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Sunday, November 7, 2010

After tackling the Roman Missal, should the Lectionary be next?

In 1998, or so, the USCCB came out with a new translation of the Lectionary based upon the New American Bible, the copyright of which is owned by the USCCB.  In my opinion, this particular version lacks beauty and, to some degree, accuracy. The other English language conferences use the Revised Standard Edition. This translation, which you can find in the Ignatius Bible, is much more beautiful and accurate.
Here is an example of what I believe to be some wording issues with the current translation. Let's take the Gospel Reading (taking from St. John's account) for the Vigil of Pentecost (John 7:37-39) as it currently reads:

On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood up and cried out: "If anyone thirsts, let him come to me; Let him drink who believes in me. Scripture has it: From within him rivers of living water shall flow." (Here he was referring to the Spirit, whom those that came to believe in him were to receive. There was, of course, no Spirit yet, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.

Now, contrast the above with the text from the RSV 2nd edition (Ignatius Bible):
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed: "If any one is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, 'Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.'" Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not yet been given because Jesus was not yet glorified.

Is it just me, or is there something lost in the translation?  Evidently, the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, one of the leading American Catholic intellectuals of his time (and the founder of the magazine First Things) seemed to share the same opinion.  Fr. Neuhaus was a Lutheran minister who converted to Catholicism and was subsequently ordained a priest.  If anyone knew his Sacred Scripture well, it was Fr. Neuhaus. 

Back in 2006, he wrote an article called Bible Babel which appeared in the liturgical publication Adoremus, where he made a strong case for new translation of the Lectionary.  He writes in part that:

The imposition of this embarrassingly third-rate translation is made definite by a provision of the otherwise welcome 2001 instruction from Rome’s congregation for worship, Liturgiam authenticam. The instruction says that “in order that the faithful may be able to commit to memory at least the more important texts of the Sacred Scriptures and be formed by them ... there should exist only one approved translation, which will be employed in all parts of the various liturgical books”. The American bishops, alas, chose the NAB. Had they chosen a more worthy translation, there would have been a fierce uproar from the guild of Catholic biblical scholars who perpetrated the NAB. In addition, there is a thoroughly misplaced proprietorial pride in this being a Catholic translation: It may not be very good, but it is ours.
The result is a loss keenly appreciated by those who grew up with what literary critic Alan Jacobs describes as “a shared language, of particular words and phrases that resonated in the common ear -- words and phrases whose meanings could be tested, considered, deployed, and redeployed in an infinitely varied set of contexts”. Think of those generations of English-speaking peoples “separating the wheat from the chaff”, “lying down in green pastures”, sometimes being “weighed in the balance and found wanting” but at other times “fighting the good fight” and “putting on the whole armor of Christ” -- the whole vast array of discourse (much of it richly poetic) demonstrating that it is very difficult to share thoughts when we do not share words. Because Christians are counseled to “be of one mind”, we should be more attentive to the particular words that shape and form our minds. To have once again a widely shared English Bible would be a significant step toward that one mind in Christ.

Fr. Neuhaus brings up the document Liturgiam Authenticam, the document that the Venerable Pope John Paul II ordered promulgated to ensure an accurate translation of the texts used for the Mass.  The English-language translation of the Roman Missal is already completed and ready for its official roll-out next Advent.  While the process took the better part of nearlyl a decade, it is well worth the wait.  However, while the text of what we will pray has greatly improved, the current text of what is proclaimed, lamentably, is somehow not up to the same standard.  To my knowledge, the only biblical translation that has made great efforts to conform to the guidelines set forth by Liturgiam Authenticam is the aforementioned RSV-2CE published by Ignatius Press.

Even for those of us who proclaim the texts, the current Lectionary makes for a cumbersome read.  Many of the Pauline epistles just don't flow well.  The sentences go on for several lines.  In my case, I have had to take a peak at the Spanish-language Lectionary to see where the breaks are, or, even leaf through my late grandmother's Doauy-Rheims Bible.   Scripture can be (and sometimes is) poetic.  But, somehow, the beauty and the poetry are sometimes lost in the translation. 

Fr. Neuhaus further drives home the point when he writes that:

It is a great pity that our churches and our culture have largely lost a common biblical vocabulary. The blame rests with academic Bible scholars and with the hustlers of the very big business of multiplying and marketing ever-more-novel versions of the biblical text. But the decay of a culture- and soul-forming tradition is also the fault of the bishops, and it is their very particular fault that the Catholic people are saddled with among the clunkiest of translations, the New American Bible. Yes, I know that there is not much to be done about it, or at least that those who could do something seem not to be interested. And yes, I know that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. But sometimes it is necessary to curse the darkness as well, just to prevent our getting used to it.

Perhaps Fr. Neuhaus final sentences says it best:

Finally, the bishops might reconsider their choice of the NAB, or at least petition Rome to allow the liturgical use of other and worthier translations. Or maybe not. In which case, we will during the scriptural readings at every Mass have occasion to remember Flannery O’Connor’s sage observation that we frequently must suffer more from the Church than for the Church.
Close to three  years after Fr. Neuhaus wrote this article, he died in January 2009.  I am sure that he would have been delighted with the revised Roman Missal and would have reveled at the prospects of finally praying a translation that he had been eagerly awaiting.  Perhaps from his present vantage point, he can pray that we will someday soon have a beautifully translated Lectionary to go with that splending revised Roman Missal.  One can only hope.
Now, there is already a new Grail Psalter, the translation of which comes from England.  While I have not seen it, from what I understand, it is a beautiful translation.  But, while the quality of the psalms will improve, once the new psalter comes into use, it's the rest of the Liturgy of the Word, specifically the Gospels, which will continue to languish. 


  1. "Is it just me, or is there something lost in the translation"
    Like, uh, the eternalness of the third Person of the Trinity? Wow, looks like heresy to me.

  2. That's why I found this particular translation of the Gospel unsettling.