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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. It has a penchant for vivid descriptions. Every once and a while, it punches the reader with an unexpectedly vivid turn of phrase.
  6. Occasionally, it translates ancient figures of speech into either a plain English description or an English equivalent expression.
  7. I found at least four instances where I questioned the validity of a translation choice.
  8. 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

Matthew 3:8:

Prove your repentance by the fruit you bear – REB

Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance – NABRE

Matthew 12:11:

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

Matthew 18:13:

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

Matthew 19:7-8:

‘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

Matthew 21:1:

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

Matthew 25:41:

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

Matthew 3:4:

John’s clothing was a rough coat of camel’s hair… – REB

John wore clothing made of camel’s hair… – NABRE

Matthew 3:10:

The axe lies ready at the roots of the trees – REB

…the ax lies at the root of the trees. – NABRE

Matthew 5:41:

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

Matthew 11:7:

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

Matthew 13:19:

…the word that tells of the Kingdom… – REB

…the word of the kingdom… – NABRE

Matthew 20:1:

‘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

Interpretive Translations:

Matthew 5:22:

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?

Matthew 5:48:

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.

Matthew 10:25:

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

Matthew 11:6:

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

Matthew 11:19:

Yet God’s wisdom is proved right by its results. – REB

But wisdom is vindicated by her works. – NABRE

Matthew 12:41-42:

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

Matthew 16:19:

…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

Matthew 24:34:

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

Matthew 5:11:

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

Matthew 8:33:

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)

Matthew 11:7:

‘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

Matthew 14:1:

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

Matthew 17:24-27:

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

Matthew 21:8:

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

Matthew 24:25:

See, I have forewarned you. – REB

Behold, I have told it to you beforehand. – NABRE

Vivid Language

Matthew 4:2:

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

Matthew 6:2:

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

Matthew 7:27:

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

Matthew 21:10:

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

Matthew 22:6:

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

Matthew 23:24:

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

Matthew 24:50-51:

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.

Matthew 26:34:

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

Matthew 26:37-38:

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

Matthew 26:56:

Then the disciples all deserted him and ran away. – REB

Then all the disciples left him and fled. – NABRE

Translating Figures of Speech

Matthew 4:6:

‘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

Matthew 4:11:

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

Matthew 5:40:

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

Matthew 19:8:

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

Matthew 23:36:

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

Matthew 25:5:

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

Matthew 26:20:

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.

Conclusion

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.

9 thoughts on “A Few Days with the Revised English Bible: Part 2”

  1. Marc,

    Thank you very much for all this work. Your list of examples is beyond generous and your organization well done. This very much serves the purpose of conveying the feel of both translations, something very useful to me.

    The REB looks like something I could use in the same way I use the Jerusalem Bible. I would be able to read a little faster and the wording differences may triger my memory to retain the chapter a little better. I have long decided that I need to read a few chapters at a time and then reread them. Using a different translation for the second read through really helps. A second set of notes helps as well.

    When a translation gets to be too much of a paraphrase I tend to loose interest. The REB seems just about right in this regard.

    How did you find the use of inclusive language in the REB?

    Marc, thanks again for all the time you took with this for our benefit, you are appreciated.

    Mark

    1. Thanks, Mark! I’m glad these comparisons were helpful. I didn’t make any notes on inclusive language as I worked through the text, but as a general rule, I noticed two things: The REB is a bit less inclusive than the NABRE overall. Here’s just one example from Matthew 9:8:

      The people were filled with awe at the sight, and praised God for granting such authority to men. – REB
      When the crowds saw this they were struck with awe and glorified God who had given such authority to human beings. – NABRE

      On the other hand, the REB tends to remove feminine references to Wisdom, as you can see in Matthew 11:19 (which I cited in a comparison above):

      Yet God’s wisdom is proved right by its results. – REB
      But wisdom is vindicated by her works. – NABRE

      One additional detail that might be significant for some readers is that the REB routinely uses “girl” instead of the NABRE’s “virgin” throughout the New Testament. This occurs in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). Consider Matthew 25:1:

      When the day comes, the kingdom of Heaven will be like this. There were ten girls, who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. – REB
      Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. – NABRE

      This continues even into the annunciation narrative in Luke 1:26-27:

      In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, with a message for a girl betrothed to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David; The girl’s name was Mary. – REB

      In this case, however, the REB goes on to use “virgin” in Luke 1:34:

      ‘How can this be?’ said Mary. ‘I am still a virgin.’ – REB

      As such, I personally don’t find this translation choice objectionable. It probably conforms better to the connotations of the word in ancient times. Today, “virgin” tends to be a technical term that people rarely use in normal conversation. I suspect that it didn’t carry such a technical, almost clinical, connotation in the time of Jesus. As such, “girl” might be too broad, but it at least conveys that the word should be seen more broadly in its original context.

      1. Marc,

        Thanks again. Looks like inclusive language is reasonable in the REB. The removal of the feminime from wisdom references reminds me of a recent experience. My NABRE reading took me through the book of Wisdom (Wisdom of Solomon). It was very noticeable that while the NABRE removes the masculine pronoun quite frequently, it retains the use of her when addressing wisdom. It just made me smile that inclusive language seems to be a one way street !!

        I have only found the Oxford Study Bible REV in paperback, which seems like a bad bet for a book as thick as a bible. Anyway, I have some other new toys to keep me busy for a while, the NOAB in both REV and the 5th Ed in NRSV. The latter just came today and the thumb indexes are not bothering me like I feared. The notes so far are helpful.

        Mark

        1. Indeed, Mark! To be fair, the personification of Lady Wisdom is more specific than generic male references, so I think it’s legitimate to retain the feminine references there. It’s worth a chuckle, though. The juxtaposition of that with so many places where translators remove male references is striking.

          When it comes to the Oxford Study Bible REB, sadly Oxford is only printing the paperback version anymore. They discontinued the hardcover, but used hardcovers are commonly available online. I purchased a clean used copy from a seller on Amazon a couple years ago.

  2. Some of the differences, such as word order, that you have noted are actually not so much ‘translation choices’ as they are differences between American and British English, as are some of the word choices. It is safe to assume, I think, that no American translator would use a word like ‘forewarn’, however, this word is very common in British English.

    1. Interesting point. I would suspect that many Americans know what “forewarn” means, though. It’s a simpler, more elegant translation than “I have told it to you beforehand.” I enjoy seeing the translators use a specialized word like that.

    2. BC,

      I’ve been trying to remember hearing the basic word ‘forewarn’ but cannot think of an example. I, however, remember hearing and saying both ‘forewarned’ and ‘forewarning’.

      Now, ‘calumnies’ totally draws a blank. I would need to use a dictionary for this word.

      English has such an expansive vocabulary I will only ever know a fraction.

      Mark

      1. Calumny probably used to be a more well known term among Catholics. It occurs on some traditional examinations of conscience. It is the sin of damaging a person’s reputation by falsely accusing them of sins or crimes they never committed. Here’s an article in the Catholic Encyclopedia, in case you’re interested:

        http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03190c.htm

        1. Marc,

          Thanks for the link, I learned something. Growing up in the midwest the term used was “dirty lying rat”. Calumny is much more scholarly. Perhaps I was daydreaming or doodling that day in religion class.

          Mark

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.