Strangers in a Strange Land, Part Two Print
By Anthony Esolen   
Thursday, 22 December 2011

Imagine someone writing a love poem. Would he look up words in a data bank, as the translators of the New International Version have recently done, to determine the percentages of people who say this or that? Wouldn’t that be a self-defeating thing to do? 

For his very purpose is to write not a grocery list or a memorandum, but to bring forth a work of art, and to express a glorious passion, one as odd as the plumes of a peacock. Would he say to himself, “I dare not rhyme,” because people don’t leave telephone messages in sonnet form?

Those who say, then, that a translation of the sacred poetry of Scripture or the Mass must reflect the ordinary usage of the people are wrong. They proceed from two false premises.

They assume, first, that the translator must efface the strangeness of the original language – for all languages have their own peculiar strangeness – and, second, that Jesus and Saint Paul and the other speakers and writers in the Bible used only ordinary language when they spoke and wrote.

On the first count, the peculiarities of the original language are a boon to us, not a hindrance, precisely because they allow us to see what otherwise we might miss.  Every foreign language strikes the hearer as poetic, because, in fact, it is so, though the ordinary speakers of it may grow too familiar with it and so miss the poetry.

Let me give an example. When Adam took Eve as his wife, the Hebrew reads yada’, “he knew,” which the King James Bible translates accordingly: “And Adam knew Eve his wife.”  Now we don’t say things that way in modern English.  But that’s just the point! 

Unfortunately, the New American Bible here punts: “The man had relations with his wife Eve.” Well, yes, we understand that. We know a little about biology. But the word “know” implies much more. It suggests an intimacy of knowledge, a union of personal beings at the deepest level. 

It helps to reveal the incoherence of sins against marriage, whereby a man and a woman who do not know one another know one another.

So let us welcome the blessed stranger into our midst. When Jesus says, in a faithful translation of the Greek, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow,” it’s absurd for us to protest, “But people do not construct sentences like that anymore!” 

More’s the pity that they don’t, but so long as the sentence so constructed is comprehensible in the new language, the translator ought to receive it as a gift, precisely because the hint of strangeness may cause us to stop and really consider those lilies of the field. 


       Jesus Preaching the Sermon on the Mount by Gustave Doré (c. 1860)

The translators of the New American Bible, however, give us instead, “Learn from how the wild flowers grow,” effacing the flair of the original, and taming those flowers. For everybody has seen a wild flower, but a lily of the field, now that’s something to catch the eye, or the soul.

But the second point is more important than the first.  It isn’t simply that an oddity in the original ought to be reflected in the English.  It’s that the Hebrew or Greek or Latin we are translating is often intentionally poetic to begin with. 

Jesus uttered oratorical poetry of the most brilliant sort.  Saint Paul composed theological poems in prose form.  They echoed the poetry they knew best, the prayers and prophecies of the Old Testament, which they read and uttered not in the Aramaic of the street corners, but in Hebrew, and, in the Psalms, a Hebrew that uses words that even the ancient Hebrews no longer used, except in their sacred poetry. Again, the translator should welcome the strangeness. It is not a burden, but an opportunity.

Let me give an example from the Mass. The English translators of the 1973 Order of the Mass thought like office managers.  Efficiency was their idol. They hated strangeness, because strangeness is inefficient; it might require a pause, a turn of the head toward something no longer taken for granted. 

Therefore, they truncated wherever they could. Here was their translation of the central portion of the Gloria:

Lord God, Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world:
Have mercy on us.
You are seated at the right hand of the Father:
Receive our prayer.

Now that is not what the Latin says. The Latin embeds a poem within a poem within a poem: a three-part poem of petition within a larger poem (the Gloria) within a still larger poem (the entire liturgy). 

That three-part petition echoes the three-part acknowledgment of sin in the Confiteor, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault (a prayer that the office managers also truncated).  It prepares us also for the three-part petition of the Agnus Dei. Like the Agnus Dei, it is a three-part petition with variation.  Here is the correct translation:

Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father,
you take away the sins of the world,
    have mercy on us;
you take away the sins of the world,
    receive our prayer;
you are seated at the right hand of the Father,
    have mercy on us.

The interlocking repetitions reveal a profound truth. The mercy for which we pray at the beginning and the end is made possible by the sacrifice of Christ who takes away the sins of the world. When we say “receive our prayer,” the central request, we look back to the truth that Christ takes away our sins, and forward to the truth that he is seated at the Father’s right hand, to intercede for us.  All these things are intimately related; they are linked as in a golden chain.

It’s bad enough to have the dreary wherever we turn in this modern world. Why should we have it within our churches?  Even if a parish has no money for stained glass windows, everybody can afford stained glass prayers. 

No one is too poor for poetry. The Son of Man Himself, who had nowhere to lay his head, was abundantly rich in that.  Let translators take heed.


Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest book is Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College. 

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