I was praying morning prayer with my family and we came across Psalm 142, the New American Bible translation. The wording didn’t strike me as too moving, and my wife pointed out that a different translation of the same psalm, the translation she was familiar with, Psalm 141 from the Douay-Rheims had a much greater effect on her heart. It is common for various potent truths to be lost in new translations of the Bible, and this particular psalm demonstrates that issue as good as any Bible passage.
While the Douay-Rheims says “In his sight I pour out my prayer” in this psalm, the NAB says, “I pour out my complaint before Him.”
While the older translation says, “When my spirit failed me, then thou knewest my paths”, the NAB states, “When my spirit was overwhelmed within me, You knew my path.”
While the Douay-Rheims says, “the just wait for me, until thou reward me,” the NAB version is, “The righteous will surround me, For You will deal bountifully with me.”
I don’t know about you, but something about the word choice in the Douay-Rheims just rings more true to me, and I don’t think it’s just a matter of preference. The change in wording affects the whole angle that the psalm originally took, and may hinder the psalmist’s original message.
In the changes above, the focus in the Douay-Rheims is on God’s grace and sustenance rather than the psalmist’s state. The old version uses the word “prayer” instead of “complaint”, and “reward” instead of “bountifully”, and in doing so the Douay-Rheims version more adequately addresses the way prayer works. It’s about God. It’s about how he answers our cry, not about us crying out to him and how gracefully he responds to us. The formula is simple and not human-centered, but God-centered. We offer our petition to him, and he answers. It’s that simple.
Changing the wording from “my spirit failed me” to “my spirit was overwhelmed” presents another problem. This new wording does not address the fact that I am the problem and I need God to redeem my fallen state. If I am simply saying I am overwhelmed; I am not acknowledging the fact that I have failed and need a savior. Being overwhelmed connotes that I was deeply afflicted by a problem outside myself, and it doesn’t point to the real problem, which is that my spirit is inadequate and needs God’s grace.
The way the NAB version reads is anthropocentric: “I complained” and the Lord responded “bountifully” to me. While the word “bountifully” may seem innocuous, it corrupts the psalmic formula, because it’s not about how bountifully the Lord responds. God is worthy of praise for the simple fact that he responds at all, and in fact the reward may not even be bountiful. The reward may be his response itself, or even further trial if only because the trial is God’s response.
The Code of the Human Heart and Mind
The human heart and mind are like computers and language is like code. If you change certain parts of the input you get a different outcome; if you make a mistake, even the slightest, the code doesn’t work — then the program doesn’t work.
God wrote the code for our hearts, and the words he gave us in the Bible were designed to reach our hearts. Various modern translations have changed that code so much that it no longer has the effect it once did. It’s no wonder we are hardly moved when we hear Scripture read at Mass or read it ourselves. When we’re hardly moved, this causes us to easily get distracted. Something must have been lost in translation.
Different Translations, Different Effects
The logic behind the Church’s acceptable English translations of the Bible in the U.S. is that it’s better to translate Scripture from the original ancient Greek or Hebrew into English. The New American Bible is kind of a hodgepodge of translations, though. The New Testament is translated from the Greek, while the Old Testament is translated from Latin, except for Genesis which is translated from Hebrew.
Perhaps such an eclectic approach best represents the diversity of Scripture and the Catholic Faith, but there is a problem with having anything other than translations from Latin. No matter how learned a scholar of ancient Greek may be, he never experienced the language spoken in its time. There is no legitimate bridge between ancient Greek and modern English, not even modern Greek suffices because no ancient Greek speaker ever spoke with any modern Greek speaker.
Thus, Latin is in fact the more suitable language from which to translate Scripture, because Latin speakers were contemporaries of ancient Greek speakers. They lived in the same world, even partook in the same debates when it came to choosing dogmatic language. Furthermore, Latin speakers encountered vernacular languages like English in later centuries as well. Therefore, the earliest Latin translations, like the Latin Vulgate, provide a better bridge from the ancient Greek to modern English than that of modern scholars of ancient Greek; not only because Latin translators would have understood ancient Greek better, but also because early English translators would have understood Latin better than ancient Greek. The translators of the Douay-Rheims Bible, or the first Bible written in English, understood the importance of this succession, and therefore translated the Bible entirely from the Latin Vulgate.
This is not hypothetical. The early Church understood the value of succession, the handing down of truths from one generation to the next. The fecundity of those truths could easily be lost from one generation to the next, from one language to the next. That is why it is imperative for each translation to take small leaps, if any are necessary at all.
The Word of God is not a collection of cultural myths that just need to be passed on from generation to generation for the lessons it teaches, nor is it open to the latest lifestyle or vernacular language. If there are truths in the Bible that have been lost over time, we need to retrieve the lost truth and conform our lives to it to better understand it, not change what is in the Bible so it better relates to us.
Whether we want to make the Bible more relatable to our modern lifestyle, or recover the original meaning of the text, we owe our ancestors our trust that they hold the key to understanding the book they handed down to us; no matter how much times change or how much time passes.