C. L. Wrenn on the New English Bible

Studia Evangelica, vol. iii (1964), pp. 288-95

... While sharing the feeling of admiration for this work of selfless scholarship and piety which has been so widely expressed, I propose in what follows to examine briefly some aspects both in the theory and the practice of the translators which I think of real importance, which have not yet received the attention they call for.

First, I would ask: is it really desirable and feasible to employ 'the natural vocabulary, constructions and rhythms' of the speech of today to render the basic documents of our faith? The late Monsignor Ronald Knox saw some part of the difficulty when he sought for a 'timeless' language for his own translation, while preserving with minimal change the language of specially sacred passages which familiar tradition has hallowed. He looked for language which might seem intelligible to both the seventeenth century and to us today. So much of our natural speech is flat, trivial, and unstable: and the spoken language changes so much more quickly than the written. It has often been noticed of late that the language of the New Testament with its metaphors and similes expresses a thought-pattern which is not receivable by 'the common man' of today without great effort. There has been a spiritual contraction in the recent centuries which has made the whole mental climate of the New Testament alien; so that the appropriate elements for its expression in the 'natural vocabulary' of speech scarcely exist. With the loss of awareness of the supra-phenomenal world, for the expression of which allegory and symbolism have been found necessary, the effective linguistic tools have become unusable or defunct. If passages of the Scriptures are to suggest things of supra-phenomenal reality, it cannot well be done in the natural vocabulary of our current speech. It must, perforce, employ a language no longer current. A purely synchronic language is, in fact, not feasible with our changing fashions of speech.

Here is a simple illustration of what I am trying to convey, from St. Mark 8:36. The New English Bible reads: 'What does a man gain by winning the whole world at the cost of his true self.' The Authorized Version (based on slightly different Greek) has: 'For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul.' Our current habit of speech does not easily treat of the soul: so the Greek ψυχη is here rendered 'true self.' I am not forgetting that some recent researches have seemed to point to this rendering on the assumption that the Greek concept was influenced by Aramaic in which the corresponding word would have meant something like 'personality' or 'true self.' But anima and the terms for 'soul' in modern languages had been the view of the Church for some 1,800 years. Thus it is that a basic Christian concept may seem to have been blurred or weakened for the sake of contemporaneity.

Related to this kind of 'up-to-dateness' is, as I think, the error of assuming that certain fundamental Greek words, with their Latin Patristic equivalents, had remained static in meaning since pre-Christian times. Such words are αγαπη (caritas, charity), χαρις (gratia, grace), and πειρασμος (tentatio, temptation), which are supposed to retain their 'original' senses of 'love,' 'favor,' and 'test' or 'ordeal.' But already in the Apostolic age χαρις had begun to assume some of the connotations of divine Grace, as seems to be admitted universally in rendering the closing words of 2 Corinthians, and as 'Grace' it remained till the Reformation. [At the end of 2 Corinthians Tyndale replaced 'favour' of his 1525 edition with 'grace' in the 1534 revision.] Indeed, Tyndale, usually a strong stickler for literalness in handling 'Graeca veritas,' yet makes Gabriel salute Our Lady in the Lucan account of the Annunciation as 'full of grace' (Luke 1:28) in rendering the Greek participle κεχαριτωμενη though the AV has 'highly favoured.' Incidentally, the rendering in the New English Bible, 'Greetings, most favoured one,' may be thought to be a long way from 'the natural vocabulary, constructions and rhythms of contemporary speech.' Similarly, the αγαπη of 1 Corinthians 13 very early was taken as Caritas, "Charity," the "theological virtue." (1) This time it was Tyndale who led the way in rendering it as 'love,' while the AV followed Rheims in restoring 'Charity.' With the Greek πειρασμος the situation is somewhat different; for though the Latin verb tentare was in good classical use, its abstract noun tentatio was an almost entirely Christian development, expressing both 'testing' and 'tempting.' When 'temptation,' especially in the Pater Noster, has had such wide connotations throughout Christian history, one may doubt the wisdom of replacing it contextually by the narrower and (supposedly) more exact rendering. The New English Bible in the Lord's Prayer has 'Do not bring us to the test,' in both the longer St. Matthew version and the shorter one of St. Luke; yet Jesus is 'tempted' by Satan in Mark 1:13 where the Greek has the participle, πειραζομενος; and again in Luke 4:2. In the Apocalypse, however, the same word πειρασμος is rendered 'ordeal' in 3:10 -- 'I will keep you from the ordeal that is to fall upon the whole world.' Here the traditional translation of the Greek ἐκ τῆς ὥρας τοῦ πειρασμοῦ is 'from the hour of temptation.'

Secondly, I would wish for a kind of language that might retain if possible those sacramental and numinous elements needed naturally for the expression of sacred and mysterious religious truths. Tyndale, we are told, boasted to the priest of Gloucester that because of the effects of his vernacular translation 'A boy that driveth the plow shall know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.' Yet in all languages I know of it has been the universal tendency to express the central ideas of religion in a language more dignified, more archaic even, and with more implicit levels of meaning than that used for the doings of ordinary life. Many of Tyndale's colloquialisms were replaced in the AV by forms of more dignity and depth which were yet, even in the early seventeenth century, obsolescent or merely literary.

This is too well known to need illustration, I think. In the Middle Ages the opening verses of St. John's Gospel were often unconsciously regarded as a kind of incantation for popular purposes: Chaucer's Friar, for instance, would bless a house he visited with his In Principio: and the special place of this prologue at the close of the Mass attests the feeling of its peculiar and fundamental sacredness which has been almost universal throughout Christian history. Here, therefore, is a case where particular care should be taken not to disturb the traditional rendering without very strong reason. I would not reject the incantatory aspects of this language, which persists through the Latin and our vernacular rendering till this century. The emotive language which stirs a consciousness of unsearchable sacredness and mystery is not necessarily inconsistent with truth, since there must be aspects of divine truth which are beyond expression in purely rational terms. The rendering Word, for instance, for λογος has been universal in English since early Anglo-Saxon times: and the New English Bible rightly preserves it; but otherwise it has lost the kind of emotive element I am concerned with. It begins: 'When all things began, the Word already was. The Word dwelt with God, and what God was, the Word was.' Now this is neat and skilful, yet not quite the style of natural current speech, nor does it retain the sacramental or numinous feeling proper for the conveying of the divine mystery. The fact is that this passage cannot effectively be 'modernized.' The depth and difficulty of its thought and feeling require a language in translation which is traditional and literary. Other recent attempts on it have been no more succesful. The extremes of the weakness inherent in modernizing this passage are to be seen in the versions of Moffatt and of J.B. Phillips. Moffatt renders thus: 'The Logos existed in the very beginning. The Logos was with God. The Logos was divine.' Phillips has: 'At the beginning God expressed himself. That personal expression, that word, was with God, and was God, and he existed with God from the beginning.' This last effort, I think, well emphasizes the vast changes in thought-pattern which recent times have brought. In verse 5, to take a related type of difficulty, the usual English rendering till our century had been much as in the AV: 'And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not,' where 'comprehended,' following the Vulgate of St. Jerome, preserves the mystery of the Greek word κατέλαβεν. For in the clause ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν it would seem that it might in this Hellenistic period mean either 'understood,' 'overcame,' or even both. Now 'comprehended' as an English rendering, like the Latin, may imply either or both of these meanings. The New English Bible reads: 'The light shines on in the dark; and the darkness has never quenched it.' Incidentally, 'quenched' is no longer in the natural vocabulary of our current speech though it remains in good literary use.

Thirdly, I would point out the ill effects, as it appears to me, of the mixture of current speech with elements of a more literary, academic, or even technical type. We find some intrusion into the somewhat flat and ordinary prose of the New English Bible of expressions arising from the effort to be technically accurate in matters of little importance; and at the same time, some of the colloquialisms are so contemporary as to seem at times almost vulgar. Here are a few examples of what I am thinking of: 'Ascertained from them the time when the star had appeared' (Mat. 2:7) for banality. 'This is my Son, my Beloved, on whom my favour rests' (Mat. 3:17) stiff and not current. 'The people rounded on them' (Mat. 20:31) and 'Why are you trying to catch me out?' (Mat. 22:18) for extreme colloquiality. The translators have not been able to achieve their linguistic aims with any consistency.

But the clearest example of academic influence bringing disaster occurs in the parable of the wheat and the 'tares' in St. Matthew 13. St. Jerome was unable to discover the meaning of the Greek ζιζανια, so merely transliterated it zizania (pl.). It has never been clear exactly what weed was understood by the first hearers of the parable, though modern researches seem to point to darnel. The traditional word was cockle or corn cockle (Old English coccul) which appeared in the earlier Wycliffite Bible as cockle or darnel as alternatives. But the Purvey version replaced cockle by tares. From Tyndale, tares has through the AV retained its place as the widely accepted word, though the Rheims version and its revisions have preferred the older cockle. Now neither cockle nor tares can be correct, though one may doubt the wisdom of trying to locate the exact force of zizania, as that it was a noxious weed proper to cornfields is what really matters. But the medieval commentators commonly took zizania as lolium: and the nearest kind of lolium to the need of the context seems to be lolium temulentum, which has sometimes been called in English rustic dialects darnel. I confess that, when I first read this parable in the New English Bible I had to look up darnel in a dictionary: nor has it been in current speech in the received standard language for a century. Perhaps, then, darnel is technically the nearest we can get to the unknown zizania; but I sympathize with Moffatt, who just said 'weeds'; or with Ronald Knox who left the traditional Roman Catholic version for 'tares,' because, I take it, it had become part of the English literary inheritance. For the same reason, I suppose, Knox has substituted 'trespasses' for the literal rendering 'debts' in the Matthew Lord's Prayer, thus following Tyndale and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer as against both the AV and Rheims. But because the Hebrew mind associated debt with sin, which is literally also the word used in the shorter Lucan version, the New English Bible employs colloquial language here: 'Forgive us the wrong we have done, as we have forgiven those who have wronged us.' This is where modern scholarship leads: but perhaps 'wrong' in current speech lacks the necessary force and depth of 'debt,' or 'trespass'—and certainly of 'sin' ...

1. Wrenn is referring to the Catholic conception of Caritas, which involves much more than ordinary human "love." J.F. Sollier in the Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Co., 1910) defines it as "a divinely infused habit, inclining the human will to cherish God for his own sake above all things, and man for the sake of God." That it originates by Divine infusion is proven by St. Paul's statement in Romans 5:5, "The charity of God is poured forth in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost," and it is "distinct from, and superior to, the inborn inclination or the acquired habit of loving God in the natural order." It is also to be distinguished from mere emotional love: "Although charity is at times intensely emotional, and frequently reacts on our sensory faculties, still it properly resides in the rational will." (cf. the article "Love" in vol. 9.) —M.D.M.