Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Bible in English

In the latest issue of First Things, Richard John Neuhaus, the editor, complains about the official Catholic translation of the Bible, the New American Bible (NAB). He uses some harsh words, calling the translators "tone-deaf linguistic wreckers" among other things.

One of his complaints is about the enigmatic first passage of the Torah, "בראשית ברא א-להים" which is commonly translated as "In the beginning God created..." From the perspective of Hebrew grammar, the phrase is difficult because בראשית technically means "In the beginning of". Beginning of what? Commentators and translators have struggled with this problem for millennia. The KJV translates it as above: "In the beginning God created..." The NAB, in an attempt to be grammatically correct, translates it according to the commentary of Rashbam: "In the beginning, when God created..." This irks Neuhaus.

Another of his complaints revolves around a Psalm that is very familiar to both Jews and Christians. The last phrase of Psalm 23:6 is translated by the KJV and the RSV as: "I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever." Considering the Hebrew "ושבתי בבית יקוק לאורך ימים", the choice of "forever" is fairly non-literal if not plain inaccurate. "לאורך ימים" means for many years or for the rest of one's life; it does not mean forever. The NRSV got it better with: "I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long." The NAB has it as: "I will dwell in the house of the LORD for years to come." Fairly accurate, if you ask me. But if you ask Neuhaus, "For years to come? It inevitably prompts the question of how many. Ten? Twenty? fifty? Whatever the answer, it would seem to be far short of forever."

It seems to me, from the little that I've seen, that the NAB translators are striving for accuracy and also to reduce the Bible to language that the average English-reader can understand. The Bible is not supposed to be only for the literary elite. Not that I'm recommending this translation, which according to its preface incorporates the findings of textual criticism. But Neuhaus' criticisms seem to simply be 1) that he's used to other translations and 2) the language used is too unsophisticated.

Thankfully, not being personally burdened by a long (in Neuhaus' case, very long) ritual and scholarly bond with an English translation, I'm not invested in any particular English translation. I actually rarely use one. To me, the original Hebrew text is for the sophisticated reader and any English translation is directed to the unlearned and, therefore, should use the "vulgar," common language. Those who want poetry should go to the original.

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