speaking Christian world turned from the language of the Authorized Version. I remember being among the first of our parish youth group in the mid-1960s to own a copy of the RSV, which had been commended to us for its accuracy. The transition from the Authorized Version to the RSV, with its retention of well-worn phrases and expressions, was not a great trial for us. As for the so-called archaisms retained whenever God is addressed – well, most Christians from Anglo-Catholics to Baptists and Pentecostals spoke to God in ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ until about half way through the 1970s!

Then a great change took place. The Novus Ordo Missal in the Roman Catholic Church, the contemporary language liturgies within both Anglicanism and the more liturgical Protestant communities, together with a self-conscious modernity in the Pentecostal/ Charismatic world, combined to expunge archaisms from the language of prayer as well as from scripture translations. The RSV (which had originally been the translation used in the post-Vatican II lectionaries) all but fell into disuse. Roman Catholics, and many Anglo-Catholics, settled on the Jerusalem Bible, whereas the more thoughtful Evangelicals gravitated to the New International Version. Well-known but less used were the New English Bible (popular in intellectual circles), and Today’s English Version (used by Evangelicals and not a few liberals).

I have to admit that for me the transition from the RSV to the Jerusalem Bible at the Eucharist was far more difficult than that from the Authorized Version to the RSV. Even taking into account the fact that the JB was a translation of a translation, the level of paraphrase was initially quite alarming. (Mind you, it never reached the depths of that unashamed paraphrase, The Living Bible, which has Saul ‘going to the bathroom in the cave’!) And although it cannot be denied that there are some striking passages in the Jerusalem Bible – especially when it is read aloud – it is also true that more often than not the language is ‘flat’ (sometimes even inane!) and unmemorable.

When the aim of translators was to provide the people of God with the most accurate text possible – as with the Authorized Version (and the Douai-Rheims Bible for that matter!) and the RSV – the ideal was a ‘word for word’ translation, clearly expressed in memorable language. Only when absolutely necessary – when a word for word translation just didn’t make sense – would the translators resort to paraphrase.

In our time a different principle of translation has taken over from the ‘word for word’ philosophy – that of ‘dynamic equivalence’ or ‘thought for thought’. Whatever the merits of this in an ideologically neutral environment, a key problem for the people of God since the end of the 1970s has been the simultaneous development among liberal scholars both Catholic and Protestant of an obsession with political correctness, with the result that even the New RSV (‘NRSV’) succumbs in key areas (the new NIV does so even more). Unpopular theological themes are dumbed down, and even in the case of the NRSV its own admittedly conservative principles regarding ‘inclusive language’ are breached on occasion in the text itself.

In fact the problems with the NRSV are such that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has forbidden its use for reading in the liturgy (in spite of its production as an expensive three volume set by the Canadian Bishops’ Conference) at least until appropriate adjustments have been made in the offending passages. In this context, Australian Roman Catholics and Anglicans who care about the authenticity of the Word proclaimed in the liturgy were greatly encouraged in 1997 by the Vatican’s publication of Norms for the Translation of Biblical Texts for Use in the Liturgy (see

The key statement is Norm 3: ‘The translation of scripture should faithfully reflect the Word of God in the original human languages. It must be listened to in its time-conditioned, at times even inelegant, mode of human expression without “correction” or “improvement” in service of modern sensitivities.’

In Eastertide 2000 while conducting a clergy retreat on Thursday Island for the Church of Torres Strait I had prepared (from my RSV) a meditation on Eve/Mary, Daughter of Zion/Heavenly Jerusalem/Bride of Christ. Happily one of the psalms for Evening Prayer that day was Psalm 48 – providing an easy way into my meditation. English is not the first language of the Islander clergy, so in order to be using the same translation for the recitation of the Psalms, the NRSV was handed out (the Diocesan Registrar had obtained a batch rather cheaply!) I was devastated to find that every nuance to do with Zion, the city of God, being feminine had been obliterated (something even the Grail translation does). Later I compared various translations and commentaries to make sure I wasn’t straining at gnats! One does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to be worried about scholars whose translations make it impossible for ordinary Christians to notice at the heart of Biblical revelation the traditional and nuptial images of Eve – Daughter of Zion – Mary – Heavenly Jerusalem – Church – Bride of Christ.

A few months ago there appeared in this journal a review of the English Standard Version, a new translation of the Bible (minus the Deutero-Canonical books, which Harper-Collins will be including in one of their editions). The ESV appeared in 2001, the work of Evangelical scholars who were concerned to provide as literal a translation as possible, in language that is dignified, poetic and memorable. They consciously swam against the ‘dynamic equivalence’ tide. The ESV is in the RSV tradition, but without ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ when addressing God. I have used the ESV extensively since its publication, and I have to say that in my opinion the Evangelical translators have (in all likelihood unconsciously!) fulfilled each of the Vatican norms for biblical translation. The ESV’s accuracy has been commended by scholars from across the Christian traditions. Apart from the negative reaction of the doctrinaire feminists, the only real grumbles I have heard relate to ‘virgin’ being used in Isaiah 7.14.

The Vatican Vox Clara committee, responsible for monitoring English translations of liturgical texts, is aware of the ESV. Perhaps its turn of phrase, style, and rigour will influence the renewal of the rather prosaic language of our modern rites.