26 January 2023

The Liturgical Revolution which wasn't (1)

In 1948, the Old Testament, in a translation created by Mgr R A Knox, Master of Arts and (later) Protonotary Apostolic, received a Westminster Imprimatur "for private use"; in 1945 the New Testament, from the same hand, had been published. These events might have proved the starting-gun for a considerable liturgical, and cultural, revolution.

Congregations at that time ... Anglican, (most) Protestant, and Catholic ... were in the grip of assumptions concerning the necessity for Tudor English within Church or Chapel walls. The King James Bible was still the Bible in the minds of Anglicans and Protestants; for Catholics, the Douay Rheims translation, purged of its most diverting incomprehensibilities by Bishop Challoner, served the devout. Any 'revision' even if only to bring King James (or Douay-Rheims) into line with the textcrit certainties of Westcott'nHort (textus brevior potior) needed powerful justification before it could break through the prejudices of three, cultural, centuries. King James ... aided by Thomas Cranmer ... still ruled. Even if not quite OK.

The problem for Catholics was less acute, because the kindly Latin (or happy inaudibility) of Tradition protected the laity from the irritating mutabilities and aggressions of clericalism (and The Garden of the Soul reinforced lay preference for archaic language). S John Henry Newman mocked  Protestant sneers about the linguistic attaments of the Recusant community: when Charles Reding is being dissuaded by his future brother-in-law from seceding to Rome, he has to face the argument that Catholic Clergy are "men of rude minds and vulgar manners"; "look at their books of devotion ... they can't write English." Reding smiled at Carlton, and slowly shook his head to and fro, while he said, "they write English, I suppose, as classically as St John writes Greek." Here, so the canonised author informs us, the conversation halted, and nothing was heard for a while but the simmering of the kettle. 

Do you think we are given here a snatch of the repartee of the Oriel Common Room? Would Whately have expectorated into the fire in explosive response to such a Jesuitical attack on Johannine parataxis?

I am unsurprised that not all the English Catholic bishops were equally enthusiastic about Knox's Bible. Given the radically revolutionary quality of its English style, it is surprising that it received from them such acceptance, or tolerance, as it did. It is not hard to understand how the bishops felt. How, indeed, should one respond to this clever convert?

To be continued.


Richard said...

Looking forward to more on the Knox translations. I've long been puzzled how such a clever man and true Catholic managed to come up with something so - erm - awkward.

Prayerful said...

'On Englishing the Bible' showed Mgsr Ronald Knox thought very carefully about the words of the bible and their meaning. The English bishops seemed to have grasped what he was trying to do. While bishop Challoner provided an excellent update of a careful translation made in exile, one that was noticed by the translators of James I, but the Douay-Rheim original still has archaicisms liable to misunderstanding. And unlike the excellent Confraternity update available to Americans Massgoers since the 19th century, it apparently cannot be read at Mass, even if strictly speaking, the readings and sermon are a pause in the Mass. The sermon after Low Mass is just about within living memory.

Relevantly, Sophia Press' 'Edmund Campion Missal' 3rd ed., uses Mgsr Knox's Mass and proper translations where available and while I'm no expert, I cannot see any distortion compared with the Fr Lasance equally wonderful translations which were more traditionally literal. Honestly it's sad. If one looks at various hand missals, family bibles, or texts like Wilfred Diamond's Liturgical Latin, from the 50s onwards, there was an effort to ensure the people could follow the Mass as it was.

You know what Fr, both the diocesan church and SSPX chapel near me read the Confraternity translation. I can see why. Few of the SSPX priests are native English speakers, usually Francophone Swiss or French men. The diocesan adm patently just sees the issue as comprehensibility. A better translation in context of the Roman Rite and Uses cannot be harmful. It is not an instance of liturgical meddling by clever priests that has so plagued the Christian believer in the past few decades, but rather a didactic commentary or pause as so oft enjoined on priests by Trent and so many other Councils.

Tito Edwards said...

I have to admit, as a intentional Catholic, that the Douay-Rheims English is clunky at best. Then compared to the beautifully written KJV, it's barely comparable. I have to begrudgingly admit that I prefer the KJV (Catholic Edition). And the Revised Std Version (CaE) is much better written (poetically) than the D-R.

I'm aware of the Knox version, but not that familiar of the style of writing. Is it any good? Is it better than the RSV-CE and/or the English Standard Version (CE)?

Will the Ordinariates switch to the more beautiful King James (CE)?

Matthew said...

When I recited the "Office of Readings" from the post-Vat 2 Breviary I had to turn to the RSV for passages from the Wisdom literature taken from the Knox version. Stylistically there may have been some correspondence with the originals, but Knox's convoluted sentence structure I found quite unbearable.

Prayerful said...

Clarifying my own post:

'but the Douay-Rheim original' should be Douay-Rheim Challoner, but compared to the Confraternity version, it's the de-facto original for most, and in context of the sentence, wasso.

The main problem I see in translations is a text that reads fairly well, but will have sceptical footnotes in places, which spoils it.

@Tito Edwards

http://catholicbible.online/knox/OT and so forth (archive.org might have a scan too). Honestly, for private study, provided it has been ecclesiastically approved, personal preference counts here.

Albertus said...

I pray the old Breviary in Latin, and read holy Scriptures usually in Latin, sometimes in Dutch and German for comparison. Seldom in English. I do own the Orthodox Study Bible in English, which is based upon the Authorised Version, though the Old Testament is often made to better match the Septuaginta: i particularly like the glosses. Thus, i have no first-hand knowledge of Knox's translation. But i have seen several Youtube videos by Catholic laymen who enthousiastically praise Knox's translation, calling it elegant, close to the Latin, and clearer in meaning in some passages where all other translations are less clear. So, at least some of the lay faithful do still benefit from Monsignor Knox's great work of love for Holy Writ.

wonastow said...

Fifty-five years ago, when a very young man, I had a friend, a Norwegian, of my father's generation. He mentioned that during the Great War Knox had worked for British Military Intelligence and had learned Norwegian. My friend believed that Knox had consulted a Norwegian language translation of the New Testament when preparing his own translation. This belief was based on the occurrence in one of the Epistles of the word "lore" in Norwegian rendered as "law" in English - or vice versa - unfortunately I forget which way round, or which Epistle!

Is this just a shaggy dog story or can one of your learned correspondents confirm its truth?

frjustin said...

@wonastow: the one person who might be able to answer your question would be the Catholic Bishop of the Territorial Prelature of Norway, Erik Varden. As a native of Norway, and former Abbot of Mount St Bernard's, he would be familiar both with the Knox translation and the Norwegian translation used at the time. He is currently making recordings of the Gospels read in Greek, as noted on his website:

His mailing address is
Most Rev. Erik Varden, O.C.S.O.
Sverres gate 1, N-7012
Trondheim, Norge

wonastow said...

Fr Hunwicke: may I, through you, thank frjustin?

G. Poulin said...

The Knox translation is an excellent piece of literature, and a fine example of the "dynamic equivalence" method of translation. However, it is too far from the more familiar versions to ever become widely used. Almost invariably, the versions that find the most acceptance are cautious revisions of older versions.
I credit the Knox version with getting me to think more carefully about the meaning of various passages in Scripture.