Thoughts on Translation

Words are not coins, dead things whose value can be mathematically computed. You cannot quote an exact English equivalent for a French word, as you might quote an exact English equivalent for a French coin. Words are living things, full of shades of meaning, full of associations; and, what is more, they are apt to change their significance from one generation to the next. The translator who understands his job feels, constantly, like Alice in Wonderland trying to play croquet with flamingoes for mallets and hedgehogs for balls; words are forever eluding his grasp. Think of the delicate differences there are between the shades of meaning in a group of words like “mercy, pity, clemency, pardon,” or a group of words like “fear, terror, awe, reverence, respect,” or a group of words like “glory, honor, fame, praise, credit.” How is it to be expected, on the law of averages, that any such group of words in English has an exactly corresponding group of words in Latin, and another in Greek, so that you can say, for example, doxa always means gloria in Latin, always means “glory” in English? Tsedeq or dikaiosune can mean, when used of a man, innocence, or honesty, or uprightness, or charitableness, or dutifulness, or (very commonly) the fact of being in God’s good books. Used of God, it can mean the justice which punishes the sinner, or, quite as often, the faithfulness which protects the good; it can mean, also, the approval with which God looks upon those who are in his good books. Only a meaningless token-word, like righteousness, can pretend to cover all these meanings. To use such a token-word is to abrogate your duty as a translator. Your duty as a translator is to think up the right expression, though it may have to be a paraphrase, which will give the reader the exact shade of meaning here and here and here.

The translator, let me suggest in passing, must never be frightened of the word “paraphrase”; it is a bogey of the half-educated. As I have already tried to point out, it is almost impossible to translate a sentence without paraphrasing; it is a paraphrase when you translate “Comment vous portez-vous?” by ‘How are you?’ But often enough it will be a single word that calls for paraphrase. When St. Paul describes people as “wise according to the flesh,” the translator is under an obligation to paraphrase. In English speech, you might be called fat according to the flesh, or thin according to the flesh, but not wise or foolish. The flesh here means natural, human standards of judging, and the translator has got to say so. “Wise according to the flesh” is Hebrew in English dress; it is not English. You have not translated “Galeotto fu il libbro, e chi lo scrisse,” if you write,“The book was Galahad, and so was the man who wrote it.” Dante’s “Galeotto” (being paraphrased) means “a pandar”; and how (shades of Lord Tennyson!) is the English reader to know that?

The sentence, the phrase, the word—over all these the translator must keep watch; must beware of the instinct which bids him save trouble, or avoid criticism, by giving a merely photographic reproduction of his original. Nor does his task end there; his matter has to be duly chopped up into sentences. The first sentence of St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans has ninety-one Latin words in it. The second sentence in his epistle to the Ephesians has a hundred and eighty-two. I admit that these figures are exceptional, but it is the clear fact about St. Paul that he thought in paragraphs. St. John, on the other hand, has an insatiable passion for periods. And nothing, I fancy, is so subtly disconcerting to the modern reader as having his intellectual food cut up into unsuitable lengths. The easy art of making it masticable has been learned to perfection by the journalists and public speakers whose thought he is accustomed to follow. If you want him to read Scripture without a kind of unconscious indigestion, you must prepare it more or less according to the current formula.

– Msgr. Ronald Knox, “Thoughts on Bible Translation.”

English priest Ronald Knox is translator of the famous “Knox Bible,” the New Testament in 1945, the Old Testament in 1950, at the commission of the English Catholic hierarchy.


  1. Reading this was a “well, duh” moment for me. What Msgr. Knox is talking about is a basic principle of translation – although I would actually make a subtle distinction between dynamic equivalency and paraphrase. A paraphrase does fall on the looser/freer side, and a verbatim translation would be on the more literal end of the spectrum; both have obvious advantages and disadvantages, and both are appropriate to certain purposes. But a dynamic translation aims for an equilibrium between the two, balancing source-language fidelity with target-language coherency, with the main goal being to convey the same MEANING for the target-language audience as was conveyed for the source-language audience. This necessitates linguistic & cultural contextualization, which is why, from a meaning-based perspective, an idiomatic translation will often be more *ahem* faithful to the source text than a literal one – and we’re back to Knox’s point.

    Anyone with any linguistic training could tell you all this – which raises the question (to which I haven’t yet gotten an answer from anyone): have there been ANY actual linguists involved in this preposterous new missal translation???

  2. I thought the example Msgr. Knox uses about translating the idea of “flesh” to be a very important one. St. Paul, for instance, makes frequent use of this idea and he means something specific theologically by it. If you are going to translate this word then it seems to me that you have two options. The first would be to do as Msgr. Knox shows in the example and try to find a paraphrase to communicate what St. Paul would have meant. Given all the nuances contained in the word “flesh” even as limited to St. Paul, this is no easy task.

    There is also a second option, and that is to translate the word simply as “flesh” and then help people understand all the intricacies of the theology behind St. Paul’s use of this word. In my mind, it is far better to leave the opportunity for people to ask “what does St. Paul mean by the word flesh?” than to simply decide that it means “worldliness” or something of the sort. It can mean that, but it means more than that. You will never be able to get it in translation. It requires education.

    I bring this up because I think this is exactly what is going on in the new translation of the Missal. Consider the debate on “consubstantial.” You can’t simply translate it as “one in being” and then think that you’ve got it. It doesn’t mean just that. It took years of debate for the Church to settle on consubstantial as a word that expresses what we believe. Yet even that word requires explanation and a lot of it. It seems far better to me to leave the word as consubstantial (as well as all the other language “too difficult for John and Mary Catholic”) and then have them stop and ask, “I wonder what all is meant by that word?” If a person can read “one in being” and think they understand the incarnation and the relationship between the Son and the Father then we can be sure that the translation is not helpful.

    The faith expressed in the liturgy will never be able to be translated. It must be taught, experienced,…

    1. Actually, Fr. Tunnink, they settled on “consubstantialem” as a translation of the Greek homoousion, the weren’t using any English words like “consubstantial.” And our English word “consubstantial” doesn’t mean the same thing at all as the ancient Greek or Latin words, at least not for most people. The meaning of “substance” has changed much over the centuries, especially since the rise of modern science – just like the meaning of “awful” or “gay” has changed. Most people today, when they hear “substance,” think of atoms and molecules or something material. That’s not what the fathers of Nicea or the medievals thought. The Greek word is based on the present participle for “being.”

      It sounds flippant, but I think it’s quite accurate to say, when people ask what “consubstantial” means, “Oh, it means ‘one in being’.”

      (But I also agree with David Haas, no word every captures the whole meaning of what is a mystery.”)

      I fully understand that we’re translating from Latin, not Greek. But since we’re translating from a Latin word which (we believe in faith) is a faithful rendition of a Greek word, surely it is helpful to look at the Greek original in this case to tell us what our Latin word first meant by those who coined it.


      1. +JMJ+

        FWIW, I was able to explain to a group of college students (freshmen and sophomores, mostly) what “substance” means in Catholic theology, and thus what “consubstantial” means, in a matter of minutes, by asking them what makes a chair a chair. It may not have been perfect, but it was enough to get them to understand the concept and the word.

        And our English word “consubstantial” doesn’t mean the same thing at all as the ancient Greek or Latin words, at least not for most people.

        Do most people have a definition for “consubstantial”? Where do they get it?

        “Of the same substance, nature, or essence.” (The Free Dictionary)

        “of the same substance” (Merriam-Webster)

        “of one and the same substance, essence, or nature.” (

        “regarded as the same in substance or essence” (WordNet)

    2. +JMJ+

      I mentioned before that all translation applies some form of interpretation to the text, but Fr. Shawn points out a possible principle of translation that I agree with, that it may sometimes be better to interpret as little as possible so that as many interpretations as possible will remain, so as not to exclude other interpretations… or at least so as not to obscure thematic links, such as by translating “the flesh” (as St. Paul uses it in a particular way) in several different ways, thus obscuring the link he makes.

      I find it a shame that the current translation of the Christmas morning collect is so far from the translation of the Per huius aquae et vini mystérium said as the wine and water are mixed in the Chalice. There is a disconnect between the two prayers because the current collect translation interprets the same Latin words differently than it does in the Offertory prayer.*

      I wonder how many people who know of the prayer said over the water and wine recognize its ancestor when they hear it on Christmas morning.

      Per huius aquae et vini mystérium
      eius efficiámur divinitátis consórtes,
      qui humanitátis nostrae fíeri dignátus est párticeps

      qui humánae substántiae dignitátem et mirabíliter condidísti,
      et mirabílius reformásti,
      da, quaesumus, nobis
      eius divinitátis esse consórtes,
      qui humanitátis nostrae fíeri dignátus est párticeps

      * (Yes, yes, I know St. Jerome translated epiousion differently in Matthew and in Luke, to good effect. But that was a different circumstance, and that technique does not guarantee success.)

  3. Can I take this good suggestion a step further? What if, following Wikipedia, Wikileaks and Wikispooks, someone were to create a Wikitrans, where (1) all of the texts were posted, starting from the Latin and going through the 2010; (2) anyone could edit the translation, as they do Wikipedia articles; (3) a “discussion” page kept track of the changes.

    Maybe a crowd of liturgy enthusiasts could do more, faster, than a secret Vatican committee made up of people whose native language isn’t English…

  4. I have to say, that on a pastoral side of this, I would take issue with this. Perhaps “one in being” does not embody the entirety of the mystery. One could say the same thing about so many images and words that are part of our liturgical language and prayer. But this is the key – it is intended to be PRAYER, not an academic exercise in total linguistic correctness. Do we use words like “ecclesiology” or “eschatology” or “pericope” or “transubtantiation” in our prayer language? Of course not… In my theologically limited opinion, words like “consubstantial” only satisfies those who are theological discussions and discourse. It is not that the “people in the pew” are not smart enough. The issue is that is this really the language of engaging communal prayer?

  5. Fr. Shawn says: “You can’t simply translate it as “one in being” and then think that you’ve got it.”

    I guess I am challenging the concept that the purpose of a liturgical translation is so that we “get it.”

  6. In England and Wales, the bishop responsible for promulgating the Mass texts we currently use (William Gordon Wheeler) insisted on “of one being with the Father” which has a rather different thrust from “one in being”. We have been using this since 1973. Either are preferable to “consubstantial” which is churchspeak jargon and thus meaningless to people in the pews.

    “I believe in what I don’t understand what I believe in…”, anybody?

  7. Obviously the reasoning behind why the Church chose to translate “homoousion” as “consubstantialem” is an entire debate in itself. “One in being” is a fine English translation of the Greek. However, that wasn’t really my point. I don’t hear anyone clamoring for the translation “one in being” because it is more faithful to the Greek. What I hear being said is that “one in being” is easier to understand.

    My point was simply that sometimes it is better to let confusing words be confusing and then explain them. When the fathers of Nicea used ousios and the language of being to describe the nature of God, they were using technical language about which even they had to debate the meaning. The scary part of using “one in being” as the translation is that most people really do think that it’s easy to understand and they know what it means…but do they? Ask your average Catholic to describe being. How many beings are there in the Trinity? What’s a person and how do three persons make one being?

    When one encounters the word “consubstantial” you know you are dealing with a technical term describing something that likely could not have been explained more easily in English. An explanation is required and in that explaining the true faith is handed on. Then, when one encounters the word, one has the entire meaning of the original homoousion, consubstantialem, and all the explanations in mind. It is only then that the word has been accurately “translated.” Indeed, it’s not so much the translation of a word that has taken place but the translation of the faith. In my mind that’s a whole lot better than reading “one in being” and moving easily on thinking “I know what that means.”

    As for technical language in prayer, I don’t think you can really refer to the Creed as a prayer. Prayers are addressed to someone. The Creed is a statement of what we believe. It is essentially the reading of the decree of several councils, necessarily technical.

  8. When dealing with language that may be “hard to understand” I think we must also keep in mind that the liturgy is celebrated by and for a community of those who have been initiated. It’s not for strangers. It’s for a family. So, yes, we should expect that those participating understand the faith and the language of faith. If they don’t, no translation will bring about this education. That is the role of catechesis, which is necessary to actively participate in the liturgy.

    I don’t hear anyone complaining at football games that words like “clipping,” “chop blocking,” “intentional grounding,” and “touchdown” are too hard to understand. When you don’t know what it means, you ask. You are then initiated and can explain all the details of clipping to the next neophyte. Can we not expect at least as much effort in handing on the faith as we do in handing on the rules and traditions of football?

  9. Fr. SPT,

    I’ll start the clamor to be more faithful to the Greek, if the original is in Greek. The fewer intermediate steps, the better, for several reasons I probably don’t need to list here. It’s not as if we’ve no classical scholars who can read those texts in their original, or that the original language texts have been lost.

    Clamor! Clamor! Translate from the original language, please!

    Will that do as a beginning?

  10. It would be odd, would it not?, to accept Ronald Knox as an undoubted authority on translation when his own diction has dated so rapidly. His Bible, once honoured, has ended up in a sort of dead end of English Bibles, no longer loved for its style nor respected for its scholarship.

    Knox disparages the use of what he calls “meaningless token-words” as mere avoidance of rendering a word’s “exact shade of meaning”. But such exactness is often an impossible task: words in one language can have multiple ambiguities and associations impossible to render in another. Or it may be an inadvisable task: what seems an “exact shade” may foreclose unnecessarily on other legitimate interpretations. Or a Knoxian paraphrase may be a surprisingly temporary solution, as his own work often enough shows.

  11. Ronald Knox published a little book called, “Trials of a Translator”, in which he discusses the challenges he faced in translating the entire bible. He did not consider himself the “last word” or THE Authority by any means.

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