21 October 2014, The Tablet

Curious muddle of Lectionary translations

by Philip Endean SJ

The Tablet reports that a project to produce a new English translation of the lectionary, for use in several countries outside North America, has quietly been abandoned.

The Lectionary we have been using, almost exclusively, for more than 40 years draws – apart from the Psalms – on the Jerusalem Bible (JB). Commendably, those responsible replaced JB’s use of the divine name with the circumlocution “the LORD”, but otherwise they almost always simply reproduced the relevant JB passage for each reading.

It is not clear why JB was chosen in the late 1960s. By that stage, there was also an edition of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) that was adapted to meet Catholic sensitivities on some points of Reformation controversy. This RSV stood in the rich tradition of the venerable Authorised Version (AV); it was at once close to the original and dignified. The first edition of the Lectionary—one big red volume—in fact came in two forms: one using JB texts, and the other a Catholic edition of the RSV.

Indeed, a number of versions, including Ronald Knox’s and the old Douay translation, were at that stage authorised for liturgical use. But commercial logic kicked in, and closed down choices that Church authority had left open. The now standard three-volume edition, which appeared in 1981, leaves us no choice but JB.

Why think of change at all? Firstly, and most importantly, because our access to the “original” biblical texts is always a work in progress. Newer versions of the Bible are informed by more recent manuscript discoveries.

Secondly, JB is in some ways unsatisfactory. Published in 1966, it was heavily based on a French equivalent, and its renderings are often rather free. Catholic theology students quickly learnt not to use it for their studies. Some were heard to speak of the Jerusalem Paraphrase.

Thirdly, some conventional forms of language in the 1960s now appear racist or sexist. Thus the fluidities of translation encode cultural uncertainties and struggles, and the judgment calls made by translators become emotionally freighted.

Initially it was thought that a new Catholic Lectionary should be based on the new RSV (NRSV), which appeared in 1989. This NRSV adopted a moderate policy of inclusive language with regard to masculine pronouns. Laudable though that intention was, there were theologically significant costs. The Church’s tradition has seen important Christological nuances in many texts which are important in the liturgy, and which an inclusive language translation obscures.

More viscerally, NRSV’s sensitive policy was just too bien pensant for some more cautious and hierarchical spirits. The initiatives thus failed. Now, after some flirtation with the so-called English Standard Version, an alternative revision of RSV (!) sponsored by conservative Evangelicals in the US, the project of a common lectionary has been dropped altogether.

The question of what to do at this point, given that the 1981 JB lectionary is long out of print, has apparently been left to individual Bishops’ Conferences. Reports suggest that Australia, at least, is opting for a lightly tinkered version of the JB renderings that have held the field.

Such conservatism is probably wise. More divisiveness at this stage in the Church’s life is the last thing we need. The wounds caused by Rome’s insistence on some highly dubious policies in the translation of the Missal are still raw and need healing.

And the judgments are intractable: it is not just theological and linguistic judgments that come into play, but also copyright law and commercial viability.

If there is a satisfactory way forward, perhaps it lies in not using an existing Bible translation at all. Instead, we might try to formulate a less contentious set of guidelines than Liturgiam authenticam, and on that basis translate the Lectionary as such, with a view to its use for proclamation in Church. What is appropriate for translating the whole Bible is one thing, dependent on the translation’s purpose; what we need for snippets read publicly at Mass, out of their context, may be quite another.

One final curiosity. A major Roman concern in the sorry business of the Missal has been that there should be one common text for the whole English-speaking world. Why has this principle not applied, ever, to the Lectionary project? Whatever the answer, we can only hope that the latest reports on the Lectionary herald other, more desirable, shifts in curial attitude.

Philip Endean SJ is on the staff of the Jesuit Faculties in Paris (Centre Sèvres)


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User comments (1)

Comment by: brendan mcconvery
Posted: 22/10/2014 10:18:58

You do not make any reference to the Canadian version of the lectionary for both Sundays and Weekdays in the NRSV published in 1992. My community in Ireland has been using it for about ten years or so: it was available through some bookshops here at the time. You can also consult it on Felix Just SJ's lectionary page at http://catholic-resources.org/Lectionary/1992Canada.htm

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