Before we make more mistakes: let’s think again about the ‘new’ lectionary!

Before we make more mistakes: let’s think again about the ‘new’ lectionary

Thomas O’Loughlin

On 24 July the Scottish Episcopal Conference announced that after careful study it had like so many other Anglophone episcopal conferences, opted for the English Standard Version-Catholic Edition (ESV-CE) for its publication of a new lectionary.

The bishops noted that they had carefully considered the matter, noted the learned opinion supporting their decision, and then made their choice. In a sense this is not a news story at all: this is the version that has been the favourite for many years for the proposed ‘new’ lectionary. Many other bishops’ conferences have seen it as being an ideal replacement for the Jerusalem Bible (dating from the 1960s) and The Grail translation of the Psalms (of similar vintage) that have been in widespread use since the renewed lectionary made its appearance in 1970 and which has been virtually the only translation in use since the three-volume edition of 1981.

So why a new translation now? While neither biblical scholarship nor language remain the same – and much has changed since the 1960s – this is not the primary reason mentioned either by the Scottish Catholic bishops, nor the others who are pushing for the adoption of the new lectionary. The reasons for their choice, according to Bishop Hugh Gilbert, are that they ‘expect a Lectionary to embody, for example, accuracy, dignity, facility of proclamation, and accessibility.’ These are laudable but surely no more than one would expect. Moreover, it does not explain why, since the actual lections will remain the same, there is a clamour among episcopal conferences for a different translation.

This decision, when taken by other episcopal conferences, has drawn criticism. Critics point out that the ESV-CE uses non-inclusive language (which will undoubtedly create problems of reception at parish level) and that it is a formal equivalence translation (it might sound ‘biblical’ but lacks ease of comprehension). Its upholders point out, however, that it is in keeping with the principles of Liturgiam authenticam issued by Pope Benedict XVI; and it is clear that its most enthusiastic supporters are those who share the ‘restorationist’ vision of a very fixed and formal liturgy that characterised the thinking of the retired pope. So, this change of translation owes more to Vatican liturgical politics under Benedict XVI than to felt pastoral need or any deep awareness of better underlying Hebrew / Greek editions (of which there are several but which are not reflected in ESV-CE).

A more fundamental assumption

What does not get any attention is the fundamental assumption that is at work now, as it was in 1981 (and to a lesser extent in 1970 when the lectionary was printed in both Jerusalem Bible and Revised Standard Version editions): that there should be a single translation used throughout the lectionary.
So embedded is this assumption that most people concerned with the lectionary look aghast when this is questioned and genuinely ask: but what is the alternative?  There is an alternative – one already adopted in the 1973 English-language edition of the Liturgy of the Hours – which is to use a range of translations depending on what portion of scripture is being translated and how it is being used. Indeed, the very fact that in the current lectionary there is a distinct translation of the Psalter (and there is going to be a distinct version of the psalms in the proposed lectionary), shows that the ‘one size fits all’ approach to translations is faulty.

Why should there be a range of translations and translation dynamics in a lectionary?

One can pick out four key reasons:

First, while many people think of the bible as if it were a highly consistent book – much like a modern single-authored volume – this is very wide of the mark. At the simplest level the bible is an anthology – many authors, several languages, texts from over a long span of time (just think of the difference between Shakespeare’s English and our own), and a wide variety of cultures. Consequently, it is better to think of our collections of books for reading in the liturgy as a hotchpotch – this way we do not build up false ideas that ‘the bible’ is some sort of instruction manual.
If it is a hotchpotch, the way we translate should reflect this. Poetry (e.g. the Song of Songs) should have a different style of translation from narrative (e.g. 1 Samuel). Law (e.g. Deuteronomy) should be rendered in a different way from wisdom literature (e.g. Sirach). Even when we are translating a single biblical book, we should use different dynamics. For example, Luke’s gospel should have a story telling style for parables, another for the Passion narrative, and another for the sayings of Jesus. Different kinds of discourse react differently in translations. Years ago, many school children learned this when they had to translate Caesar’s De bello Gallico and bits of Ovid: what worked for one, did not work for the other. Alas, those who think of one size fits all in translations have forgotten this.

Second, what is needed is not a stand-alone translation for study purposes but one for use in lections – short pieces – in a liturgy with real people. Therefore, a passage that will be used with a large assembly on a Sunday may have to have a simpler style than one for use on weekdays where there may be more opportunity to explain what is being heard.
The same gospel passage may be used for a baptism, on a Sunday, or in a votive Mass: its emphasis may need to shift for these situations. Moreover, in its use on a Sunday it, and its related first reading from the Old Testament, may need to be co-ordinated to one another – because the link between them may be based in the ancient Jewish translation of the scriptures in Greek (known as the Septuagint) and which was the de facto version of those followers of Jesus among which the writings (which we now call ‘the new testament’) made their appearance. So, sometimes, a completely fresh translation – from the Septuagint – may be needed for a specific liturgical situation. This is a far more demanding job than opting for an off-the-peg translation or thinking it is simply a matter of language style.

Third, again because the lectionary is a book for the liturgy, we have to think of the variety of liturgical situations. Sometimes a eucharist may take place with a large body of participants, sometimes it will be a small gathering around the Lord’s Table. A translation that works well with a great concourse – and which then will need to be used with a public address system – may sound ponderous within an intimate group where the readings are proclaimed in what is the normal voice of people in an average sized room. Likewise, it is one thing for a gospel to be sung on a great feast, another to be read for quiet rumination as a gathering seeks to absorb with a reflective calm the food offered at the Table of the Word.

Each situation requires a specific kind of translation and so we should have a range of versions offered with advice on which to use in each setting. This is a demanding task – but that is what the proclamation of the Word calls forth from us – and offering just one ‘this will fit’ translation not only does not help, but it obscures the task and the challenge. Moreover, we now have the technology – not around in 1981 – to do this economically and easily.

Fourth, everyone knows that the greatest challenge in any act of communication is that you may have a single audience, but they are the very opposite of ‘one sack, one sample’: people come in all shapes and sizes! If one is teaching a class, one can try to get people of the same age and roughly the same ability – yet some will understand what they hear far more than others (hence exams!) – so one must often go at the speed of the slowest.
Now compare the assembly on a Sunday in the average parish: some will be members of the scripture study group, while others would be shocked to hear that the four gospels do not all agree with one another. Some will be children, while other will be worried about what to cook for lunch, and others will be thinking about getting onto the golf course, others will listen with that intensity that only comes through a lifetime of faith and worship – it is a very mixed group indeed.
In some places, everyone will have English as their first-language, while elsewhere English will be, at best, the common working language, a lingua franca. A translation for such a mixed group has to fear more turning off those who do not understand it more than it fears the person who objects that it sounds ‘dumbed down’ (they can go home and look up the text!).

There have been in the past special translations of the lectionary for children’s celebrations and for school celebrations – but they are often only accessible to a small group of specialists. Moreover, when a catechist suggests the use of one of these to a presbyter, it is not unknown that he simply rejects the suggestion on the basis that ‘he has the official book.’ So, these specialist translations need to have the dignity of being ‘official.’ In a similar vein, I have seen a bible translation specially designed for those for whom English is a second language, and have even heard of a biblical scholar who intends to translate the New Testament in to ‘airline English’ – the very simple, but precise form of English that is used in aviation. Let’s not forget, any sentence with many subclauses may make a great text to read in the quiet of the study, but when heard in a gathering can become little more than a specimen of that infamous language: Double Dutch.

But we need an accurate translation!

Many will say but do we not need an accurate translation that reflects as closely as possible the Hebrew and the Greek? Yes – every student of the scriptures needs an up-to-date formal equivalent translation such as the Revised Standard Version or the New Revised Standard Version. Even if you have command of the original languages, you still need this on your desk. But this is a need of the study, when you enter the chapel – or even more a large parish church – you are engaging in worship, not study. And worship has very special needs, and no one translation can fulfil them.

In the strange run towards a new, single translation – inspired by a document that few now respect – the bishops’ conference of the English-speaking world are missing a great opportunity!



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  1. Joe O'Leary says:

    I don’t like the NRSV because I keep feeling that its avoidance of traditional diction in the name of inclusive language is a kind of nannyism. Its translation of douloi as “slaves” right through the Gospels is also very distracting.

    The travesty of the new “translation” of the liturgy continues to wreak pastoral havoc, and nothing has been learned from it.

    We used to talk about “creative liturgy”. Has that idea vanished from the face of the earth?

  2. Donal Dorr says:

    Thanks, Tom, for this very helpful and very challenging piece. At all costs we must avoid a new translation which uses sexist language; we would then be stuck with it for years. But what to do in the short-and medium term? Are you suggesting that we settle for what we have until at least some of the creative approaches you suggest can become available? In the meantime could we at least have the option of using the kind of translation used in the Canadian ‘Living with Christ’ booklets, which generally avoids the kind of obnoxious repetition of ‘man’, ‘man’, ‘man’ in the responsorial psalm used at Mass today (Monday 10th August)?

  3. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    “Each situation requires a specific kind of translation and so we should have a range of versions offered with advice on which to use in each setting.”
    The logic of this seems to be that we would have an agreed set of readings, for which the presiding celebrant or the pastoral council would select the translation to be used at each particular celebration. So we would not need a set (printed?) Lectionary, but a range of Bibles in different translations, either printed or in electronic form.
    I would not see a problem with this. Since, in fact, it happens not infrequently that I would extend a reading to include prior or following verses in order to show clearly the meaning in context, the use of a full Bible for readings (as is done in Reformed traditions) would facilitate this.
    A disadvantage would be that people would hear a variety of translations, and would not experience the security of coming to know and remember passages and perhaps learn them by heart. On the other hand, there could be encouragement for people to prepare by knowing the assigned readings for each Sunday or occasion, and by reading them beforehand at home in their own time, so they come “primed.” Hearing different translations then may add fresh insights into the meaning and impact of the passage in question.

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