Bible Gets Linguistic Makeover

There’s a new translation of the Mass coming. And now, already, there is a brand-new translation of the New American Bible, which is intended to be closer and more faithful to the original languages.

CHICAGO — The New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE) released on Ash Wednesday provides Catholics with a new translation of Scripture that is more faithful to the original texts than previous versions. But will they embrace the idiomatic English and fresh but unfamiliar renderings of many of the Bible’s most famous passages?

“One of the major goals,” said Robert Di Vito, a key editor of the project, “was to have a translation that uses colloquial and contemporary American English.”

But updating the language wasn’t the only motivation. Advances in the fields of archaeology, biblical studies and textual analysis made a new rendering of the Old Testament from the New American Bible’s 1970 first edition almost mandatory. “We’ve had 40 years of scholarship on the Dead Sea Scrolls to help improve the accuracy of the texts,” said Di Vito, an associate professor of theology at Loyola University Chicago who specializes in the Old Testament and Northwest Semitic philology, the linguistics of ancient biblical languages including Hebrew and Aramaic.

The New Testament remains unchanged, though the Psalter appears in its third edition, newly reworked from a 1991 translation that stirred controversy at the time.

This new version of the Bible, approved for personal and scholarly use but not affecting the readings used at Mass, was two decades in the making. It grew out of a suggestion made in the early 1990s by the Catholic Biblical Association to the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, a board composed of bishops that holds the copyright to the New American Bible, that a new translation of the Old Testament was due. The administrative board of the National Council of Catholic Bishops approved the project in 1994, and the CBA selected scholars and set up guidelines for translation.

Although the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved the Old Testament in 2008, there was a delay: The U.S. bishops asked for more work on the Psalter. The confraternity took over the job of parceling out blocks of the Psalms to individual scholars. All told, about 50 scholars were involved.

Old Testament scholar Eugene Ulrich of the University of Notre Dame, an expert on the biblical texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls and one of the NABRE translators, said that scholars were just beginning to work with the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1970 when the New American Bible was originally translated. This revised version takes advantage of a wealth of new work on the scrolls.

The soft-spoken Benedictine Abbot Gregory Polan — who is perhaps best known for having supervised the creation of the Grail Psalter by the monks of Conception Abbey in Missouri — was able to draw on the complete version of Isaiah, the book he worked on for the NABRE, discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The newly available text gave Abbot Polan a fresh sense of the cadences of ancient Hebrew poetry.

“When you take Rhetoric 101,” the monk said, “the professor says you should not repeat the same verb in one paragraph. When you are reading ancient poetry in Isaiah, you hear the same verb being repeated. This translation will use repetition of verbs similar to that in the original to bring a stronger sense of the Hebrew poetry into English.”

Inclusive Language

A major concern with any recent translation of Scripture is always how “inclusive language” — language tailored so as not to offend a particular group, most often women — is employed. The 1991 Psalter on which the new one is based was rejected by the U.S. bishops for liturgical use. The concern was twofold: The 1991 Psalter didn’t lend itself to being sung, and it did not meet Vatican standards with regard to inclusive language. It was felt that the translators had gone out of their way to use inclusive language even when it wasn’t appropriate.

“We did try to make [this translation] inclusive to the extent that we could within the guidelines of Rome,” said Benedictine Father Joseph Jensen, a NABRE editor.

As executive secretary of the Catholic Biblical Association, Father Jensen signed a letter critical of Liturgiam Authenticam, the Vatican instruction that provided the principles for the new English translation of the Mass that Catholics will begin using this coming Advent.

Robert Miller II, an associate professor of Old Testament at The Catholic University of America, who translated a number of Psalms for the NABRE, however, said that the concern of translators was more with accuracy than with inclusive language — he saw the inclusive language as “a subset” of the quest for accuracy. He admitted that this means that inclusive language won’t be as prevalent: “It’s not that we tried to backtrack on the use of inclusive language,” he said, “but we tried to use language as close as possible to the Hebrew.”

Miller noted that in places where the 1991 version occasionally may have been hesitant to employ the masculine pronoun for God, the current translators let the Hebrew text be their guide.

The Process

Everything in the NABRE is there only after an arduous back-and-forth between translators and editors. To give us an idea of the process, a NABRE reviser shared with the Register an earlier version of the beginning of Genesis. The earlier version, prepared by Jesuit Father Richard Clifford, the outgoing head of Boston College’s Theology Department, begins, “When God began to create the heaven and the earth, and the earth was without form or outline …” But, according to this source, a bishop who read the passage insisted that it be redone to begin with the words “in the beginning,” not only because they are familiar from the Old Testament but because the Gospel of John opens with these words.

Although this version reportedly does not go out of its way to use inclusive language, “The Ideal Wife” of Proverbs 31:10 is translated “Poem on the Woman of Worth” in the NABRE. Mary Elizabeth Sperry, USCCB spokeswoman and associate director for Utilization of the New American Bible, has said that women will like this because they will prefer “being measured by their own accomplishments, not in terms of a husband’s perspective.”

Words Change Meanings

While all these concerns are important, the average Catholic is more likely to ask simpler questions: Do I like this new translation? Does it read well?

The opening of Genesis is one of the most famous passages in the Bible. Here is how the NABRE translates it:

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth — and the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters — Then God said: Let there be light, and there was light. God saw that the light was good. God then separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” Evening came, and morning followed — the first day.
Then God said: Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters, to separate one body of water from the other. God made the dome, and it separated the water below the dome from the water above the dome. And so it happened. God called the dome “sky.” Evening came, and morning followed — the second day.

Old Testament scholar Ulrich noted that there were few changes from the 1970 version but that the changes made are improvements.

“The thing I notice,” Ulrich said, “is that the opening captures the Hebrew much better.” He said that biblical authors had before them a tradition of a long, periodic sentence on which they relied. He said that this translation reflects that rhythm and meaning of the original by using such a sentence. The new translation more clearly puts the emphasis on “Let there be light,” as the Hebrew does.

The use of the word “dome” is likely to attract the reader’s attention. Ulrich said that “dome” is closer to the Hebrew, since ancient cultures viewed the sky as a hard dome.

A prominent Protestant scholar begged to differ. “There is an earnest but rather tendentious attempt here to reflect cosmogonies of the ancient Near East in the language,” said David Lyle Jeffrey, a Protestant biblical scholar at Baylor University. “That’s okay, I guess, in a study Bible or in textual apparatus. But the text is prosaic, even sleepy. I suspect that the scholarship they reflect will have more value in the seminaries than in the pew — where some of these things may, in fact, confuse more than clarify.”

Some words were replaced because their meanings and connotations have changed. The ancient word “holocaust” for burnt offering, for example, is no longer used because in many minds “holocaust” has come to signify only the tragic 20th-century massacre of Jews. Another word, “booty,” meaning “spoils of war,” was replaced because the word has come to have sexual connotations; “cereal” is translated as “grain,” since translators were worried that the latter sounded like breakfast food.

Still, what Catholics are getting with the new translation, said Miller, is really something old: “We’re giving the people the Bible a little bit more unadulterated. We’re very happy that nowhere does this translation go into paraphrase — it says what [the original] says. Everything we’ve done falls under the category of giving the reader the real thing.”

Charlotte Hays is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum in Washington, D.C.