Saturday 12 January 2013

The Lectionary again

I'm not really a fan of the Jerusalem Bible, in either of its incarnations (that is, the original Jerusalem Bible of the early 1960s and the reworking under the remarkably energetic Dom Henry Wansborough* in the 1980s). That being said, I think that, as in so many historical matters, context is everything.

Before the JB, in England and Wales there were really only two translations available to Catholics; the Douai-Rheims, which is so literal a translation (intended more for controversy, perhaps, than devotion) as to make it sometimes nearly incomprehensible; and the Knox version, produced in the 1940s, the work of one man. I very much appreciate Ronald Knox—I have two shelves of his books, (and am delighted to see that has now issued his detective novels in unabridged audiobook form), but I can't warm to the Yoda-speak of his Bible translation: 'for the illumination greater of his auditors, backwards spoke he'.

The JB was intended to be some sort of breath of fresh air, and seen against the context of the Douai and the Knox, who can doubt that that was what it was. It intended simply and artlessly (I suppose) to set down simply what the things seems to say, in modern language, deliberately avoiding translations of certain verses which have passed into the language such as 'in my Father's house there are many mansions', or even 'I know that my Redeemer lives/liveth', in order to give the reader a fresh experience of the Word of God.

Instead of employing one translator or even a team, the English Jerusalem Bible project farmed different books out to different people. The result is very uneven, as one might expect. Some books are beautifully translated, others dreadfully. For me, though St Paul can be pretty awful at times, the worst seems to be the Gospel of St John; perhaps because we hear it at the key times of the liturgical year as, for instance, in the magnificent Johannine Prologue:

'Indeed, from his fulness we have, all of us, received—yes, grace in return for grace'  Jn1:16

I'm not suggesting that the words can't mean that; apparently they can (though Fr Hunwicke would know best). But in cases like this I think a translator must ask himself not just what the words could possibly mean and then plump for the most unusual possible version just to give the passage 'freshness', but to ask himself what the author is actually saying. I do not think for a moment that the Evangelist is suggesting that God gives us grace in return for the grace we give Him (as if!). Charin anti charitos can also mean 'grace in exchange for grace', I am told, but surely it should be read 'grace upon grace' or 'grace after grace', and this indeed is just as accurate a way of rendering the Greek words, and a much more accurate way of rendering the theology.

The translation of the famous bit of Job 'I know that my Redeemer lives' as 'I know that my avenger lives' makes that glorious passage unusable at a funeral unless one is lucky enough to have access to an RSV lectionary (and the old RSV lectionary is notoriously difficult to drive, let alone find).

And what about that passage from John and Easter: 'I'm going fishing'; 'We'll come with you!'; Peter 'had practically nothing on'. And in the garden of Gethsemane: 'Who are you looking for?' I could go on and on. How about 'Jesus burst into tears' or 'and his hand was better'. Ouch, ouch, ouch! With our new Missal translation, these things seem more and more uncomfortable.

I spoke about this with a very senior cleric, and he seemed to think it likely that a new edition of the lectionary might well use the RSV, which I presume means what is sometimes called the Ignatius RSV; the second Catholic edition, that is. He seemed to think that the proposal to use the NRSV has now been shelved: I heard some time ago that it had been planned to have lectionaries out by now in this version, but the delay was on the part of the NRSV people, who objected to the Catholic Church tinkering with God's Word by adding the little incipits before, for instance, the Gospel readings at Mass; things like 'at that time, Jesus said to his disciples………'. As an Anglican friend pointed out, this is all the stranger, as they seemed perfectly happy with the much more extensive rewritings of the text for the Anglican lectionary. But then perhaps it was that experience that led them to forbid any alterations at all for the Catholic lectionary. Anyway, we can be grateful that at least we have been spared the NRSV. I shall be very content if we can have the RSV, and hopefully soon!

Note: Thanks to Joshua (see comments) for this link, confirming that we shall have an ESV lectionary soon. And thinking about it, I suspect that the bishop I was speaking to may well have said ESV, not RSV. But I think of ESV as being an improved RSV in any event—as long as important Catholic corrections are made, such as at the Angel's greeting; 'full of grace' rather than 'richly flavoured one' or whatever.

* At the time I was working in Oxford, Dom Henry was the Master of St Benet's Hall. He was notable, among other things, for the fact that he sped around Oxford on roller blades; he had mastered the art of travel, but had not yet worked out how to stop, and was therefore obliged to grab onto something—a lamp-post, a college, a senior don, that sort of thing— if stopping became necessary. In this way, he passed into student legend, though, which is notoriously unreliable. The same corpus of legends, I am told, still tells of the way I used to go running in the University Parks in green lycra. I have never knowingly worn lycra in my life (unless woven into something else, I suppose), though I did have a green Irish rugby shirt which I sometimes used.


Joshua said...

The Archbishop of Brisbane (recently translated from Canberra) has indicated that the new lectionary will be based on the ESV.

See this old blog post about it.

Sir Watkin said...

Another question is whether a version is intended for public (liturgical) use or private study.

The "New English Bible" was intended specifically for private use, and (quite deliberately) not for reading publicly, If it had been, the translators might have phrased things differently, but as this was not their intention, they quite reasonably didn't worry about how their version might sound when read aloud.

Unfortunately, when it appeared, many Anglicans, in a neophiliac spirit, insisted on using it liturgically.

It always feels as if something similar happened with the J.B. (version intended for private use being adopted inappropriately for the liturgy),

Pastor in Monte said...

Thank you, Sir Watkin; you are of course quite right, and in fact in an earlier draft of this post I made the same point; something happened, and I lost the draft, and then forgot the point when I rewrote. The JB, just, pre-dates the vernacular lectionary. My first layman's missal, a shortened St Andrew Missal of 1963, which predates the standard edition of the JB by about three years, actually has the Gospel readings in the JB. It was meant for private reading, as you suggest, not for reading at Mass.

William said...

Just to say that the interesting link in Joshua's comment seems to have gone awry. This is what it should be.

Anonymous said...

Fr, I always understood the RSV is also approved for use in England and Wales. Is that not the case and perhaps the solution?

Pastor in Monte said...

Yes, you are right, but as I wrote in the post, the actual books are hard to find and hard to use when you've found them. Besides, the 'thee and thou' language doesn't go down well in certain quarters. The Ignatius and the ESV have sensitively changed that.

AHJ said...

I read at Mass once or twice a month and grappling with the JB is always the worst bit. I agree with you about St Paul, but much of the OT also seems lead-footed and clumsy to me, when compared to practically any other Catholic translation. It certainly doesn't feel as though it was written to be proclaimed liturgically.

Joshua said...

It does seem strange that - unlike the process regarding the production of the new translation of the Missal - there is a dearth of information about. If the ESV has been settled upon, and the Lectionary is being compiled, why does it take so very long to implement, and why is there so little discussion about it?

Fr William R. Young said...

This is great news. Perhaps the CTS will now republish their Catholic Bible with the ESV text. The JB "translation" [aka variations on a well-known theme] was only ever intended as a framework to hold together the notes, even in the original French edition. It is also scandalous that parts of the OT were actually translated from the French!

Anonymous said...

The RSV-CE will be the translation of the Ordinariate Lectionary worldwide.

I thought the intention was for all lectionaries withing a language group to eventually be the same, so why the recourse to the ESV - as here in America for that matter, to the NAB?

Catholic Voice said...

Thank you Father: most interesting. But be very careful! It seems that many regard the Douai-Rheims translation as being Divinely Approved and beyond criticism.

GOR said...

I would be hard pressed to tell you which Lectionary is used in our parish here in the US. I’m thinking it must be the FBE (Feminist Bible Edition…). There is a distinct lack of the masculine pronoun when referring to Our Lord or even God the Father! Polysyllabic words are changed to monosyllabic as much as possible, leading to much hesitation as the 'right' terms are sought.

Following Mass with my own Daily Missal, I have to ‘tune out’ what I’m hearing much of the time.

Even the Proper of the Mass is not spared: “Through Him, with Him etc.” becomes “Through Christ, with Christ…” And of course “pro multis” becomes “for all”. Or rather: “for ALL” (emphasized).

But Father is in his 80’s, steeped in Vat II and a devotee of the National Catholic Reporter, so I should not be surprised. Annoyed, yes…but not surprised.

Time will take care of it, of course, but whether I'll live to see it is becoming increasingly doubtful...