Knox’s Old Testament
The Old Testament in English. A New Translation.
by Ronald Knox.
Volume one. Sheed and Ward. 739 pp. $7.00.
This is the first volume of Monsignor Knox’s translation of the Old Testament from the Vulgate Latin, made at the request of Cardinal Hinsley and the English hierarchy. It includes the books of Genesis through Esther, though of course in the Vulgate order and not in that of the Hebrew Bible. In the Vulgate, as in most Christian Bibles, the Hebrew division into Law, Prophets, and Writings as ignored, so that, for example, the Book of Ruth comes between Judges and First Samuel (known in the Vulgate and in Knox as First Book of Kings), Ezra and Nehemiah follow Second Chronicles, and the Prophets come at the end. (In the Hebrew Bible the Prophets follow the historical books and are in turn followed by the “Writings,” among which Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles are included.) This is worth mentioning, because the Jewish reader who sees a volume of the Bible marked “Genesis to Esther” might imagine that he would find in it the complete Old Testament except the last four books of the “Writings.” It should also be noted that the Apocryphal books of Tobit (Tobias) and Judith are, in accordance with Catholic tradition, included in this volume.
Monsignor Knox translates from the Vulgate, the basic authorized version of the Catholic Church made by Saint Jerome in the 4th century. His version is not, however, a revision of the Douay Old Testament of 1609-10, the first authorized Catholic translation into English, which is comparable in the English Catholic tradition to the King James version in the Protestant; nor is it based on Bishop Challoner’s virtually new Catholic translation of 1750. It is a wholly new rendering, original both in diction and in cadence, and is intended for the modern reader.
It is remarkable for any man to have achieved such a task single-handed, and it is all the more so when the result gives a completely new style to Old Testament narrative. The basic rhythms and diction of the King James version were left unchanged by the Revised Version and even by the Jewish Publication Society’s translation published in 1917. Even the Douay Bible, unfamiliar though it is to ears trained on the King James version, is less unlike any of the English versions mentioned than Monsignor Knox’s is to all of them. The rhythms of the original Hebrew can be perceived in some degree in the Vulgate and in most literal English translations from it; and those original rhythms are certainly found in the King James version, whose translators seem to have made some attempt to capture them; but there is no trace of them in this new version, which has a kind of fluency in narration alien alike to Hebrew and Jerome’s Latin.
Take, for example, the opening of Genesis. The simple, lucid narrative of the Hebrew, with its statements linked fairly primitively by the conjunction “and,” is well reproduced in the King James Bible: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”
The Douay Bible, translating the Vulgate literally as the King James translates the Hebrew literally, reads: “In the beginning God created heaven, and earth. And the earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved over the waters.”
Monsignor Knox recasts the narrative into a wholly different kind of prose—less primitive, more fluent, and more diffuse: “God, at the beginning of time, created heaven and earth. Earth was still an empty waste, and darkness hung over the deep; but already, over its waters, brooded the spirit of God.”
This is good, swinging prose, with a lilt to it. Nevertheless, it may not be mere prejudice which suggests that there is an almost excessive fluency here. And why say “at the beginning of time” when both the Hebrew and the Latin say simply—and effectively—“in the beginning”? Surely some of the effect is lost in adding “of time,” and it might be said, too, that the meaning is changed. For the Hebrew bereshith, like the Latin in principio and the Greek en arche, does not limit the meaning to a temporal significance—there is almost the suggestion of “as a matter of primary importance.” That overtone is lost in particularizing the temporal meaning, and there disappears, too, that immense dignity of statement that the simple phrase “in the beginning” contains.
Monsignor Knox might reply that he is making his translation for modem readers, who require a less primitive idiom, a more sophisticated tone. To which it can only be said that the tone of the Bible—either the Hebrew or the Vulgate—is not sophisticated and it is doing violence to it to render it as though it were. Further, the primitive narrative style of Genesis and other early books of the Bible has a folk quality of its own that it seems a shame to lose. Again, Monsignor Knox renders the latter part of Verse 5 thus: “So evening came, and morning, and one day passed.” Both Hebrew and Vulgate say: “And there was evening, and there was morning, one day.” Douay preserves this exactly: “And there was evening and morning, one day”—which is better than the rather clumsy King James rendering: “And the evening and the morning were the first day.”
Monsignor Knox has a feeling for prose rhythm, but clearly the kind of prose rhythm he prefers is not that of the Old Testament—it is not, in fact, one which can be applied to Old Testament narrative without considerable padding and use of inversion. “Now the serpent was more subtile than any beast of the field which the Lord had made,” says. King James, and Douay is almost the same: “Now the serpent was more subtle than any of the beasts of the earth which the Lord God had made.” Monsignor Knox, however, is not satisfied with this simple and emphatic statement. In his version it becomes: “Of all the beasts which the Lord God had made, there was none that could match the serpent in cunning.” This is flowing English, but it is not what the Bible says. Paraphrase is desirable when the idiom of the original sounds strange or awkward when literally translated, but there is nothing strange or awkward in the literal King James rendering.
Sometimes Monsignor Knox’s dislike of simple emphatic rhythms leads him to pad a sentence to the point of seriously weakening the meaning. “The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat,” answers Eve in the King James version when God asks what she had done immediately after the fatal incident in Eden. Similarly, Douay, following the Vulgate, has: “The serpent deceived me, and I did eat.” (The Vulgate itself has just the primitive cogency of the Hebrew: “Serpens decepit me, et comedi.”) But in the Knox translation the sentence reads: “The serpent, she said, beguiled me, and so I came to eat.” I cannot see that the meaning is anything but weakened by breaking up the sentence this way and adding that “came to.”
Sometimes this smooth flow is wholly effective, and the Song of Moses in Chapter Fifteen of Exodus goes with magnificent gusto in this new rendering. Yet even here the sophistication of style sometimes attenuates the meaning. “The Lord is a man of war: the Lord is his name,” says the King James version, literally translating the Hebrew, while Douay renders the Latin similarly: “The Lord is as a man of war; Almighty is his name.” Monsignor Knox renders: “Javé, the warrior God, Javé, whose very name tells of omnipotence!” The “omnipotence” here is probably suggested by the Vulgate’s “Omnipotens nomen ejus,” but the Vulgate does keep the simple sense of the Hebrew “Adonai sh’mo.” Two words in the Hebrew, three in the Latin, four in King James, and seven in Knox. This is about the ratio for the translation as a whole.
The magnificent simplicity of the narrative in the Book of Ruth is probably the best test for any translator of Old Testament narrative prose. The opening verses go as follows in King James: “Now it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Beth-lehem-judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons. And the name of the man was Elimelech, and the name of his wife Naomi, and the name of his two sons Mahlon and Chilion, Ephrathites of Beth-lehem-judah. And they came into the country of Moab, and continued there. And Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died; and she was left, and her two sons. And they took them wives of the women of Moab; and the name of the one was Orpah, and the name of the other Ruth: and they dwelt there about ten years. And Mahlon and Chilion died also both of them; and the woman was left of her two sons and her husband. Then she arose with her daughters-in-law, that she might return from the country of Moab; for she had heard in the country of Moab how that the Lord had visited his people in giving them bread.”
And here is Monsignor Knox’s rendering: “In old days, Israel was ruled by Judges; and it was while one of these held sway that a man of Bethlehem-Juda took his wife and his two sons to live in the Moabite country, to escape from a famine. There, in Moab, these Ephraites from Bethlehem-Juda continued to dwell. Elimelech, and his wife Noemi, and his two sons Mahalon and Chelion; there Elimelech died, and Noemi was left a widow. But still she would be with her sons, who had now married wives of Moabite race, one called Orpha and the other Ruth. So ten years passed, and then Mahalon and Chelion both died. And now, both widowed and childless, she bade farewell to Moab and set out, with her two daughters-in-law, on the journey home; the Lord had been merciful to his people, she was told, and there was food to be had once more.”
Now there are some differences between this rendering and that of King James which result simply from differences between the Vulgate and the Hebrew. (The phrase “while one of these held sway,” for example, derives from the odd Vulgate rendering of “bimei sh’phot ha-shoph’tim” as “in diebus unius judicis.”) And we need not be disturbed by the use of the Vulgate forms of proper names, as in “Noemi.” The real difference between the two translations does not derive from differences between the Hebrew and the Vulgate—these are rarely significant, and it should be added that often when they are Monsignor Knox indicates his awareness of the difference in a footnote—but from a deliberate attempt on the present translator’s part to shift the narrative into a new style. It is a more modem style, certainly, but it is not its modernity so much as its other special qualities that strike one.
It is at this point that the reader acquainted with modem English prose style catches up with the echoes that had been haunting him since he began reading the Knox version: this is precisely the style of George Moore’s Eloise and Abelard and The Brook Kerith. This smoothly modulated dialogue quietly embedded in the narrative, with all trace of emphasis or rhetorical stress filed away, is uncannily reminiscent of Moore’s later style. It is rash to speculate on the sources of a translator’s manner, but I should guess that at some time in his career Monsignor Knox had read at least one of the late Moore novels and been fascinated by its style.
As a final example, we might take David’s famous lament over Jonathan: “The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places: how are the mighty fallen! Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph. . . . Saul and Jonathan were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided: they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. . . .”
That is the King James version. And here is Monsignor Knox’s: “Remember, Israel, the dead, wounded on thy heights, the flower of Israel, cut down on thy mountains; how fell they, warriors such as these? [The statement is in question form in the Vulgate: “quo modo ceciderunt fortes?”] Keep the secret in Geth, never a word in the streets of Ascalon; shall the women-folk rejoice, shall they triumph, daughters of the Philistines, the uncircumcised? . . . Saul and Jonathan, so well-beloved, so beautiful; death no more than life could part them; never was eagle so swift, never was lion so strong.”
This is vigorous and eloquent, but it is not the vigor and eloquence of folk elegy; it is rather the studied plaintiveness of the late 19th or early 20th-century stylist.
Those who, like the present reviewer, are most familiar with the rhythms of the Hebrew Bible and of the King James English, may be accused with some justice of coming to the present translation full of prejudices about how Biblical prose ought to sound. But after all, a translation ought to convey something of the quality of the original in its tone and style, and the fact remains that the “feel” of Monsignor Knox’s prose is wholly unlike either the Hebrew or the Vulgate Latin. In presenting the Old Testament in sophisticated modern rhythms, much of the grandeur, the simple lyricism of the emotional passages, the limpid if primitive episodic quality of the best Biblical narrative, is lost. And though there are often gains, they do not altogether compensate.
We look forward to seeing Monsignor Knox’s rendering of the Hebrew prophets, whose style is so different from the narrative portions of the Old Testament, and the magnificence of whose utterance provides an even sterner challenge to the translator. In the meantime, he is to be congratulated on this performance—remarkable even if it is not exactly the Bible. And one should not close a review of his translation without mentioning his real success in organizing his paragraphs. The chopping up of Biblical prose into isolated verses was a late development which, though it makes for ease of reference, obscures the literary quality of the narrative. Monsignor Knox paragraphs his prose with great effectiveness, and at the same time preserves the verse numbers by indicating them in the margin.