NYTimes on the KJ Bible… and the new missal

An article in the Sunday New York Times, “Why the King James Bible Endures” by Charles McGrath, contains an aside about the newly translated missal.

It’s an interesting example of the new missal entering into broader cultural conversations. McGrath, writer-at-large for the NYTimes and former editor of the NYT Book Review, describes himself here as a “nonbeliever.” He writes:

There are countless new Bibles available now, many of them specialized: a Bible for couples, for gays and lesbians, for recovering addicts, for surfers, for skaters and skateboarders, not to mention a superheroes Bible for children. They are all “accessible,” but most are a little tone-deaf, lacking in grandeur and majesty, replacing “through a glasse, darkly,” for instance, with something along the lines of “like a dim image in a mirror.” But what this modernizing ignores is that the most powerful religious language is often a little elevated and incantatory, even ambiguous or just plain hard to understand. The new Catholic missal, for instance, does not seem to fear the forbidding phrase, replacing the statement that Jesus is “one in being with the Father” with the more complicated idea that he is “consubstantial with the Father.”

H/T: Pray Tell reader Sam Howard.

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22 comments

  1. Praise for the new missal from the NYT … foreshadowing perhaps that once again our liturgy will attract the intellectual, the non-believer through the beauty of the liturgy. We know that Dorothy Day loved the traditional liturgy and it was Malcolm Muggeridge, I believe, who said he converted to Catholicism despite V2, not because of V2. My own personal experience with converts to the faith has always echoed Muggeridges quip.

  2. This reminds me of a participant in RCIA some years ago who was raised on the KJV. The week after I had distributed copies of a Catholic Good News Bible, he returned to say with tears in his eyes how moved he was to have read the scriptures for the first time in English he could understand.

    I liken enjoying the KJV or the new translations of the Roman Missal to enjoying opera. Who can argue about how magnificent operas are save for the 98% of people who don’t relate to the artform or who went once and couldn’t understand it.

    1. I agree. I was struck by this excerpt from the article, quoted above:

      But what this modernizing ignores is that the most powerful religious language is often a little elevated and incantatory, even ambiguous or just plain hard to understand.

      It reduces the scriptures to an aesthetic and mysterious experience, something that sounds good and is mystifying, as if one needs to be an initiate in a mystery cult to understand the truths behind the scripture. In some ways this is the opposite of a stated principle of the new missal’s translation. There, the concern is that the English translation match the elevated tone of the Latin. With the scriptures, an elevated tone is read in to an original text that often lacks it.

      1. The trouble with an elevated tone is that all too often prayer and the realization of the Presence is left behind at Church. Special language can become like the good china and crystal brought out only for very special occasions.

        Another example – if the re-telling of the parting of the Red Sea during the Easter vigil becomes too precious, it turns the account in into a fairy tale, not something that happened to real people. As a woman, I can well sympathize with all those Jewish mothers in that crowd, knowing what would have happened to them and their daughters had Pharaoh, his chariots and charioteers caught up with them! No wonder Miriam sang and danced a victory song!

      2. Special language can become like the good china and crystal brought out only for very special occasions.

        That is not what history shows. Spoken English is replete with phrases and expressions lifted whole from the KJV.

  3. Fr Zuhlsdorf, metaphor mixer spinning at high speed, calls the NYT ‘Hell’s Bible’. Traditionalist bloggers and commenters love to demonise it the way they do The Tablet.

    Interesting comments from the article on the KJV:

    What the king cared about was clarity, simplicity, doctrinal orthodoxy. The translators worked hard on that, going back to the original Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, and yet they also spent a lot of time tweaking the English text in the interest of euphony and musicality.

    Not much interest in the original tongues from our 2010 translators; certainly no concern for euphony or musicality.

    The Times again:

    The great achievement of the King James translators is to have arrived at a language that is both ordinary and heightened, that rings in the ear and lingers in the mind.

    What is the great achievement of the 2010 translators? Word salad? Gibberish? Sprawling sentences that collapse in a tangle of nested clauses and lost antecedents?

    I didn’t see the NYT saying anything positive about the new Missal:

    The Roman Catholic Church, for instance, recently decided to retranslate the missal used at Mass to make it more formal and less conversational. Critics have complained that the new text is awkward and archaic, while its defenders (some of whom probably still prefer the Mass in Latin) insist that’s just the point — that language a little out of the ordinary is more devotional and inspiring.

    The new Catholic missal, for instance, does not seem to fear the forbidding phrase, replacing the statement that Jesus is “one in being with the Father” with the more complicated idea that he is “consubstantial with the Father.”

    The issue many of us have with the new Missal is not with forbidding phrases or elevated words (‘consubstantial’ or ‘ineffable’). I don’t know anyone who wants to ‘dumb down’ the Missal. The problem is with unsayable prose and mangled syntax.

    1. The issue many of us have with the new Missal is not with forbidding phrases or elevated words (‘consubstantial’ or ‘ineffable’).

      There are lots of people who do have this issue. Surely you’re not denying it?

      1. Samuel, the word I used was ‘many’; in VoxClaraSpeak this word can sometimes – after suitable catechesis – mean ‘all’, but in standard English it doesn’t.

        Some people object to ‘consubstantial’ and ‘ineffable’ and ‘gibbet’ and the like – at least we weren’t given ‘vouchsafe’. Many of us – the majority, I believe – understand these words well enough. What we object to is badly written English, quite apart from word choices.

        If the whole of the new translation hadn’t been so badly done, if the misguided principles of Liturgiam Authenticam hadn’t led to such ridiculously long and generally unsayable sentences then I think even Bp Trautman would have reduced his objection to the fancy words.

        Trautman’s objection, especially to ‘ineffable’, got blown way out of proportion on the blogs, leading Fr Z repeatedly to denounce ‘liberals’: “The usual tack they take is people are too stupid to understand the new texts.” (this from 31 March 2011, but it is a repeated theme with him).

        And before someone else raises the issue: no, I haven’t taken a scientific poll on the matter.

  4. “The problem is with unsayable prose and mangled syntax.” J.D.

    On second thoughts, there is a Shakespearean precedent for the new translation- the play within a play performed by the artisans in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Scene 1.

    QUINCE (Prologue)

    If we offend, it is with our good will.
    That you should think, we come not to offend,
    But with good will. To show our simple skill,
    That is the true beginning of our end.
    Consider then we come but in despite.
    We do not come as minding to contest you,
    Our true intent is. All for your delight
    We are not here. That you should here repent you,
    The actors are at hand and by their show
    You shall know all that you are like to know.

    THESEUS

    This fellow doth not stand upon points.

    LYSANDER

    He hath rid his prologue like a rough colt; he knows
    not the stop. A good moral, my lord: it is not
    enough to speak, but to speak true.

    HIPPOLYTA

    Indeed he hath played on his prologue like a child
    on a recorder; a sound, but not in government.

    THESEUS

    His speech, was like a tangled chain; nothing
    impaired, but all disordered.

  5. All of you need to read the actual history of how the KJV was initiatied and translated…..by Adam Nicholson, “God’s Secretaries:The Making of the King James Bible”

    Read this during Spring Break – it has numerous parallels to the 2008-2010 Catholic travesty.

    Highlights:

    – 50 mostly unknown biblical experts who used the Tyndale Bible as their primary source (oh yeah, the same Tyndale who was later put to death by those who fear change)
    – It is a deeply political book (the intriques and power plays are fascinating reading)
    – it was the height of a struggle between the rights of the individual conscience and the desire for central control and authority
    – it was written at the same time as Othello, King Lear, The Tempest
    – it was written to glorify God as King just as James was King…it failed on the altars of vanity, self-indulgence, and incompetence (as applied to King James)

    Without this complex history, most of your comments are disjointed and out of context.

    1. Nicholson’s book is interesting. I’d also highly, highly recommend the book by David Daniell, The Bible in English: Its History and Influence (Yale Univ. Pr., 2003). The book looks like a doorstop (about 900 pages total), but it is quite readable and engaging. Daniell has also written a biography of Tyndale and produced modern-spelling versions of Tyndale’s New and Old Testaments.

  6. Robert –

    I would suggest that the phrases from the KJV that have entered the English language are examples of both good English and good “church speak”. However, consider this language:
    “15 And the LORD said unto Moses, Wherefore criest thou unto me? speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward:
    16 But lift thou up thy rod, and stretch out thine hand over the sea, and divide it: and the children of Israel shall go on dry ground through the midst of the sea.
    17 And I, behold, I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians, and they shall follow them: and I will get me honour upon Pharaoh, and upon all his host, upon his chariots, and upon his horsemen.
    …..
    19 And the angel of God, which went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud went from before their face, and stood behind them:
    20 And it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel; and it was a cloud and darkness to them, but it gave light by night to these: so that the one came not near the other all the night.
    21 And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.
    ….
    24 And it came to pass, that in the morning watch the LORD looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud, and troubled the host of the Egyptians,
    25 And took off their chariot wheels, that they drave them heavily: so that the Egyptians said, Let us flee from the face of Israel; for the or the LORD fighteth for them against the Egyptians.

    I would say it’s clear what happened, but that the language is so unusual that the events take on a fantastical tone. I think this is meant as testimony of something that happened to other people like ourselves so we can believe in the promises made to us.

    1. Ann, I wish you hadn’t posted the link to this piece from the Times. Now I have even more books on my to-read list! The Naomi Tadmor book, The Social Universe of the English Bible, looks especially interesting. Did the KJV translators make the Bible “safe” to read by recasting its cultural context and flattening its prose? I’m definitely looking forward to her argument! (That is, when I can get around to it with all the other books I want to read.)

  7. Perhaps in 1611 the great scholars who made the translation were men of style to the very fingertips; It was the hour of Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, Bacon etc, , the high renaissance of English letters, and all the translators were no doubt trained in the art of Rhetoric.

  8. Do you think the KJV sounds rhetorical? I don’t. Most often it sounds workmanlike, but that turns out to show the power of its messages best of all. I’m sure that if Donne and Shakespeare had themselves been on the translating committee it would have turned out somewhat differently.

    Interesting exercise: translate the Psalms or Isaiah in Donne’s or Shakespeare’s own styles (if such were possible). (Jeremiah maybe 😉

  9. Rhetoric IS workmanlike — it is nothing other than mastery of the appropriate forms of speech in all genres. People then has a sense of rhythm in speech that would be hard to come by now. E.g. “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
    Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’S hand double for all her sins.” “And he came and touched the bier: and they that bare him stood still. And he said, Young man, I say unto thee, Arise.” Notice the sublime pause at “stood still”.

  10. What is rhetorical in the pejorative sense, and is totally lacking in workmanship, is the new translation of the liturgy. It lacks that matching of words to meaning that is the essence of good writing. It is stilted, self-conscious, artificial. The perpetrators seem never to have worked in the medium of language before. Had they gone to good schools they could have honed their mastery of English and their sense of style by translation exercises from classical Greek and Latin. But they are ignorant of such niceties, barbarians in fact.

  11. “they domesticated the Old Testament, turning the alien landscape of the Hebrew into the reassuringly familiar landscape of early modern England.”

    Some even go further and say that they made the Bible a book of subjective piety. Phrases like “I know that my Redeemer liveth” evoke a world quite different from the Hebrew world that we meet in Robert Alter’s translation, for instance. But this is a great stylistic effect, however it hath been accomplishèd.

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