For those attached to the Church's traditional rites for the Mass and the other sacraments, the debate now raging among conservatives and liberals over proposed revisions to the post-Vatican II Church's lectionary and sacramentary may seem irrelevant. The "inclusive language" issue, though, is really a part of a major re-inventing of Christianity, involving not only how the Church's existing sacred texts are to be translated into vernacular languages, but also what new texts will be adopted and what new formulations of doctrine authorized.
The Vatican has recently issued norms for translating sacred texts. These norms have hit the academic community like a thunderbolt and dismayed theologians and scripture scholars throughout Europe and America. They have overturned earlier norms that the American bishops had officially adopted in 1990. There is reproduced here an outline of the history of the events leading to the Vatican's recent action.
The two sides in these "translation wars" are, however, mostly battling behind the scenes. There has been little desire shown by the bishops in this country personally to take on involvement in this subject, which most of them consider beyond their ken because good translations require not only great skill in ancient languages, but also great skill in composing contemporary English prose (and sometimes poetry). One notable exception is Bishop Donald W. Trautman of Erie, PA, the Chairman of the U.S. Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy, who has written a summary of the controversy, from a pro-inclusive language position, entitled "Liturgical and Biblical Texts for the Third Millennium."
Two very thought-provoking articles by Rev. Richard J. Clifford, S.J., that appeared in America magazine, entitled "The Bishops, The Bible, and Liturgical Language" and "The Rocky Road to a New Lectionary," are also a good a place to begin a discussion of how to make scriptural and liturgical translations. Fr. Clifford is one of the most prominent scholars favoring modernizing texts with, inter aliia, inclusive language.
Two other insightful articles supporting the re-writing of sacred texts, have been written by Dom Joseph Jensen, O.S.B., and also published in America magazine: "Inclusive Language and the Bible" and "Watch Your Language!: Of Princes and Music Directors"
I am searching for some good Roman Catholic rejoinder articles to post here. One from an Episcopalian observer entitled "The Spritual Dangers of 'Inclusive Language' for God" is short, but interesting.
The Church's Liturgy and Bible are, of course, not the only targets for revision. Another "sign of the times" is the altering of the wording of traditional hymns. An article recently published in America magazine, written by Joseph Peter Swain, a professor of music at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, and entitled "Bowdlerizing the Liturgy," criticizes modern ideologists in the Church for purging our hymnals.
Another helpful article posted here, entitled "Liturgical Change: What Next?" and written by Rev. Thomas J. Reese, S.J., was published in 1979 in America magazine. It is interesting to see what, back then, we were told was in store for us.
As I see it, almost all contemporary disputes over Biblical and Liturgical translations are really arguments between parties with hidden agendas. What, therefore, greatly complicates evaluating any proffered translations for the Lectionary or the Sacramentary is the necessity of figuring out what are the real reasons for the translator's favored words and phrases.
Let me clarify my terminology. There is a difference between "interpreting" and "translating." When one interprets a Bible passage one is expounding its meaning in the same language. When one is translating a passage, one is moving an agreed-upon meaning of a passage from one language to another.
Only rarely nowadays are there disputes over meaning. Where there are Bible passages difficult to understand, all modern exegetes freely concede the difficulty and almost all will at least state the variant interpretations. The most heated contests over Bible passages these days are not the meanings which the passages had in their original languages. Instead, the disputes are over how best to say the same in modern English. And at this point the hidden agendas come in. Scholars unhappy with a meaning try to change it when translating.
First, let's examine one of the rare instances in which the problem is entirely with meaning and for which there remains widespread disagreement over what the original human author actually said.
I think that the most famous instance of a Bible verse over which scholars even to-day are hopelessly divided over the meaning is the passage in Genesis known as the Protoevangelium ("first good news"). The Douay Bible in Gen. iii: 15 has God telling the serpent: "I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel." The King James Version renders this same passage: "I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: It shall bruise thy head, and thou shall bruise his heel." Modern Catholic and Protestant versions say: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shalt bruise his heel."
Well, what did Moses really say when he wrote the sentence? Was it "he," "she" or "it"? Was it "crush" or "bruise"? Was it "lie in wait" or "bruise"? How can such a short passage be so difficult to understand?
The problem with this passage obviously has nothing to do translating from Hebrew to English and has everything to do with discovering what the original Hebrew actually means. Is it a man, or is it a woman, who will crush, or bruise, the serpent?
If you want to know the answer (or at least know why there is an argument over what is the answer), I can only urge you to get and read the very short, but totally first-rate and even-handed treatment of the issue by Bro. Thomas Mary Sennott, M.I.C.M., entitled The Woman of Genesis and published in paperback by The Ravengate Press of Cambridge, MA.
Now, let's go on to examples where there truly are disagreement among modern Bible translators over how to render an agreed-upon meaning into modern English.
Let's take a very simple case: the bizarre story that appears in only one Gospel account, wherein St. Peter is asked by an agent provacateur whether his Master has paid the annual Temple tax. St. Peter, always the know-it-all, shoots his mouth off and says yes, even though he actually does not know whether Jesus has paid the tax. As St. Matthew tells the story, after Simon Peter has given the questioner the affirmative answer, Jesus and His disciples enter a house and Jesus asks Peter a question that heavily implies that He is the Son of God.
Here is St. Jerome's Latin: "ait etiam et cum intrasset domum praevenit eum Iesus dicens quid tibi videtur Simon reges terrae a quibus accipiunt tributum vel censum a filiis suis an ab alienis." The Rheims Bible translates this as: "He [Simon Peter] said: Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying: What is thy opinion, Simon? The kings of the earth, of whom do they receive tribute or custom? of their own children, or of strangers?" Matt. xvii: 24.
Note that the Latin "praevenit" was translated as "prevented." Sounds right; and in the 16th Century it was right. But not to-day. "Praevenit" actually means "precede" or "come before." It does not mean the modern "prevent." The sense of the passage is that Jesus entered the house before Peter, not that he stopped Peter from entering the house. The King James Version also says "prevent." That's because everyone around 1600 used "prevent" as meaning "precede." All modern versions, however, have switched to saying "preceded," "entered first," or "when he came home, Jesus spoke to him first" etc.
There are many similar uses of "prevent" (meaning "precede" or "come before") throughout the Douay-Rheims and King James versions of the Bible (e.g., I Thess iv: 14. "For this we say unto you in the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who remain unto the coming of the Lord, shall not prevent them who have slept." is how the Rheims Bible states it; but "shall not precede" is how the Revised Standard Version puts it). In all modern Bible translations, every old-fashioned "prevent" has been changed to "precede" etc.
And who could possibly object to such updating?
Well, let's take a less simple case: How to translate the Vulgate words "mutum" and "mutorum." The first appears in Mark vii: 32. The second in Isaiah xxxv: 5.
In the Rheims New Testament, St. Mark's "mutum" is translated as "[man who] had an impediment in his speech." In the Douay Old Testament, Isaiah's "mutorum," the plural genitive of the same word, is translated simply as "of the dumb."
One might well ask, if St. Jerome had decided to employ the same Latin word, namely "mutum" and its plural genitive "mutorum" to translate the Greek noun "mogilálos" in the only two places in the whole Bible (i.e., in all the Septuagint translation of the OT and in all the original NT) where that particular Greek word is used, why did the English translators of St. Jerome who composed the Douay-Rheims Bible not follow St. Jerome's example and also use the exact same word ("mute") or the exact same group of words ("...had an impediment in...speech") in both places? Why did they instead choose to use "dumb" in one place and "[man who] had an impediment in his speech" in the other place?
But no matter what one thinks is the answer, all of us would surely agree that the two ways of translating "mutum"/"mutorum" into English plainly amount to being the same thing.
Or do they? What about complaints from advocates for the "speech-impaired" who contend that nowadays, by using the word "dumb" to describe people with speech impediments, we offend the mute by making the Bible suggest to readers that such people are stupid? After all, it is clear that the word "dumb" to most people nowadays does primarily mean "stupid." Shouldn't we, therefore, throughout the Bible be replacing the word "dumb" either with the word "mute" or with some other non-insulting locution?
This could be justified simply by our not wanting to offend anyone, without our caring a whit what the translators of yesteryear thought, or intended, the word "dumb" to mean. Or, we could accept the contention that in the 1600s people speaking English thought that "mute" people were always also "stupid," but because we now know differently we should no longer use a word that we know will be taken as meaning "stupid." Or, the argument might be that, even if in the English language of yesteryear, the word "dumb" did not include "stupid" but meant only "speechless," we all now do know that to-day that word most definitely does primarily mean "stupid," i.e., something clearly not the meraning of these Bible passages.
In any case, partisans of the speech-impaired insist that the Church in our day change its English language Bibles to say simply what the passages mean and not continue giving offense just because of some nostalgia or reverence for the English prose style of the 16th and 17th Centuries..
Of course, by this line of reasoning, we would also have to accept the possibility that, if ever in the future other words we now use to translate Bible verses should take on any new meanings in English offensive to people, the Church of such a future day may also have to re-translate all over again those particular passages of the Bible as well.
Would anyone disagree with this?
Isn't it really the same issue we met when admitting the change in meaning of "prevent"?
If only all translation disputes were so simple to resolve.