Translation and Transformation

Fr Michael Hall shows us how the choices made by Bible translators can have a huge impact on the reader.

By Fr Michael Hall

St Paul, instructing the Roman Christians on how to present themselves as a living sacrifice to God, tells them, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” (Romans 12:2, New Revised Standard Version)

This polarity between “being conformed” and “being transformed” has guided Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, not just for centuries, but for two thousand years.  Until, that is, the late 1960’s, and the adoption of the Jerusalem Bible (JB) as the most widely used translation for Scripture readings at Catholic Masses.

Just the other Sunday (22nd of Year A) Catholics were told, “Do not model yourselves on the behaviour of the world around you, but let your behaviour change, modelled by your new mind.” (Romans 12:2, JB)

The two passive verbs “be conformed” and “be transformed” have been replaced by one active verb – “model”.  If this was just a poetic loss, that would be sad but bearable.  However, in choosing to translate the verse in the way it does, the JB also changes the source of the action.  In the Greek text, and in almost every other English translation of the Bible, the world is trying to make us conform to its standards, while the Holy Spirit is transforming us by the renewal of our minds.

In the Jerusalem Bible translation, it’s we ourselves who are choosing what or whom to model ourselves upon.  I hope I do not have to persuade you that this is a very significant alteration of emphasis.

The Jerusalem Bible was hailed as a major step forward in Catholic use of Scripture when it appeared in 1966.  It has formed several generations of Catholics in their understanding of the Bible, as they have heard it read at Mass.  But its numerous weaknesses led to it being radically revised in the 1980’s, with a further major revision being published last year.  The revised versions return to “conform” and “transform”.

Why did the original Jerusalem Bible strike out on such a different path with Romans 12:2?  The reasons will be lost in the mists of time, but I venture to suggest two possible ones.

The first is that anyone learning to write “good English” – whether authors, journalists or even preachers – are advised to avoid the use of the passive voice.  Don’t say, “Michael was bitten by the dog” – instead say, “The dog bit Michael”.  This is supposed to make one’s words more intelligible and clear.

The second – and perhaps more relevant – reason is that translators in the 1960’s used a technique that is known as “dynamic equivalence”.  In this technique, rather than giving a literal translation of the original languages, the translator says what he or she thinks the passage means.  The idea is that this, too, will help the reader understand.

Dynamic equivalence can also be seen at work in another passage that was read recently – this time from the Old Testament.  Elijah’s encounter with God on Mount Horeb was the first reading on the 19th Sunday of the Year.  For most of us, our knowledge of this story will come from the hymn by John Greenleaf Whittier – “Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire, O still, small voice of calm.”  But what the Jerusalem Bible tells us Elijah heard was “The sound of a gentle breeze”. (1 Kings 19:12)  Much less poetic, and almost pedestrian in the context.

The JB is in better company here, though, than with its translation of Romans 12:2.  While the 17th century King James Version has “still, small voice”, the slightly earlier Douai-Rheims version has “the whistling of a gentle air”.  The literal meaning seems to be “a sound of a gentle blowing”, but modern translations can go either way with dynamic equivalence, from the English Standard Version’s “sound of a low whisper” to the JB’s decidedly meteorological breeze.  The New Revised Standard Version perhaps sticks its neck out furthest to say “the sound of sheer silence” – a powerful contrast with the noise of the earthquake, wind and fire.

The big problem with this approach is that the range of meanings which might validly arise from the original text (or a more literal translation) are narrowed down to only one, and this is the choice of the translator. They are thus not only translating the text, but interpreting it for us.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church has some brilliant guidelines on interpreting the Bible (Article 109 onwards).  One of these is that Scripture should be read “within the living Tradition of the whole Church” (Article 113).  This is the duty of all readers, not just the initial translator.  For this reason that the Catholic Church has actually warned translators of Scripture and Liturgy against using the technique of dynamic equivalence.

In the case of the Elijah story it matters little to our faith whether we want to go with a whisper, a breeze, or, indeed, “the light sound of silence” (New Revised Jerusalem Bible) – though this might indicate that looking at a number of different translations might help someone who really wants to grapple with the text.  But the translation of the Romans passage is a much more serious matter.

It’s not just about the choices we make (as might be inferred from the lectionary reading of Romans).  It’s about living in a “world” that seeks to make us conform to its own standards, while being open to a process of renewal and transformation offered by God, the Holy Spirit.  Translation, then, is not just an academic exercise. It shapes the way we seek to live our Christian faith, and in how we recognise the sacred amid the secular.

Fr Michael Hall is a parish priest in the Leeds Diocese.  For over 20 years he was also a teacher and school leader in secondary education.  He is Lead Associate of Barnabas Education Services.