Friday, November 12, 2010

I don't like the New American Bible Translation

I admit it. I don't like the New American Translation, the translation used by Catholics and Catholic parishes across the country. I don't like it one bit. There's no one reason, apart from it just being a bad translation. It moves when it should sit and sits when it should move. When maintaining a poetic feel is called for, a bare bones prose is used, one that is as inspiring as a tax ledger. When simple, blunt language is needed, some open ended talking-around-the-point approach is taken; one that I can't help but feel reflects the Church's reluctance sometimes to just get to the point. In so many ways, it epic fails when it comes to capturing the richness, the poetry, the majesty of the Scriptures that convey nothing less than the truths of God, Salvation, and our purpose in life.

Don't believe me? Let's take an example. Most folks who've grown up in the English speaking world have heard the 23rd Pslam. In case we've missed it, I'll type it now as it appears in the most famous version, that of the King James English Translation:

The LORD is my shepherd,
I shall not want
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
He leadeth me beside still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
For thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
Thou annointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life:
And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

Nice. Beautiful. Stunning. It evokes, it calls to mind things of the divine, the struggle of good and evil, lovely pastoral settings, and our safety in the arms of a loving and powerful God. What poem written in three thousand years can compete? The valley of the shadow of death. Dwelling in the house of the LORD forever. Those words speak to another world, another reality than the one we can become ensared in during our daily pilgrimage across this sod.

Sure, the 'yea' this and 'thou' that can sometimes find itself floundering on the modern tongue too used to communication by texting. And some modern translations dispense with those words, while maintaining the flavor, power, and beauty of the original texts. For instance, the Revised Standard Version makes the following change:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for You are with me.

Yeah, I know. It looses a little bit, but for those who aren't big poetry fans, it still gets the point across. Even the New International Version, with its rather agenda driven translations and sometimes watered down renditions manages this take:

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil; for You are with me.

But this, this is the translation used by the New American Bible, the official translation of the American Catholic Church, used in Masses, heard by Catholics, and read by millions:

The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I lack (there is nothing I lack?)
In green pastures you let me graze,
To safe waters you lead me;
you restore my strength. You guide me along the right path for the sake of your name.
Even when I walk through a dark valley, I fear no harm for you are at my side; your rod and your staff give me courage.
You set a table for me as my enemies watch, you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Only goodness and love will pursue me all the days of my life; I will dwell in the house of the LORD for years to come.

That last line almost makes me loose it. In the words of Shaggy from Scooby Doo: Double yuck, yuck. For years to come? How many, three, eight, ten years from next Tuesday? Can anyone see just how lame that is. It misses the heart and soul of the psalm. It replaces it with a prose that has all the deep and meaningful sound of a letter from a school board.

Now, lest we think this is some really spiffy and accurate work on the part of the Catholic translators, out to show those rascally Protestant upstarts what the Bible really says, let's take a look at a couple words.

The shadow of death. It's worth noting that the later NIV translation also backs off the translation 'shadow of death.' Inserting a more watered down 'darkest valley'. At least it says darkest valley, as in the darkest valley one may have encountered, or something like it. The NAB, on the other hand, reduces it to a mere dark valley, one of millions, one like you see any day driving around a steep gully cut in the hills to make way for the interstate. Problem is, the Hebrew word is a compound from two separate words meaning - you guessed it - shadow and death. Death shadow: (tsal (shadow) and maveth (death)). Coupled with the Hebrew term that comes before (gay', or 'valley'), and you get valley of the shadow of death every time. Why eliminate it when it has such a powerful punch? And when it is literally what the original says. It doesn't say 'darkest valley', it sure doesn't say 'dark valley.'

Or another one. Fear no evil. Why would they water it down with the mere 'harm.' Sure, it can certainly mean that, and in all likelihood can attribute the word ra' with evil in the sense of bad things, or harm being done. But in the overarching context of the psalm, with the Lord (in this psalm the translation indicates the Hebrew proper name for God - Yahweh) protecting in the presence of enemies, evil can be used because it includes both bad fortune, as well as the badness of evil.

Finally, the last sentence. The Hebrew phrase is made up of two words, one 'orek, meaning length, and the other yom, meaning day. It makes the point of being a length of time, no specific amount given. Endless, or without measure. Or, forever. The vast majority of translations use forever as the understood meaning of the Hebrew construct. Every major English translation: RSV, ASV, NASB, NIV, heck, even the NIV UK edition, uses 'forever' to convey the meaning of the Hebrew. And it works. Forever. We dwell in the house of the Lord forever. So why, why in the world, does the Catholic NAB instead use the limp and uninspiring phrase 'for years to come'?

This, of course, is just one example. There are others. Many others. Not all are horrible. Many pass the test well enough. But too often the translation either misses the point of the original texts, or conveys the points in such watered down, uninspiring prose that the reader would be hard pressed to be grabbed by the power of the message. This is the Word of God after all. This is the Holy Scriptures, the written record of God's revelation to man. For all that the Church carries on about the need to keep the liturgy pure, and redo the prayers, and keep the purity of the music, it wouldn't hurt to invest the same care and concern in the very written heart of the Sacred Tradition.


  1. OK so I have got to comment on this one. I also dislike this translation. Maybe it is my former Protestant ears, but in many ways I don't feel God's hand reaching out from the pages. I loved your reaching back to the Hebrew text. Thank you.

  2. This is a very good post. Again, this is where you are at your best. I was surprised at your command of Hebrew. I would be interested in seeing more examples of how you think the New American falls short. You are correct, though, the psalm does sound hollow compared to the King James version.

  3. I agree with you completely. I don't like the new translations I see in the last 2 Bibles I purchased and I'm going back to buying one of the "old" ones with the Beautiful Verse!!!


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