According to the short, one-page introduction to the New Catholic Bible (NCB), the goal of the translators was to “render as perfectly as possible a translation of literal or formal equivalence. Numerous translations were consulted and decisions were made by consensus according to accepted principles of textual criticism.” What does this mean in practice for an English-speaking reader? And how does this new translation compare with the one we commonly hear at Mass (the NABRE in the United States).
Based on a thorough review of Luke and Galatians, as well as reading sections of the Old Testament, this translation is generally easier to read than the NABRE. There are fewer run-on sentences and awkward turns of phrase. On the other hand, it uses words and phrases that are similar enough to the NABRE that it doesn’t draw attention to itself. It is quite possible to sit down and read extended sections in this Bible, while wondering how it reads so smoothly compared to the NABRE.
My verse-by-verse comparisons in Luke and Galatians (and spot checks in the Old Testament) revealed several broad features that distinguish the NCB’s style from the NABRE. In the following section, I’ll be using the word “formal” to refer to a word-for-word translation style that preserves Greek idioms and “dynamic” to refer to sense-for-sense translation that attempts to find equivalent English idioms and phrases, rather than preserving the original words and grammar in Greek.
1. The NCB is more dynamic than the NABRE when it comes to grammar and sentence construction. It breaks apart run-on sentences in Galatians and adds connecting phrases to improve the flow between sentences in Luke. The NABRE repeatedly begins sentences with “and,” “but,” “now,” “then,” and “for” (consistent with the original Greek), while the NCB rearranges sentences and uses a wider range of vocabulary (like “however,” “as a result,” etc.) The NABRE also stacks multiple prepositional phrases and dependent clauses at the beginnings of sentences, resulting in tortuous grammar. The NCB rearranges sentences to sound more natural.
2. The NCB often substitutes a person’s name instead of “he” or specifies “the crowd” or “the disciples” instead of “they,” while the NABRE uses “he” and “they” frequently and leaves it up to the reader to infer who the words refer to.
3. The NCB New Testament is more dynamic than the NABRE in choosing words and phrases that clarify the meaning of the Greek, rather than preserving the original Greek idioms and phrases. In a few cases, this produces a phrase with a narrower meaning than the corresponding phrase in the NABRE, which can be ambiguous and open to multiple interpretations. As a rule, this is not widespread and extensive, but it is definitely noticeable. One virtue of this approach is that it makes St. Paul’s letters easier to read.
4. On the other hand, the NCB Old Testament is not noticeably more dynamic than the NABRE in the passages I’ve checked. In some places, it chooses a slavishly literal rendering compared with an interpretive rendering in the NABRE, and in others, it chooses something more dynamic.
5. The NCB is wordy. This is not noticeable when reading the NCB on its own, but in a verse-by-verse comparison, there are a surprising number of cases when the NABRE is more concise and uses pithier, punchier wording than the NCB. This is not universal. In some cases the NABRE is wordier, but on average, the NCB uses more words to say the same thing.
6. The NCB allows New Testament tradition and theology to influence its translation choices in the Old Testament.
7. The NCB uses less inclusive language than the NABRE, but it still uses some. Overall, the NABRE uses a very moderate amount of inclusive language, and in some cases, the NCB uses “men” and “he” when the context is clearly not limited to males.
Here are examples of each of these seven qualities:
Grammar and Sentence Construction
The introduction to the 1986 NAB New Testament states: “The editors have consequently moved in the direction of a formal-equivalence approach to translation, matching the vocabulary, structure, and even word order of the original as closely as possible in the receptor language.” This can produce stilted grammar and sentence construction in English. The NCB uses broader vocabulary and rearranges sentences to improve the flow in English. Here are some examples:
NCB: Joseph therefore went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem…
NABRE: And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem…
NCB: As the people began to experience a feeling of expectancy, they all wondered in their hearts whether John might be the Christ.
NABRE: Now the people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Messiah.
NCB: Then, when it was daylight, he summoned his disciples and chose twelve of them…
NABRE: When day came, he called his disciples to himself, and from them he chose Twelve…
NCB: A centurion who dwelt there had a servant whom he regarded highly and who was ill and near death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to ask him if he would come and heal his servant.
NABRE: A centurion there had a slave who was ill and about to die, and he was valuable to him. When he heard about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and save the life of his slave.
NCB: Now on the mountainside a herd of pigs was feeding, and they pleaded with him to let them go into the pigs. He allowed this. The demons then came out of the man and entered the pigs. Thereupon the herd charged down the steep bank into the lake and drowned.
NABRE: A herd of many swine was feeding there on the hillside, and they pleaded with him to allow them to enter those swine; and he let them. The demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
NCB: When Jesus heard this, he said…
NABRE: On hearing this, Jesus answered him…
NCB: A spirit seizes him and with a shriek suddenly throws him into convulsions until he begins to foam at the mouth. It hardly ever leaves him, continually torturing him.
NABRE: For a spirit seizes him and he suddenly screams and it convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it releases him only with difficulty, wearing him out.
NCB: …and the friend answers from inside: “Do not bother me…”
NABRE: …and he says in reply from within, “Do not bother me…”
NCB: When he asked “What things?” they replied, “The things that happened to Jesus of Nazareth…”
NABRE: And he replied to them, ‘What sort of things?’ They said to him, ‘The things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene…
NCB: You are a Jew, yet you are living like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How then can you require the Gentiles to live like Jews?
NABRE: If you, though a Jew, are living like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?
NCB: Does God give you the Spirit and work mighty deeds among you because you have kept the Law or because you believed what you have heard?
NABRE: Does, then, the one who supplies the Spirit to you and works mighty deeds among you do so from works of the law or from faith in what you heard?
NCB: This is also true of us. As long as we were children, we were enslaved to the forces of this world.
NABRE: In the same way we also, when we were not of age, were enslaved to the elemental powers of the world.
Substituting Names or Specifiers for “he” and “they”:
NCB: Mary remained with Elizabeth for about three months…
NABRE: Mary remained with her about three months…
NCB: …the three disciples became frightened as they entered the cloud.
NABRE: …they became frightened when they entered the cloud.
NCB: Amid the astonishment of the crowds at everything he was doing, Jesus said to his disciples…
NABRE: While they were all amazed at his every deed, he said to his disciples…
NCB: As the time drew near for him to be taken up, Jesus resolutely set his sights on Jerusalem…
NABRE: When the days for his being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem
Translation Choices that Interpret or Clarify Meaning in the New Testament
NCB: And why am I so greatly favored that the mother of my Lord should visit me?
NABRE: And how does this happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
NCB: All their neighbors were filled with awe…All who heard them were deeply impressed
NABRE: Then fear came upon all their neighbors…All who heard these things took them to heart…
NCB: A woman of that town, who was leading a sinful life, learned that Jesus was a dinner guest in the Pharisee’s house.
NABRE: Now there was a sinful woman in the city who learned that he was at table in the house of the Pharisee.
NCB: Whatever house you enter, stay there until you depart from that area.
NABRE: Whatever house you enter, stay there and leave from there.
NCB: But Martha was distracted by her many tasks. So she came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to come and help me.”
NABRE: Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.”
NCB: …a house divided against itself will collapse.
NABRE: …house will fall against house.
NCB: Fasten your belts for service and have your lamps lit.
NABRE: Gird your loins and light your lamps
(Interestingly, the NCB translates this expression literally in 2 Kings 18:46: “The hand of the LORD was upon Elijah, and he girded up his loins and ran in front of Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel.”)
NCB: Its meaning remained obscure to them…
NABRE: …the word remained hidden from them…
NCB: Paul, an apostle — commissioned not by human authority or by any human being, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father…
NABRE: Paul, an apostle not from human beings nor through a human being but through Jesus Christ and God the Father…
NCB: …God, who had set me apart even before my birth, called me through his grace…
NABRE: …[God], who from my mother’s womb had set me apart and called me through his grace…
NCB: As for those who were regarded as men of importance—whether or not they actually were important makes no difference to me, nor does it matter to God—these men did not add anything further to my message.
NABRE: But those who were reputed to be important (what they once were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those of repute made me add nothing.
NCB: Brethren, allow me to give you an everyday example. Once a human will has been ratified, no one can make further additions to it or set it aside.
NABRE: Brothers, in human terms I say that no one can annul or amend even a human will once ratified.
NCB: Others are seeking to curry your favor, but they are not sincere. They are attempting to alienate you from us so that you may make them the sole object of your attention.
NABRE: They show interest in you, but not in a good way; they want to isolate you, so that you may show interest in them.
NCB: It is those who want to gain human approval who are trying to compel you to be circumcised…
NABRE: It is those who want to make a good appearance in the flesh who are trying to compel you to have yourselves circumcised…
Literal and Dynamic Renderings in the Old Testament
NCB: Adam was intimate with Eve his wife and she conceived and bore a son named Cain.
NABRE: The man had intercourse with his wife Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain
(Here, both translations choose an English equivalent to the Hebrew “knew his wife,” but the NCB’s rendering seems better. The NABRE’s choice is overly clinical.)
NCB: Now may you be cursed far from the soil that drank the blood of your brother that you have shed.
NABRE: Now you are banned from the ground that opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.
(A combination of literal and dynamic renderings in both the NCB and NABRE for this single verse)
1 Samuel 1:13-16
NCB: Hannah was praying in her heart so that only her lips were moving; her voice could not be heard. Eli, therefore, thought that she was drunk. He said to her, “How long are you going to stay drunk? Get rid of your wine!” Hannah answered, “Oh no, my lord! I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking either wine or liquor. I have been pouring out my soul to the LORD. Do not account your handmaid to be a daughter of Belial. I have been speaking out of the abundance of my difficulties and my grief.”
NABRE: …for Hannah was praying silently; though her lips were moving, her voice could not be heard. Eli, thinking she was drunk, said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Sober up from your wine!” “No, my lord!” Hannah answered. “I am an unhappy woman. I have had neither wine nor liquor; I was only pouring out my heart to the Lord. Do not think your servant a worthless woman; my prayer has been prompted by my deep sorrow and misery.”
(Here, it appears that the NCB is choosing more literal phrases than the NABRE in each bold instance)
1 Kings 21:21
NCB: Behold, I will bring disaster down upon you. I will consume your descendants and I will cut off from Ahab all of those who pee against the wall, whether slave or free.
NABRE: I am bringing evil upon you: I will consume you and will cut off every male belonging to Ahab, whether bond or free, in Israel.
(Here, the NCB begins with an interpretive rendering which clarifies that the prophecy is talking about Ahab’s descendants, before using a slavishly literal rendering, which is relegated to footnotes in a wide variety of other translations.)
Wordy Translation Choices
NCB: In those days, a decree was issued by Caesar Augustus that a census should be taken throughout the entire world. This was the first such registration, and it took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
NABRE: In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
(Extra words in bold)
NCB: “There were two men who were in debt to a certain creditor. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other owed fifty. When they were unable to repay him, he canceled both debts. Now which one of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I would imagine that it would be the one who was forgiven the larger amount.”
NABRE: “Two people were in debt to a certain creditor; one owed five hundred days’ wages and the other owed fifty. Since they were unable to repay the debt, he forgave it for both. Which of them will love him more?” Simon said in reply, “The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven.”
NCB: When a strong man is fully armed and guards his palace, his possessions are safe. But when someone who is stronger than he is attacks and overpowers him, he carries off all the weapons upon which the owner relied and distributes the plunder.
NABRE:When a strong man fully armed guards his palace, his possessions are safe. But when one stronger than he attacks and overcomes him, he takes away the armor on which he relied and distributes the spoils.
NCB: …to ascertain what profit they had made through their trading.
NABRE: …to learn what they had gained by trading.
NCB: The question caused them to discuss it among themselves, saying…
NABRE: They discussed this among themselves, and said…
NCB: Does it now appear to you that I am trying to gain the approval of human beings, rather than the approval of God? Am I seeking to please people?
NABRE: Am I now currying favor with human beings or God? Or am I seeking to please people?
NCB: On the contrary, they realized that I had been entrusted with preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with preaching the gospel to the circumcised (for the one who worked through Peter in his mission to the Jews was also at work in me in my mission to the Gentiles).
NABRE: On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter to the circumcised, for the one who worked in Peter for an apostolate to the circumcised worked also in me for the Gentiles.
NCB: You are my children, and I am experiencing the pain of giving birth to you all over again, until Christ is formed in you. I truly wish that I could be with you now and be able to alter my approach to you, because I do not know what to think about you.
NABRE: My children, for whom I am again in labor until Christ be formed in you! I would like to be with you now and to change my tone, for I am perplexed because of you.
NCB: These women represent two covenants. One covenant is given on Mount Sinai and bears children who are born into slavery; this is Hagar.
NABRE: These women represent two covenants. One was from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; this is Hagar.
Allowing New Testament Theology to Influence Old Testament Translation Choices
NCB: The virgin shall be with child, and she will give birth to a son, and she will name him Emmanuel.
NABRE: …the young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel.
NCB: Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the Spirit. Prophesy, son of man, and say to the Spirit: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O Spirit, and breathe into these slain so that they may live.”
NABRE: Then he said to me: Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man! Say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: From the four winds come, O breath, and breathe into these slain that they may come to life.
(the Hebrew word can mean either “spirit,” “breath,” or “wind” according to the NABRE notes, but using a capitalized “Spirit” here suggests the Holy Spirit, who was not revealed definitively until the New Testament.)
Less Inclusive Language
NCB: Rather, you must love your enemies and do good to them, and lend without expecting any repayment. In this way, you will receive a great reward. You will be sons of the Most High…
NABRE: But rather, love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back; then your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High…
NCB: He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
NABRE: Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear.
NCB: What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?
NABRE: What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?
NCB: Be afraid of the one who, after he has killed, has the authority to cast into Gehenna. I tell you, fear him!
NABRE: Be afraid of the one who after killing has the power to cast into Gehenna; yes, I tell you, be afraid of that one.
NCB: That which is highly esteemed in the eyes of men is detestable in the sight of God.
NABRE: …what is of human esteem is an abomination in the sight of God.