Monday, December 19, 2005

When Will They Stop Re-Tooling the Bible? Leave it Alone, Will Ya?

Regular church-going Catholics are right to feel a jarring in reading, or singing from the scriptures. That’s because of the New American Bible (NAB) and other versions: Revised NAB or re-revised amended NAB the wording changes significantly—and with it, some tradition. None other than my favorite, witty and sage commentator on the liturgy, Father Richard John Neuhaus (former Lutheran pastor, civil rights leader who marched with King and demonstrated against Vietnam before he became a conservative, then Catholic, then priest) has zinged modern translations in his exemplary magazine, “First Things.”

Take, for instance, the elevating word in Handel’s “Messiah”: “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. King James Version]. But Catholic scholars, striving to be oh so literal to the Hebrew render it: “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.” As Neuhaus says: “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.”

There is enough to quarrel about in Christendom among the various churches that we all ought to be able to reach one academically-approved version and stick with it. But no. Take Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd.” King James has the psalm concluding with: “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” That’s basically what I heard as a child, influenced by my Protestant neighbors who utilized King James and not the Catholic Douay-Rheims (I have always greatly preferred the Protestant King James version of this psalm: sorry to be a heretic). Douay-Rheims, has it that they will “dwell in the house of the Lord for length of days.” Now, is that the same as forever or just a fairly long time? Contrast that with the horrendous NAB: “I will dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come.” As Neuhaus wonders: how long is that? Ten years? Twenty? It’s long been my feeling that these new translations are just a kind of Biblical one-upmanship, to show that our scholars can do a better job than what was done heretofore. My personal preference is for King James (I know, I know, presumably scholarship has advanced since those days: but the sublime resonance that trained Lincoln in rhetoric shouldn’t be dismissed). I’ll receive some barbed comments on this from Catholics, I know. Flail away.

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