Over the past week, I’ve carefully worked my way through the Gospel of Matthew in the Revised English Bible, comparing its language verse-by-verse against the NABRE (a much more literal translation) and keeping notes of any notable differences or discrepancies. In the process, I’ve gained a much more precise understanding of the REB’s style and translation choices. I would summarize the REB’s key points as follows:
- It very frequently changes the order of words and phrases to achieve something that sounds more natural in English. There are multiple examples of this in every chapter. In many cases, it involves breaking up quotations in a way that is more consistent with common English written style. But despite the differing word order, the REB usually carefully retains the units of thought in the original. It doesn’t attempt a wholesale re-working of the text — just a reordering of the text to sound more natural. I was struck by how many times a significantly reordered passage appeared to retain all the equivalent phrases in the NABRE, just in a different arrangement.
- It frequently adds words here and there to clarify the meaning of a passage or convey the correct connotation. Most of these appear unobjectionable to me. They rarely affect the meaning of the passage.
- It occasionally attempts an interpretive translation that offers different connotations to the NABRE’s rendering. It’s hard for me to judge the validity of these, not being able to read Greek.
- It shows a proficiency with the English language that is a joy to experience. Every so often, it will translate a phrase or multi-word description into a single, precise word that retains the same meaning.
- It has a penchant for vivid descriptions. Every once and a while, it punches the reader with an unexpectedly vivid turn of phrase.
- Occasionally, it translates ancient figures of speech into either a plain English description or an English equivalent expression.
- I found at least four instances where I questioned the validity of a translation choice.
- On one occasion, I confirmed that the REB’s rendering was more literal than the NABRE, and there were a few others where I suspected the same might be true.
Here are some examples of the features summarized above:
Different Order of Words and Phrases
Prove your repentance by the fruit you bear – REB
Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance – NABRE
But he said to them, ‘Suppose you had one sheep, and it fell into a ditch on the sabbath; is there a single one of you who would not catch hold of it and lift it out?’ – REB
He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep that falls into a pit on the sabbath will not take hold of it and lift it out? – NABRE
Truly I tell you: if he should find it, he is more delighted over that sheep than over the ninety-nine that did not stray – REB
And if he finds it, amen, I say to you, he rejoices more over it than over the ninety-nine that did not stray. – NABRE
‘Then why,’ they objected, ‘did Moses lay it down that a man might divorce his wife by a certificate of dismissal?’ He answered, ‘It was because of your stubbornness that Moses gave you permission to divorce your wives; but it was not like that at the beginning.’ – REB
They said to him, “Then why did Moses command that the man give the woman a bill of divorce and dismiss [her]?” He said to them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. – NABRE
They were approaching Jerusalem, and when they reached Bethphage at the mount of Olives Jesus sent off two disciples – REB
When they drew near Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples – NABRE
Then he will say to those on his left, “A curse is on you; go from my sight to the eternal fire that is ready for the devil and his angels” – REB
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’ – NABRE
Addition of Words to Clarify Meaning
John’s clothing was a rough coat of camel’s hair… – REB
John wore clothing made of camel’s hair… – NABRE
The axe lies ready at the roots of the trees – REB
…the ax lies at the root of the trees. – NABRE
If someone in authority presses you into service for one mile, go with him two. – REB
Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles. – NABRE
When the messengers were on their way back, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John – REB
As they were going off, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John – NABRE
…the word that tells of the Kingdom… – REB
…the word of the kingdom… – NABRE
‘The kingdom of Heaven is like this. There was once a landowner who went out early one morning to hire labourers for his vineyard… – REB
The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. – NABRE
But what I tell you is this: Anyone who nurses anger against his brother must be brought to justice… – REB
But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment – NABRE
This is a translation choice that gives me pause. I don’t know if the original Greek has a connotation of nursing anger or not. Theologically, I think this clarification is accurate, since anger only becomes sinful when a person willfully encourages and nurses it. But is it the job of the translator to clarify a theological point?
There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father’s goodness knows no bounds. – REB
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect. – NABRE
Here is another translation choice I was uncomfortable with. It’s a bit more interpretation than I’d ideally like to see in a translation. Then again, limitless goodness is a reasonable way to characterize the perfection Jesus is calling us to, so I can’t get too worked up over it. It’s also such a unique and thought-provoking rendering that its advantages might outweigh the disadvantages.
The pupil should be content to share his teacher’s lot, the servant to share his master’s. If the master has been called Beelzebul, how much more his household! – REB
It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, for the slave that he become like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more those of his household! – NABRE
and blessed are those who do not find me an obstacle to faith. – REB
And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me. – NABRE
Yet God’s wisdom is proved right by its results. – REB
But wisdom is vindicated by her works. – NABRE
The men of Nineveh will appear in court when this generation is on trial, and ensure its condemnation, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and what is here is greater than Jonah. The queen of the south will appear in court when this generation is on trial, and ensure its condemnation; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and what is here is greater than Solomon. – REB
At the judgment, the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and there is something greater than Jonah here. At the judgment the queen of the south will arise with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and there is something greater than Solomon here. – NABRE
…what you forbid on earth shall be forbidden in heaven, and what you allow on earth shall be allowed in heaven. – REB
Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. – NABRE
Truly I tell you: the present generation will live to see it all. – REB
Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. – NABRE
This is the third translation choice I strongly questioned. Changing the construction from a double negative (“this generation will not pass away”) to a positive (“the present generation will live to see it all”) is better English grammar, but it also changes the connotation. I think the double-negative leaves more room for imagining that some people in the present generation might not live to see it, but the entire generation will not pass away before everything takes place. The positive construction leaves less room for that implication.
Proficiency with the English Language
Blessed are you, when you suffer insults and persecution and calumnies of every kind for my sake. – REB
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. – NABRE
The men in charge of them took to their heels, and made for the town, where they told the whole story, and what had happened to the madmen. – REB
The swineherds ran away, and when they came to the town they reported everything, including what had happened to the demoniacs. – NABRE
(incidentally, the REB earlier refers to the men as “possessed by demons” so this is apparently not a case of avoiding a controversial rendering)
‘What was the spectacle that drew you to the wilderness? A reed swaying in the wind?’ – REB
“What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? – NABRE
It was at that time that reports about Jesus reached Herod the tetrarch. – REB
At that time Herod the tetrarch heard of the reputation of Jesus – NABRE
On their arrival at Capernaum the collectors of the temple tax came up to Peter and asked, ‘Does your master not pay temple tax?’ ‘He does,’ said Peter. When he went indoors Jesus forestalled him by asking, ‘Tell me, Simon, from who do earthly monarchs collect tribute money? From their own people, or from aliens?’ ‘From aliens,’ said Peter. ‘Yes,’ said Jesus, ‘and their own people are exempt. But as we do not want to cause offence, go and cast a line in the lake; take the first fish you catch, open its mouth, and you will find a silver coin; take that and pay the tax for us both.’ – REB
When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax approached Peter and said, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?” “Yes,” he said. When he came into the house, before he had time to speak, Jesus asked him, “What is your opinion, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take tolls or census tax? From their subjects or from foreigners?” When he said, “From foreigners,” Jesus said to him, “Then the subjects are exempt. But that we may not offend them, go to the sea, drop in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up. Open its mouth and you will find a coin worth twice the temple tax. Give that to them for me and for you.” – NABRE
Crowds of people carpeted the road with their cloaks, and some cut branches from the trees to spread in his path. – REB
The very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and strewed them on the road. – NABRE
See, I have forewarned you. – REB
Behold, I have told it to you beforehand. – NABRE
For forty days and nights he fasted, and at the end of them he was famished. – REB
He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry. – NABRE
So, when you give alms, do not announce it with a flourish of trumpets – REB
When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you – NABRE
The rain came down, the floods rose, the winds blew and battered against that house; and it fell with a great crash. – REB
The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined. – NABRE
When he entered Jerusalem the whole city went wild with excitement. ‘Who is this?’ people asked – REB
And when he entered Jerusalem the whole city was shaken and asked, “Who is this?” – NABRE
and the others seized the servants, attacked them brutally, and killed them. – REB
The rest laid hold of his servants, mistreated them, and killed them. – NABRE
Blind guides! You strain off a midge, yet gulp down a camel! – REB
Blind guides, who strain out the gnat and swallow the camel! – NABRE
then the master will arrive on a day when the servant does not expect him, at a time he has not been told. He will cut him in pieces and assign him a place among the hypocrites, where there is wailing and grinding of teeth. – REB
the servant’s master will come on an unexpected day and at an unknown hour and will punish him severely and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. – NABRE
In this case, the NABRE offers a footnote saying that there is a Greek word which literally means “cut in two.” Thus, the REB’s translation is both more vivid and more literally accurate.
Jesus said to him, ‘Truly I tell you: tonight before the cock crows you will disown me three times.’ – REB
Jesus said to him, “Amen, I say to you, this very night before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” – NABRE
He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee. Distress and anguish overwhelmed him, and he said to them, ‘My heart is ready to break with grief. Stop here, and stay awake with me.’ – REB
He took along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to feel sorrow and distress. Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me.” – NABRE
Then the disciples all deserted him and ran away. – REB
Then all the disciples left him and fled. – NABRE
Translating Figures of Speech
‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down; for scripture says, “he will put his angels in charge of you, and they will support you in their arms, for fear you should strike your foot against a stone.”‘ – REB
and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you’ and ‘with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’” – NABRE
Then the devil left him; and angels came and attended to his needs. – REB
Then the devil left him and, behold, angels came and ministered to him. – NABRE
If anyone wants to sue you and takes your shirt, let him have your cloak as well. – REB
If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. – NABRE
He answered, ‘It was because of your stubbornness that Moses gave you permission to divorce your wives; but it was not like that at the beginning. – REB
He said to them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. – NABRE
Truly I tell you: this generation will bear the guilt of it all. – REB
Amen, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. – NABRE
As the bridegroom was a long time in coming, they all dozed off to sleep. – REB
Since the bridegroom was long delayed, they all became drowsy and fell asleep. – NABRE
In the evening, he sat down with the twelve disciples – REB
When it was evening, he reclined at table with the Twelve. – NABRE
This is the fourth translation choice I questioned. Certainly, the modern equivalent of reclining at table is sitting at a table, but if Jesus and his disciples were not actually sitting, it seems reasonable to retain the ancient expression “reclined at table” to more accurately convey the reality.
I hope my summary and these comparisons will provide a better sense for the characteristics of the REB as compared with a literal translation like the NABRE. Overall, I’m quite happy with its performance. There were a few cases where I strongly questioned a translation choice, but as a rule, those cases feel more like nitpicking than a serious, glaring deficiency. Furthermore, in other cases, I noted that the REB was content to leave ambiguity in the text and not attempt to explain or interpret it. I’m still very happy to recommend the REB as a solid dynamic translation.
Finally, my original plan was to also delve into 1 Corinthians, but I decided to spend extra time in Matthew and carefully compare verse-by-verse. I’m hoping that the comparisons of the second readings for each Sunday Mass have provided a good flavor for how the REB handles Paul’s letters.