Translations of the Catholic Bible must be faithful to the original texts; loose translation is not acceptable. Literal (as word-for-word as possible) translation, also known as the “formal equivalence” method, is the only acceptable, faithful way to translate the Bible, and this is how the Latin Vulgate and the Douay Rheims versions were translated.

In general, the many modern translations today – while going back to the original Biblical language texts as directed by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu employ the “dynamic equivalence” (“sense-for-sense,” “meaning-for-meaning,” or “thought-for-thought”) method of translation, which is not consistent with what the Church or the Bible teach regarding Biblical translation (see below). In general, the modern translations of the Catholic Bible simply do not have fidelity to accuracy, taught as essential by St. Jerome, the greatest Biblical translator of all time, who said in reference to Biblical commentary (but which is equally true of Biblical translation): “[the] office of a commentator is to set forth not what he himself would prefer, but what his author says” [Ad Pammachium].

If literal translation is not employed, the accurate wording (and consequently the meaning) of Biblical texts disappears quickly. Without exception, all translations, no matter how literal or faithful they are to the original, lose some of their accuracy going from one language to another. Therefore, the best way to maintain the integrity of the Biblical text is to translate it literally.

Literal translation is commanded in the Bible itself three times (Deuteronomy 4:2, Proverbs 30:5-6, and Apocalypse 22:18-19 [these two verses apply to the whole of Scripture as well as the Apocalypse – the Fathers of the Church would certainly agree with this]; possibly even in Jeremias 26:2), and tampering with Scripture is condemned in 2 Corinthians 4:2. Literal translation was strongly encouraged – to say the least – in Divino Afflante Spiritu (23) and it was employed by St. Jerome (Divino Afflante Spiritu, 9).

Here is what the Council of Trent taught: The Vulgate, “which has been preserved by the Church for so many centuries is to be regarded as authentic in public readings, disputations, sermons, and expositions, and let no one dare or presume to reject it on any grounds” (Fourth Session, “Decree on the Vulgate Edition of the Bible and on the Manner of Interpreting Sacred Scripture,” April 8, 1546). This teaching was reaffirmed in 1943 in Divino Afflante Spiritu in which Pope Pius XII taught: The Council of Trent “rightly declared to be preferable that which ‘had been approved by its long-continued use for so many centuries in the Church.’ Hence this special authority or as they say, authenticity of the Vulgate was not affirmed by the Council particularly for critical reasons, but rather because of its legitimate use in the Churches throughout so many centuries; by which use indeed the same is shown, in the sense in which the Church has understood and understands it, to be free from any error whatsoever in matters of faith and morals” (Section 21).

Therefore, it can be said – owing to the aforementioned guarantee – that the Douay Rheims Bible is indeed the safest and most reliable English translation of the Bible.

Probably the field of theology most affected by the heresy of Modernism – thoroughly condemned by the Church in 1907 – during this last century or so has been Biblical scholarship. Now, non-literal translation and the dangerous historical-critical method of Biblical exegesis (by which some claim Sacred Scripture to be the word of man, full of myth, not really having historicity, merely conditioned by the time in which it was written, etc.) have become the rule with many, many Scripture scholars and teachers. (The historical-critical method of Biblical exegesis is taught in most Catholic colleges and universities, which has been eroding the faith in Scripture a great while now.)

Let’s examine some examples of how dangerous non-literal translation is. Here are just a few. Matthew 16:26 in the Douay Rheims reads: “For what doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul?” Newer translations change it this way: “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” “Soul” and “life” are clearly not interchangeable here! One can lose one’s life without losing one’s soul. Just another example is Isaias 7:14b, which reads: “Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” One popular Catholic Bible translates it thusly: “the young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel.” This latter translation is very poor because it breaks the intended linkage of the two verses by conflicting with its own translation of Matthew 1:23: “‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.’” There is no such confusion in the Douay Rheims, which, of course, translates both of these verses with “virgin.” “Virgin” is also important because it reinforces the second Marian dogma, the Perpetual Virginity of Mary.

Another example is in Luke 2:35; in a popular Catholic Bible, a clause is rendered thusly: “and you yourself a sword will pierce”. The word “soul” is in the original Greek, and hence in the Douay Rheims translation: “And thy own soul a sword shall pierce [...].” A tree is known by its fruit; changing words, in this case without sufficient warrant, leads to a major difference: Our Lady was not pierced by a sword; Her soul was – we are body and soul as the Church teaches.

So, we see some examples of how literal translation (found eminently in the Douay Rheims Bible and the Vulgate Bible) not only provides the basis for Catholic doctrine, but also protects the faithful from not understanding it more clearly in the contemporary translations of the Bible. Modern translators err in putting scholarship – often subjective and sometimes downright agenda-driven, as in the case of “inclusive language” or “gender-neutral language” – ahead of such concerns, as well as ignoring the Church’s consistent history. Also, there are elements to Catholic Biblical scholarship that must be consistent. These are just a few of the serious errors in modern translations.

It must also be noted that paraphrasing, so prevalent in the modern translations, is not translating. They are two different things. Paraphrasing the Word of God is not valid.

The orthodoxy of literal translation of the Bible is confirmed in the “Legend of the Septuagint.” The Septuagint is the 3rd century B.C. translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek, allegedly by 70 Jewish Biblical scholars. The legend is that the scholars were inspired and, though separated, came up with identical translations, which all were in perfect conformity with the original texts. This story has been controversial in the history of the Church (three saints who were Fathers of the Church supported the authenticity of the legend, while St. Jerome, likewise a Father of the Church, criticized it). In any case, one thing is for sure – the popular legend, true or fabricated to some degree, promotes the idea that literal translation was and is the only way to translate the Bible. That has always been the thinking of Jews and Catholics until recently, and now, sadly, literal translation has been rejected generally.

To conclude, then, it is surprisingly easy to answer the question as to which the best Bible is:

  • It must be a literal translation – according to the teaching of the Church and the Bible itself.
  • It must have fidelity to accuracy.

The only Catholic translations that meet these criteria par excellence are the Douay Rheims Bible and the Vulgate Bible.

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