Thursday, January 27, 2011

How'd I Get To Be So Picky About Bible Translations?

I'd really like to know the answer to the above question. It's a little embarrassing. I try not to be bothered... but it always slips out.

When I began RCIA, Paul wanted to buy me a Bible. Thus began a journey to find one that I liked (it took a while...).

I was looking for a Bible verse tonight for a post that I've been planning, but as I was searching for it I was sidetracked. First I looked in one of my two favorite Bibles, the Douay Rheims (my other favorite is the RSV CE). I love the Doay Rheims, but after reading through the part I was searching for I wondered if I shouldn't check out a couple other versions, because it was a post that I was hoping would be very relatable and the Douay Rheims isn't necessarily the easiest read.

Here are the three versions that I came across (and this just happens to be the first verse that caught my eye):

"Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that which endureth unto life everlasting, which the Son of man will give you..."

-Douay Rheims Bible

"Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you..."

-New American Bible

"Do not work for food that goes bad, but work for food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of man will give you.."

-New Jerusalem Bible
I'll admit, after reading less than ten words of the New Jerusalem Bible I could tell that I wasn't going to like the translation. I was getting that grating, nails on chalkboard feeling. So I clicked back over to a couple other versions and read the same verse, one after another.

I knew within moments what it was that bothered me. It was the same thing that bothered me when we looked at different translations in RCIA and read a few that, while sold as "adult" Bibles were so incredibly oversimplified that it was hard to get a glimpse of the original meaning. One version that stands out even now was missing the word "temptation." Apparently it was thought to be too difficult a word and had been left out (we had been talking about how different Bibles were graded at different grade levels that night... but I really don't think "temptation" is that tough of a word, despite it's three syllables...).

In the verse above, in the New Jerusalem, they've decided to do away with the word "perishes" and replace it with "go bad." It means the same thing. And yet I had to force myself to keep reading because it just "sounded" off when I read the verse to myself. I'll admit, I tend to be a little obsessive about words and cadence and how paragraphs fall together.

I'll also admit that I was being a little dramatic when I flopped down on the bed with my laptop and asked Paul, who was hard at work on his computer, my next question. The conversation went something like this:

Me: "Is that Bible that you like the Jerusalem or the New Jerusalem?"
Him: "Jerusalem. Why?"
Me: "Because I was just looking for a Bible verse and I found it in the New Jerusalem. And I actually feel a little bit dumber now than I did ten minutes ago." (I know, I know, it's not nearly that bad. I was being dramatic. I should also mention that I'm also really tired right now and feel a little bit goofy from sheer exhaustion. I read a simple paragraph that was only slightly funny on another website half an hour ago and laughed for like five minutes... I'll be going to bed soon...).
Him: "I'll have to let my professor know that. He loves the New Jerusalem Bible. It uses gender inclusive language."

There you have it. See, my instincts aren't all that bad. And if you read this blog regularly you may remember that I do believe that gender inclusive language sounds exactly like finger nails on a chalkboard.

I may be a little neurotic and this might be my most boring post ever, so I think I'm going to get that sleep I so desperately need. And tomorrow I'll try again to write that post I've been planning (the title is "Why I'm Catholic: Part 1").

I'll make sure I avoid the New Jerusalem, so I don't get distracted...


  1. I'm with you on the Bible translations. My favorites are King James and the NRSV. Some of those really are dumb-ed down, though.

  2. My husband and I have problems with some translations too. He is a moral theologian and so we have copies of the Vulgate and I think we might have the Greek as well. He has needed to learn how to translate from both of them for his degree, but I'm afraid neither of us know how to translate Hebrew, so we stop at the Latin and Greek.

    The Latin for the verse you mention is: operamini non cibum qui perit sed qui permanet in vitam aeternam quem Filius hominis vobis dabit hunc enim Pater signavit Deus

    A pretty literal translation would be something like "Do not work for food that perishes but that remains to life eternal which the Son of man will give to you for here God the Father has sealed."

    The "goes bad" bit would make me feel more like a 3rd grader too. And I despise gender inclusive language forced into texts.

    On my Iphone, I use the Douay-Rheims translation as well. At home I like the Ignatius Revised Standard Version Second Edition. Their translation is as follows: Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal."

    Neither of us are linguists (and the latin translation above is my own but it has been a few years, and a few kids, since I took Latin) but it is my understanding that the Ignatius translation is among the best you can relatively easily find. I've really rather liked it. It comes a lot closer to the Douay-Rheims but remains relatable and that isn't easy to find.

    My husband and I got into a whole discussion on this not long ago relating to Psalm 22 (or 21 in the DR). The language in DR is "My heart is become like wax melting in the midst of my bowels." I love the graphic aspect to it. You cannot not get a vivid image of what he is talking about. The NAB, which is on the USCCB website says "My heart has become like wax, it melts away within me." Now, that doesn't have the same passion as the DR, but a lot of people would recoil at the word "bowels" so I think the Ignatius makes a decent attempt to bridge the gap: "My heart is like wax, it is melted within my breast". My husband and I definitely think something is lost when they remove the word "bowels" as, back then, it was understood to refer to the very depths of a person, but as it really isn't used that way today, I much prefer the reference of the person's "breast" over simply "within me."

    Okay......I need to go empty the dish washer. God Bless†

  3. I have the same problem! I was raised with the NAB, so that's what always "sounds right" to me, and the version that I have verses memorized in. But it's kind of squishy at times, and I hate the notes. I got a Douay-Rheims, but it is sometimes hard to understand because it's so very literal. I guess I'd choose the RSV, which is objectively very nice, but it still sometimes "sounds wrong" because I'm so used to the NAB!

  4. I completely understand what you mean. King James is the version I like, though the Douay Rheims Bible you mentioned looks good too. Gender inclusive drives me crazy. Why can't feminists understand that Man means huMANs? Our prayer books got 'improved' years ago. Sometimes we splurge and drive to Ottawa to attend Mass at a church who's service is based on the old Book of Common Prayer. It's still 'inclusive' but at least uses the old language and phrases.

    For example, last week the minister was speaking about the disciples following Jesus and going from being 'fishermen to fishers of men'. Well the minister used inclusive language and said 'fishermen to fishers of people' -just doesn't sound the same.

  5. "You should not work to earn food which perishes in the using. Work to earn food which affords, continually, eternal life, such food as the Son of Man will give you; God, the Father, has authorized him." Jn 6:27 Knox translation

  6. Cannot go wrong with the Douay Rheims, in my humble opinion. It's literal translation, is positively the best out there, I think. The best part of it is when my oldest daughter age 9 has to look up something for her Religion class and she goes to it and finds the verse. She reads it, and looks at me and says, "What does that mean?" If I can explain it we have a wonderful conversation that goes to her level, but not with dumbed down words, rather defining the word 'perished' or whatever the words may be. If I can't explain it, then I take it to our priests. And again another good conversation is had and we are all better for it. Again, it's me, but our family feels that something gets lost in a watered down, inclusive language Bible.

  7. I definitely know what you mean. I have different translations I use for different reasons. When I'm reading the Psalms or Song of Songs (not studying), I like to read the King James Version because it sounds more poetic.

    But when I'm studying, I prefer more accurate translations.

    On a side note, I think I know what bothers you so much about the "perishes"/"goes bad" thing in the above verse. It's not the definition but the connotation that's different.

    When you hear the word "perishes," you get certain images in your mind, and some of them are religious in nature. "Perish" can bring to mind death, and has a sense of finality to it.

    When you hear the phrase "goes bad," you usually think of food first, and when your mind goes beyond that, it usually thinks of things like people turning bad and getting in with the wrong crowd. Things like that.

    "Goes bad" was a poor word choice for what that verse is trying to accomplish. I think they just used a thesaurus and figured "Eh...close enough."

  8. I have to say I'm so glad I wrote this post because it has some of the most interesting and informative comments! Thanks to everybody!

    For those of you who like the King James, I would really suggest the Ignatius Revised Standard Version (the one Paul got me is here: ). I had such a hard time transitioning from the King James and New King James to the New American Bible we used in RCIA and when I found the RSV-CE it was love at first sight! The language is very similar. The psalms and other that I had memorized were virtually identical. So if you haven't seen on and your looking for a Bible that's a great one to check out (I think it's really good for Protestant converts like me, because it's not such a dramatic change).

    Katherine, that is really interesting about the different translations (Paul and I both want to learn Latin, and I got him the Rosetta Stone before the girls came along, but since they've arrived very little studying has gotten done!). And I loved seeing the different translations of Psalm 22! I had to read it out loud to Paul!

    Peklet Mom- I think your comment also sums up something that bothers me. When I read verses where the words are oversimplified it almost feels like the translator doubts were capable of understanding even semi-difficult words. I find myself asking "how is anyone supposed to learn if everything is so dumbed down." Like your daughter I would ask my parents the definitions of words when I was younger and then I lugged a dictionary around when I was in junior high, looking up every word I came across and didn't know. By making all the words so simple that's lost, so you definitely made a great point!

    Nicole- I think that is a large part of it too. "Goes bad" definitely brings up different images and makes the verse feel so superficial! Thank you for putting into words one of the reasons I'd been searching to articulate!

    Cliff- I'd never heard of the Knox translation. I just started reading about it and it looks really interesting. I'll have to read more later, since I hear Maggie crying though, so it looks like my time has run short (I'm "supposed" to be getting ready to take the girls out right now...).

    Paula- Inclusive language during Mass would drive me crazy too! I think I'd spend all of Mass trying not to wince or look over at Paul with raised eyebrows. At least right now I only have to resist those impulses when they sing (and change the words) to the Our Father at our parish... sigh...

  9. YES!!!!!! I found a wonderful Jesse tree on-line with printable everything- but the Bible translation was VERY I went with the Jerusalem- I got a Douey-Rheims for Christmas- I am loving it, but it probably isn't the best as a family Bible

  10. Yeah I agree. I want a DR so badly, but too expensive. When I worked at the bookstore the New Jerusalem was heavily discouraged.

  11. Ignatius is the winner in my book. The psalms in my Liturgy of the Hours books are marked up with the better wording in Ignatius (and sometimes totally different meaning, to my understanding) than the inclusive psalms now used in the breviary.

    If you need an Ignatius and can't afford it, drop me a line.


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