As the list grows of those who wonder what if they just said ‘wait’ to the new translation of the Missal, I thought it might be helpful to draw another historical parallel (in addition to the parallel I already drew to early Christian Latin). A quick read of In the Beginning, Alister McGrath’s history of the King James Bible, reveals that many of the controversies surrounding the proposed liturgical texts resemble the controversies attending the first translations of the Bible into English. And, as it turns out, the translation philosophy that guided the Vox Clara commission is also the philosophy that produced the King James Version, once reckoned the “noblest monument of English prose.”
At least two of the charges commonly leveled against the Vox Clara translation—that it is foreign-sounding and unintelligible to the average person—could also have been leveled against the KJV (and commonly were). Regarding the foreign constructions, McGrath draws attention especially to the slavishly literal rendering of Hebrew idioms. He cites a study from William Rosenau:
The [King James Bible] is an almost literal translation of the Masoretic text, and is thus on every page replete with Hebrew idioms. The fact that Bible English has to a marvelous extent shaped our speech, giving peculiar connotations to many words and sanctioning strange constructions, is not any less patent … Though the constructions encountered in the [King James Bible] are oftentimes so harsh that they seem almost barbarous, we should certainly have been the poorer without it.
Nowadays we scarcely perceive these as barbarisms, however, because so many Hebrew idioms have become “naturalized” into the English language.
To illustrate the point, McGrath provides an instructive list of woodenly translated Hebrew idioms. The following expressions entered the English only by way of the KJV:
- “to lick the dust” (Ps 72:9)
- “to fall flat on his face” (Num 22:31)
- “a man after his own heart” (1 Sam 13:14)
- “to pour out one’s heart” (Ps 62:8)
- “from time to time” (Ezek 18:2)
- “the skin of my teeth” (Job 19:20)
- “to put words in his mouth” (Ex 4:15)
- “the powers that be” (Romans 13:1)
- “to give up the ghost” (Mk 15:37)
- “And it came to pass …” (400+ occurrences)
These idioms have become so domesticated through centuries of use that we are scarcely aware of how roughly the translators once treated the English language.
Those contemporary with the publication of the KJV, however, often complained about its excessive literalism—precisely on the grounds that such a translation method would render the Bible inaccessible the average “plowboy.” John Selden, for instance, advocated a translation more respectful of English idiom:
If I translate a French book into English, I turn it into English phrase and not into French English. “Il fait froid”: I say “it is cold,” not “it makes cold.” But the Bible is translated into English words rather than English phrases. The Hebraisms are kept and the phrase of that language is kept. As for example, “he uncovered her shame,” which is well enough so long as scholars have to do with it, but when it comes among the common people, Lord what gear they make of it.
Some carried their jealousy for the purity of the English language to comical lengths. Sir John Cheke, for example, half a century before the publication of the KJV, advocated the expurgation of all “inkhorn” terms (learned words directly borrowed from Latin or Greek) from Biblical translations. A few examples: he advocated replacing “apostle” (with “frosent), “centurion” (with “hundreder”), “crucified” (with “crossed”), “lunatic” (with “mooned), “parable” (with “byword”), and “resurrection” (with “uprising”). Such suggestions now seem comical, but they do go to show that the line between “natural” English and intrusive barbarisms is far from clear.
For these and other reasons, the KJV met with no critical acclaim upon its publication in 1611. In fact, the little attention it did received was generally negative, with the result that most Englishmen continued to use the Geneva Bible (printed 42 years earlier). Robert Lowth could not safely call the KJV the “noblest monument of English prose” until the mid-18th century–nearly 150 years after its first printing.
What lessons might we draw from this brief history? First, an initially negative reaction to a new translation (in favor of one made 40 years earlier) does not necessarily count against the literary quality of the new text or against its translation philosophy. Sometimes the most enduring translations aim first and foremost at literal accuracy–and are thus an acquired taste. Second, it will take more than a year of focus groups to test the true worth of the Vox Clara translations. The slow triumph of the KJV suggests that we should start the clock only after universal implementation, and then evaluate only after much longer than a year has elapsed.
In other words, why don’t we just say ‘wait’?