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Translation of the Gospels

Translation of the Gospels

Jesus Christ
Oral and written tradition
The Gospel of Matthew
The Gospel of Mark
The Gospel of Luke
The Gospel of John
The meaning for today

From ‘Notes on the Formation of the Gospels’, by John Wijngaards;
published in Background to the Gospels (Bangalore & Ann Arbor 1981)
and Together in My Name (London 1991).

Christ preached in Aramaic, the language of the Jews in Palestine. The early apostolic traditions were first formulated in that language. Matthew's gospel too, or the collection of sayings on which it is based, was originally written in Aramaic. But as the Christian community spread over the then known world, Greek soon took over as the language of communication.

Aramaic was only known to the Jews, whereas Greek could be understood by everybody. Greek was the 'lngua franca’for all educated classes, for business and trade, for politics and culture at the time. Thus we find that all the books of the New Testament were eventually composed in Greek.

From the third century onwards Latin became more important than Greek as language of communication in the countries of the Graeco-Roman Empire. Various Latin translations of the Gospel were made. In 383 A.D. St. Jerome was commissioned by Pope Damasus to revise these translations. His work, the socalled Vulgate (literally: ‘widespread’), became the standard Latin translation, which was in use until the Second Vatican Council (1963-65) as the gospel text for Latin Masses in the Catholic Church.

At the same time, right from the beginning, Sacred Scripture was translated into the languages spoken by nations that had embraced Christianity. At present, Gospel translations exist in more than 1,200 languages of the world. As such it ranks as the book that has the widest circulation in the whole world. A special word of praise should go to the Protestant Bible Societies which have contributed very much to spreading the Bible text to all continents.

Of course, it will not do to have only one translation in a living language. We need translations for the learned, for children, for use in Church and for devotional use. Moreover, the language we speak changes with the course of time. New translations are, therefore, essential from time to time.

If we take ENGLISH as an example, there have been more than 250 independent translations of the Gospels into English. Some of these translations are outdated, but many of them are still being used.

It may be useful to discuss some of the translations in English which we are sure to come across.

  • The REVISED STANDARD Version: This version comes as the conclusion of a long history. In 1611 the Anglican Church brought out an English translation which is known as the King James Bible or the Authorised Version. For many centuries it remained the principal version in the Protestant Churches, and even today it is still in wide circulation. The Gideon Bible uses this version.

    In 1870 the beginning was made of a revision of this Authorised Version. It went through many stages, but eventually received a definite shape and was widelLy accepted as the Revised Standard Version. Some Catholic scholars went through the text and prepared an edition for Catholics, which is now known as the Catholic Revised Standard Version (1966). This version has the good quality of being exceptionally faithful to the original diction of the inspired books. It is, therefore, well suited for professional students of Scripture. But its tendency to give literalistic translations makes it less readable for the ordinary faithful.

    Example: “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden underfoot by men”. (Mt 5:13)

  • The RHEIMS-DOUAY Version, by English scholars, which mainly follows the Vulgate. The first edition appeared in 1582 A.D., but many revisions have been made since then. It was widely used by Catholics in England. The translation has its own beauty, but it is outdated on account of its antiquated language and because it does not incorporate the findings of modern scholarship.

    Example: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt lose its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is good for nothing anymore but to be cast out and to be trodden on by men”. (Mt 5:13)

  • The KNOX Version. In 1945 Mgr. Ronald Knox published a new translation which he had made at the request of the English hierarchy. Being a great scholar and writer of English, the translation possesses a majestic style of speech. Though of outstanding merit for people who know English very well, those not acquainted with English literature would find it difficult to understand.

    Example: “You are the salt of the~earth; if salt loses its taste, what is there left to give taste to it? There is no more to done with it but throw it out of doors for men to tread it be under foot”. (Mt. 5:13)

  • The CONFRATERNITY edition: a new translation made by American scholars and approved by the hierarchy in 1941. (quite accurate, simple and expressive.

    Example: “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its strength, what shall it be salted with? It is no longer of any use but to be throwm out and trodden underfoot by men”. (Mt 5:13)

  • The KLEIST Version: A translation produced by Father James A. Kleist in the United States. It is highly praised for being both faithful to the original and yet very expressive in modern English.

    Example: “You are salt of the earth. But suppose salt should lose its savour, what is there to restore its nature? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out of doors and trampled upon by passers-by!” (Mt 5:13)

  • The JERUSALEM Bible: Following the example of the scholarly edition of the French Dominicans in Jerusalem (1955), English Catholic scholars produced a very fine, new version.

    Example: “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt becomes tasteless what can make it salty again? It is good for nothing, and can only be thrown out to be trampled underfoot by men”. (Mt 5:13)

  • TODAY'S ENGLISH Version: The American Bible Society experienced the need of an English translation which would be both very accurate and at the same time extremely clear and easy to read. Dr. Robert G. Bratcher and other scholars achieved this in ‘Today's English Version’. Since its appearance in 1966 it has sold millions of copies all over the world. The translation is very well suited to those for whom English is not the mother tongue, but who have learned English as a second language. It has been approved for Catholic usage.

    Example: “You are like salt for the earth. If the salt loses its taste, here is no way to make it salty again. It has become worthless, and so it is thrown away where people walk on it.”. (Mt 5:13)

  • The NEW ENGLISH BIBLE (Protestant, 1961) and the NEWAMERICAN BIBLE (Catholic, 1970) may also be recommended for accuracy and readability.

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