“Stupidity,” says Jacques Maritain, “is always a vice.” So are bad taste and slovenly work.
Maritain should have been the editor of the New American Bible, copyrighted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and of the lectionary in use in America – a tenebrous mystery if ever there was one. Please, your excellencies, put these ugly and dispiriting creatures to death.
Sometimes you can benefit the Church just by ceasing to do something stupid. Many of us have known such addition by subtraction. You rip out the dingy plush carpet and the plywood, and you find a beautiful floor of white ash beneath. You strip away the whitewash to reveal again the colorful folk paintings of your ancestors long ago. You convert bad children’s readers to fuel for wood stoves, and you pick up Kipling and Austen and Stevenson again.
So I’d like, in a few essays, to categorize the blunders our translators have made, to show why the NAB and the current lectionary ought to be sent to the netherworld, and their names be known no more.
The first category is this: Turning the palpable and visible into abstraction.
We are wrong to suppose that poets turn everything into vague symbols, leaving behind this blessed world of sun and wind, grassland and rock, sparrow and lily. The poor writer thinks with dead metaphors, the drab and much-thumbed common currency of the journalist and the politician. He talks about “marginalized” people without thinking about a margin. He says that a leader has “free rein” but does not think about riding horses. The poet is not so. The poet does not shy away from things. Keats wrote wistfully about creatures whose lives will not survive the fall of the year:
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking, as the light wind lives or dies.
Hopkins could celebrate without embarrassment “skies of couple-color, as a brinded cow.” Browning’s scoundrel of a bishop, lying on his deathbed and issuing orders for his tomb, can revel in the sheer physicality of the Masses to be celebrated in his church:
And then, how I shall lie through centuries,
And hear the blessed mutter of the Mass,
And see God made and eaten all day long,
And feel the steady candle-flame, and taste
Good strong thick stupefying incense smoke.
The greatest poets draw near to ordinary people. A savage’s song may be savage, but it is not dull.
It takes real sophistication to attain the depths of dullness. Our translators have that sophistication.
Consider the strange Hebrew verb in Genesis: “And Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the Lord.” That is in the eminent King James Version.
The key word is knew. It is not easy to interpret. It’s not supposed to be easy. Recall that the forbidden tree was that of the knowledge of good and evil. Were Adam and Eve to remain ignorant? No indeed, since they had been made in the image of God, who granted them a blessing beyond what he granted to the beasts: they were to have dominion over creation.
This dominion has been shown by Adam’s god-like naming of the beasts, with God generously submitting to allow the beasts to bear whatever names Adam gave them. It is also shown in the first report of Adam’s speech, when he bursts out in praise upon beholding Eve: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, for she was taken out of Man.”
Were they meant to remain free of sexual pleasure, like children? That cannot be, since God has commanded them to be fruitful and multiply – with the Hebrew words for fruit and many transformed into verbs. What, then, does it mean for Adam to know his wife, and how is that unlike the specious knowledge promised by the serpent, who told Eve that on the day she ate of the fruit, her eyes would be opened, and they “should be as gods, knowing good and evil”?
That question casts before us the mystery of personal being, and the very different mystery of evil. To unite in the embrace that brings life is to know someone, but to rebel against the Giver of life is to cast yourself into “knowledge” that darkens the eyes and the mind.
So how does the NAB translate this powerful verb? It smothers it, obscuring the connections among the passages I have alluded to: “The man had intercourse with his wife Eve, and she conceived, and gave birth to Cain, saying, ‘I have produced a male child with the help of the Lord.’”
Dreary. A technical verbal phrase, “had intercourse with,” replaces the verb. The earthy “gotten” is gone too, replaced with the pallid “produced.” Eve’s triumphant cry, “I have gotten a man,” echoing Adam, “She shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man,” is reduced to a comment about a male child – when child is not in the Hebrew at all. And “from the Lord,” direct, potent? Reduced to “with the help of the Lord.” What was God doing, boiling water for the delivery?
I’m not picking sour cherries. What I have illustrated is everywhere in the NAB. “Be fertile and multiply,” says God to the creatures and then to man. Really? When the Hebrew verb is built from the noun fruit? In a story about what fruit to eat and what not to eat? When Cain and Abel are supposed to offer the Lord the first fruits of their labor?
Everywhere – drab for colorful, vague for sharp. Everywhere the translators avoid the concrete thing that bears itself and its figurative meanings and poetic echoes. It is almost as if they wanted us to think less of the text and more of their footnotes. God help us.
*Image: The Scholar in His Study by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1634 [National Gallery , Prague]