Why is it that one has to choose between beauty and accuracy when it comes to Bible translations?

One of the reasons why I found myself with little choice but to put together my own translation of the Book of Matthew (using the 1895 Revised Version [of the King James Bible] as a base, which is a Protestant translation) was because I wanted to be able to read from and quote my favourite Gospel without having to use a translation that had either subpar accuracy or subpar beauty.

I did that, and I am fairly satisfied with the result. I think that it strikes a good balance. But now I’m working on the thirteenth chapter of the Book of Daniel, and I find myself in a similar situation.

Regarding major translations:

We have the Douay-Rheims, which reads all right (not as well as the 1895 Revised Version, sadly), but as all of us here know, it was a translation of the Vulgate.

We have the Revised Standard Version - Catholic Edition from 1966, and that reads pretty well I must say, but it was superseded by the Revised Standard Version - Second Catholic Edition in 2006, which has better Catholic renderings of certain passages, but does not read as well as the first edition.

You have the New American Bible. Not particularly fantastic, as it isn’t much better to me than the RSV2CE. Actually, it is not as good as the RSV2CE, for what it is.

Then we have the New American Bible - Revised Edition of 2011, which I purchased a copy of for reference purposes about a year ago. It is perhaps (and I mean no offence to those who like this translation) my least favourite of our translations, because it is a stark illustration of what I am trying to point out here. Then again, the NAB was not the best Catholic translation to start with, so perhaps I am being too harsh on it.

Many a priest has commented that the older translations are “the most beautiful”, but “not sufficiently accurate”. I agree with this analysis, and I truly do not understand why we cannot have both beauty and accuracy. I understand that there are many people who do not care, but to plenty of people, beauty in translation aids in both individual piety, and in memorability of the passages themselves. I know that that is certainly true for myself.

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It has to do with the difficulties of translation itself. This isn’t just an issue with the Bible - it occurs with any translated text, and more so the less the base and target language have in common.

Words tend to have slightly different senses in different languages, plus the grammar is often completely different. This means that a translation that expresses the fullest and most accurate sense of the original language is generally going to some somewhat clunky in the target language. You can make a smoother translation, but it tends to lose some nuance from the original.

What’s worse is that it often relies on the translator interpreting the original passage correctly. With something like Sacred Scripture, this can be full of pitfalls, if the translator (wittingly or unwittingly) places his own interpretation of a text in the translation where the original is ambiguous. But there’s really no way to make the translation truly beautiful in the new language without adding interpretation.


It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder; so I can’t put much weight as to what various priests have said. Their definition of beauty may mean that it is mellifluous and/or poetic; or they may mean something else.

Translation is a difficult process, as words and phrases often contain an idea which is not simply translated into another language by a “parallel” word. One translation will be done based on a certain objective in terms of “readability”; and other comes at the same text from a different perspective; and both can be “accurate”. Some of your question resides in the definition of what you mean by “accurate”.

Additionally, a word or phrase in another language may have several words which all express the idea of the baseline text; to say that one is more accurate than the other may make for an interesting debate with no real resolution.

To which one could add that in Hebrew, there often is a play on words which really does not come through in any translation, and it is debatable if anyone can say the translation is “accurate” if it does not include the play on words. Or is it?

And it has been said that Genesis 1 is poetic in the Hebrew; but that poetic phrasing may not be possible in another language. Is it then “accurate”?

Sorry, this may not be much help. You are on the right track to have several texts, but your desire likely will never be met unless and until you learn the original languages and read them in that language.

Which leaves one difficulty: Christ spoke Aramaic and read Hebrew, but the NT appears to have been written first in Greek, then translated to Latin, then to other languages. Someone, I have no recall of who, went backwards in translations; I understand it was a very interesting study. Can’t recall where I came across that info. Again, as I recall, Luke was/is considered to be fluent in Greek; other writers may have had a more Semitic approach to Greek as a second language, and perhaps used more Semitic phrasing.

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I notice you didn’t mention the New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (NRSVCE). What are your thoughts on it? It’s the approved Bible for Catholics in Canada, but I’m writing a novel for a larger audience, so I may change to the NABRE before I’m done. I use BibleGateway.com to check out various translations and often find that the quotes I remember from my youth come from the KJV, which doesn’t work for a Catholic story.

Would you care to share with us your translation of ἄφες ἄρτι in Matt 3:15? It’s a notoriously difficult instance of the problem you describe, reconciling the sound with the sense.

Actually, there are a lot of Talmud passages that say that people from Jerusalem tended to speak Aramaic and pray in Hebrew, but people from Galilee tended to speak beautiful Hebrew but know only a little Aramaic.

(And other areas of Israel spoke Aramaic, especially places where Syrian or Edessan pagans ran things, as well as Greek, where the Romans or Greeks ran things. Phoenicians spoke Phoenician, Aramaic, and/or Greek.)

This Galilean thing led to funny consequences when a Jerusalem rabbi asked his Galilean wife or servant girl to do things, or to pick stuff up at the market, because sometimes mutual intelligibility or mutual vocabulary or just the pronunciations did not overlap completely. (And that’s what led to Talmudic discussion of these funny stories.)

Obviously Jesus would not have had a problem understanding or speaking any language (and both Bethlehem and Nazareth got a fair amount of out of town traffic), but I thought this was a pretty interesting little-known fact about Galilee. Almost the reverse of what most people are told, but similar in ways to how rural Americans in isolated settlement areas often preserved older vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation of English.

There’s also the factor is that older translations may have been beautiful and exact - according to word usage in their time. For example, “nice” used to mean “exact.” But we hardly know or recognize that sense, even in phrases like “nicely done.”

Another factor is that of course older Catholic translations try to include things like the Vulgate and Septuagint tradition, because the traditional readings are often non-Masoretic readings. There are some darned important theological points involved.

I recently bought a Knox Bible. It came with a booklet of essays and talks Fr Knox gave regarding the difficulty of translations (and explaining his approached). Very informative, I highly recommend it.

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As other have said, it has to do with the mechanics of translation. An accurate translation will often be inelegant because it stays closer to the syntax of the original language and tries to render the polysemic meaning of words. An elegant traduction will be farther from the text and often choose one meaning on purpose when rendering a word with a complex connotation and meaning (footnotes are your friends in this case).

Both are not exclusive though, and each has its uses. I like beauty for liturgy, and accurateness for Bible studies.

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I wish the Queen’s English was used in the English liturgy more. If you’re not going to use Latin, at least make the liturgy sound just as beautiful!

I’ve a variety of translations … and I do not encounter major difficulties of understanding between them… I prefer a translation in parenthetical format over those which separate every verse - for the ease by which they place concepts into their intended contexts…

That said… and recalling how it is God’s Holy Spirit whom is The Interpreter of Scriptures, it behooves any to Ask the Author God for Understanding…

The more words I learn in a new language (speak 2 fluent, 2 very good command and understand another 3 or so), the harder it is to write and speak in the language because of all the synonyms. This word suits better while on the other hand that one is better because of A, B and C. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to translate something written 2000 years ago in a totally different context than what we have today.

It is indeed difficult. I opted to stick with “suffer it now”, simply because I find that that phrasing conveys (especially to a contemporary reader), in my opinion, the interesting contrast between the firmness (or, rather, authority) of our Lord’s response to John, and yet also his compassion. I think that this phrasing does this much more so today than it did when it was initially devised as part of a translation for the passage.

I would be very open to a better translation for that, though, if I came across one that truly conveyed the feeling of the original Greek in that passage.

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Which reminds me:

That word’s very first meaning was “foolish”. It is a descendant of Latin nescius, which came into (Middle) English via Old French.

I remember being in Latin class. My translations were always clunky and stumbling, but the professor always made her translations sound so elegant and natural. It really made me appreciate translation-as-an-art. Which, I suppose, is why Knox is one of my heroes! :face_with_monocle:

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