For the next few weeks, I’ll do a side-by-side comparison of the New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE) and the Revised English Bible (REB) for the second reading each Sunday. This will be a chance to compare a strongly literal translation like the NABRE New Testament with a much more dynamic translation like the REB. In my experience, these two approaches to translation yield the most stark differences in the New Testament letters. As the translators continue to work on revising the NABRE New Testament, it also provides a chance to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the current translation (which was completed in 1986).

Some of the questions I continue to ask myself are: to what extent should a translator “clean up” awkwardness in the original language? St. Paul’s letters are full of shorthand expressions and run-on sentences. If we want to be faithful to the original text, should the English translation reflect those grammatical quirks? How much should readability and ease of public proclamation influence a translation? I hope these comparisons can generate some interesting discussions on those issues!

Sunday, June 17th, 2018 — Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:6-10


So we are always courageous, although we know that while we are at home in the body, we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yet we are courageous, and we would rather leave the body and go home to the Lord. Therefore, we aspire to please him, whether we are at home or away. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil.


Therefore, we never cease to be confident. We know that so long as we are at home in the body we are exiles from the Lord; faith is our guide, not sight. We are confident, I say, and would rather be exiled from the body and make our home with the Lord. That is why it is our ambition, wherever we are, at home or in exile, to be acceptable to him. For we must all have our lives laid open before the tribunal of Christ, where each must receive what is due to him for his conduct in the body, good or bad.

6 thoughts on “REB vs. NABRE: New Testament Letters”

  1. Two of my favorite translations! I’m an especially big fan of the ’86 NAB New Testament.

    I’m certainly very curious to see what gets changed. I enjoy a lot of the unique aspects of their translation. Even their use of the word “netherworld” seems to me to be easily defended–in English the word “Hades” has lost its association with a sort of “half world” of the grave and picked up connotations of punishment. But if the revised NT is to go in a more literal direction, I suspect that using “Hades” with a footnote may very well be the choice.

    I suspect that the translation style will be along the lines of the 2010 OT (which was itself translated along similar lines of the ’86 NT). So what are the hallmarks of the NABRE Old Testament?

    1. Fairly exact in expression and vivid in language.
    2. It seemed to pay particular attention to beauty when they translated poetic sections.
    3. It isn’t nearly as iconoclastic as, say, the NEB in its renderings, but it certainly didn’t kowtow to the Tyndale tradition of English bibles. The use of the phrase “–Oracle of the Lord!” instead of a variation on the familiar “thus says the Lord” was difficult at first but now I like it quite a bit.

    The one place in the NABRE that I can’t imagine being in the lectionary is how the start of Genesis 1 is turned into an interlinear translation, even down to beginning with an unresolved sentence fragment. It is too bad that the most controversial and difficult rendering in the translation is the first thing people will encounter.

    In general, I think that all the selling points of the NRSV are present in the NABRE in a way I like better.

    Like the REB, I find the NABRE’s inclusive language to be extremely responsible. It is probably the most responsible use of it I have seen.

    My great wish in Catholic bibles (besides Oxford bringing back those out of print Reader’s editions of the NAB and RSV they printed around ten years ago) is that there be a “lectionary version” of the NABRE printed once the new Lectionary is promulgated. Most of the adaptations would be immaterial (all those “Jesus said to his disciples” inserted at the start of pericopes, and pronouns being replaced by proper nouns) but it would be a wonderful thing to have access to the biblical text used at mass, especially for those of us who pray with scripture.

    I don’t foresee that happening. It would be a lot of work, and would have to be done by the very people who would probably be upset at certain renderings being judged unfit for liturgy by the powers that be.

    But all the same, I’d love it. I’d buy 3 copies. Of course, all this assumes that some form of the NABRE will be the choice for the new Lectionary. It would be quite the repudiation of the C.B.A. if it wasn’t.

    1. Bob, I think you hit the nail on the head when you said “the selling points of the NRSV are present in the NABRE in a way I like better.” I would agree — at least for the NABRE Old Testament. I do slightly prefer the NRSV New Testament to the NABRE 1986 NT, mainly because of what I consider excessively literal renderings in the NABRE. I find the NABRE’s constant use of “said…in reply” to be unnecessarily wordy without adding any meaning in English. The NRSV is more elegant in smoothing out those things. Instead of saying “Peter said to Jesus in reply,” the NRSV will say things like “Peter said” or “Peter answered him.” I’m hoping the translators will find a more elegant way of handling those phrases in the new NABRE NT.

  2. “Some of the questions I continue to ask myself are: to what extent should a translator “clean up” awkwardness in the original language? ”

    To no degree at all. To try to ‘clean up’ the language is to distort what is being said in the original. When the original is difficult or ambiguous, the translation should be equally difficult or ambiguous.

    All of these translations that try to ‘clean up’ the difficulties in St. Paul, such as the NIV or the New Living Translation, only end up lying (perhaps inadvertently about what the text actually says. I agree with NT Wright who says rather bluntly that ‘if someone has read St. Paul only in the NIV has no idea what Paul actually said.’

    1. I’m inclined to agree, Biblical Catholic, at least partially. I’m conflicted, because I see great value in dynamic translations. In principle, I think they are capable of reaching people in a more immediate, emotional manner than a literal translation, which sometimes requires unnecessary work to decipher the meaning due to unusual sentence structure, rather than any ambiguity in the original.

      But I am troubled that dynamic translations often go farther than they should. Instead of following Fr. Ronald Knox’s famous dictum, “What would an Englishman have said to express this?” translators follow a principle like “What would an English copy editor have said to express this?” I believe it’s possible in theory to follow Fr. Knox’s dictum and still reproduce the awkwardness of the original. If the original is clear and straight forward, the translator can supply a clear English translation. If not, the translator can ask “How would an Englishman express this awkward turn of phrase?” Of course, in many cases, there may be no good equivalent in English, so a literal translation will need to suffice.

      1. Well, I don’t think the issue I’m raising is really related to the ‘literal vs dynamic’ argument, but I do think that the temptation to attempt to ‘clean up’ ambiguities in the original is greater when one is making a dynamic translation that it is with a literal one. But as you noted, even a dynamic translator can try to make the text be difficult where the original is difficult, to try to replicate the feeling of the original.

        But I think the real problem lies elsewhere, it lies with the idea that the Bible should be ‘simple’ and ‘easy to understand’. And that desire is usually not motivated by a translation philosophy at all, but by theology.

        It is important not to overgeneralize, but dynamic translations are often the product of translators who don’t really believe in the Bible at all, or who hold a very low view of scriptural inspiration.

        For example, Robert Bratcher was the sole translator behind the ‘Good News Bible’. At one time, in the late 1960’s to the early 1980’s, the Good News Bible was one of the best selling Bibles available, it was a rival to the NIV and the NAB among evangelicals. What happened that caused it to become obscure and largely forgotten is that in 1981, Bratcher gave a talk where he denounced the principle of Biblical inerrancy, calling it ‘idolatry’. Shortly after that speech, sales of the Good News Bible plummetted.

        Dynamic translators often share Bratcher’s hostility to the Bible. This isn’t universally true of course, certainly, Monsignor Knox had a very high theory of Biblical inspiration, but he is the exception to the rule.

        But generally speaking, Christians who have a high view of the Bible, Calvinists, Lutherans, Catholics, and Orthodox, tend to insist on a more literal translation, and Christians who hold to a lower view of the Bible, your liberal mainline denominations, tend to prefer more dynamic translations.

        In general, groups that think that orthodox theology (however that is defined by the group in question) is essential to a Christian identity, tend to prefer literal translations, while groups that don’t think theology is all that important tend to prefer dynamic translations.

        1. I think the first two paragraphs of your reply summarize the issues quite nicely, Biblical Catholic. I agree with the way you laid out the relationship between dynamic vs. literal translations and the theological desire for simple, easy-to-understand translations.

          Your suggestion that dynamic translators often have a lower view of scripture is interesting. One pattern I’ve noticed is that Catholic translations tended toward the dynamic end of the spectrum more often than protestant translations throughout the 1900s.

          On the Catholic side, there was the Knox, the Confraternity version, the Jerusalem Bible, the 1970 New American Bible, the New Jerusalem Bible, the Christian Community Bible. I would classify all these as dynamic translations. Some might differ on the Confraternity version, but I think it was certainly more dynamic than the Douay-Rheims. The 1986 NAB New Testament contrasts starkly with all these others in its extreme literalism.

          On the protestant side during the same time period, we have the American Standard Version, the Revised Standard Version, the Living Bible, the Good News Bible, The New English Bible, the New American Standard Bible, the New King James Version, the New International Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the New Living Translation. This is quite a mixture of literal and dynamic translations. I suspect that the doctrine of Sola Scriptura played a major role in the popularity of literal translations in protestant circles. Catholics are not as beholden to the exact words of scripture for theology, so Catholics were likely more receptive to translations that strove to convey the meaning of scripture, rather than word-for-word accuracy.

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