I got an e-mail today informing me of a delightful new resource available free of charge at the website of the Catholic publisher Baronius Press. It’s a complete side-by-side text of the Latin Vulgate, the Douay-Rheims Catholic translation, and the mid-20th-century translation by Monsignor Ronald Knox.
I have always had a soft spot for the Douay-Rheims translation, because it has the venerable old style of the King James Version (“thee” and “thou,” of course, plus a generally high diction), but – because the Douay-Rheims version currently most commonly printed is the 18th-century Challoner revision – it lacks some of the KJV phrasings that have come to sound clunky if not barbaric in the intervening centuries. (Among these latter, the one that grates on me most is when the KJV has St. Paul, St. Peter, and the Psalmist all use the phrase “to us-ward.” Ugh.)
And it’s remarkable to see how Knox has dated in the past century, even more than the antique Douay-Rheims. Here’s II Chronicles 12:7, which I found, completely at random. Douay-Rheims:
And when the Lord saw that they were humbled, the word of the Lord came to Semeias, saying: Because they are humbled, I will not destroy them, and I will give them a little help, and my wrath shall not fall upon Jerusalem by the hand of Sesac.
And now, seeing them humbled, the Lord sent his word to Semeias, Their pride is humbled; I will spare them from ruin. A little aid they shall have from me, nor shall my vengeance rain down upon Jerusalem with Sesac for its instrument.
Most conspicuous in Knox is the totally unnecessary inversion – what the kids today call Yoda-speak. DRV says bluntly, “I will give them a little help.” Knox says “A little aid they shall have from me.” This might have sounded “literary” back in 1950, but has not aged well. I must point out, though, that even though these inversions occur throughout Knox’s Old Testament, his New Testament is in a different style. And even in this passage, some of his literary talent is evident. Notice the vengeance that will not “rain down,” where DRV has just “fall.” (KJV has “shall not be poured out.”)
For people of our time, the proper names will take some getting used to. The KJV and almost all recent versions have “Shemaiah” instead of the Latinate “Semeias,” and “Shishak” instead of “Sesac”; not to mention the fact that the book is now known as “Second Chronicles” (or “Two Chronicles”! not knockin’ ya on this, Donald) as opposed to “Second Paralipomenon.” But getting used to this doesn’t take long, because the DRV style is in general much easier for our contemporaries than the style of KJV and Shakespeare, and also because people know a lot less about the Bible than they used to and don’t already have the other names “downloaded” into their heads. (And of course, part of it is pure happenstance: If the Catholic side had won the Reformation, people would be writing about “the Prophet Osee” and the word “Hosea” is the one that would sound weird to modern ears.)
The most serious objection to both DRV and Knox is that they are translations of translations – not directly from the Hebrew and Greek originals, but from the Latin Vulgate. But you’d be surprised how little this matters for the purpose of non-scholarly reading. In the vast majority of instances, the sense of the originals comes through well and accurately. Knox even provides footnotes that tell you what the original said, if it’s significantly different from the Vulgate. (And as a more general matter, I’m impressed by how well the vast run of English-language Bibles avoid tendentiously sectarian renderings. A Protestant can read the text of a Catholic Bible without being given a surreptitiously Catholic slant, and vice versa.)