The Corner

A Classic Translation Back in Print


Kudos to Baronius Press in the U.K. on their reissue of the mid-century Bible translation by Monsignor Ronald Knox. Knox’s rendition is an unusual combination of dynamic-equivalence translation and high literary quality.

Many Bible readers prefer word-for-word (formal equivalence) translation to paraphrasing (dynamic equivalence) translation for theological reasons: They believe a literal translation brings them closer to ipsissima verba Dei. But there is often another, non-theological reason for their preference: Most dynamic-equivalence translations come across as banal in their phrasing. (The notable exceptions have been the New English Bible and its progeny, the Revised English Bible, which have been criticized for using an excessively high register, making the Bible sound like the conversation at a toffs’ garden party.) Knox’s version is free, but of high literary quality, and repays the attention even of people who prefer a more literal approach.

The best argument I’ve seen for the literal-translation philosophy is that it doesn’t foreclose any options by privileging the translator’s own interpretation: If the text can mean two or three things, the translator should leave the phrasing close to the original and leave the interpretation to the reader, instead of deciding for one and letting the reader assume that’s the only one possible. But I find the counter-argument persuasive: Better to let the translated version have a meaning, than to leave it opaque in the hopes that the reader will figure out what it means by looking at a footnote or a commentary.

One of the Bible passages people love to chuckle about — the great British comedian Stephen Fry even got a book title out of it! – is from Psalm 108:9. The KJV has “Moab is my washpot; over Edom will I cast out my shoe . . . “ Knox decides to transform the colorful but obscure Hebraisms into what an Englishman would say if he were trying to convey the same ideas: “Moab, too, shall be my drudge; over Edom I will claim my right. . . .” The noun “drudge” is much less common now that it was 60 years ago when Knox was writing, yet is still understood by most; and the meaning of the passage about Edom is much clearer, because the reader does not need to understand ancient legal rituals surrounding property claims in order to make sense of it.

A bonus of buying this new Baronius edition is that it includes, along with the Bible, a separate small book titled “On Englishing the Bible” — a witty account by Knox of the controversies surrounding his translation. A sample: “The translator . . . must never be frightened of the word ‘paraphrase’; it is a bogey of the half-educated. . . . It is almost impossible to translate a sentence without paraphrasing; it is a paraphrase when you translate ‘Comment vous portez-vous?’ by ‘How are you?”.

An earlier version of the book was published as “Trials of a Translator,” and it’s an appropriate title: Knox’s Bible was treated as something of a stepchild by the Catholic Church in the U.K. It deserves its day in the sun, and Baronius Press is to be commended for making that possible.

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