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Sunday, November 18,2012

Giving thanks for a very readable version of a special book

By Dennis Powell

It was a welcome arrival.

I opened the box and inside was a book. It's commonly known as "the Knox Bible." No, it's not a book of recipes that use the popular unflavored gelatin. It is far, far more interesting than that.

Msgr. Ronald Arbuthnott Knox was a remarkable guy. Born to a patrician family in England (his father was an Anglican bishop), Knox went to Eton, then Balliol College at Oxford. At age 24 he was ordained an Anglican minister, and he became chaplain at Trinity College in Oxford. Five years later he converted to Roman Catholicism. So far: kind of remarkable, but there are a lot of accomplished persons in history, right? The fact that he became the Catholic chaplain at the University of Oxford later is fairly unusual, but still.

What makes him especially interesting to me is that he was also a pioneering broadcaster (his 1926 hoax on the BBC about riots in London predated Orson Welles and the War of the Worlds fiasco by a dozen years). He was, as Evelyn Waugh would write in his biography of Knox, a "boon companion" to many of the literary greats of Europe during the 20th century: C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Waugh himself. He wrote theology, apologetics – and mystery stories. In fact, for much of his life he wrote on average three books per year.

He was publishing poetry in Latin in his early teens (one account has it at age 12). And in 1939 he began to re-translate the Bible. By himself.

Just about every edition of the Bible then in use had come down from the Douay-Rheims translation of the late 1500s and early 1600s. There had been updates here and there, but they were all from that translation. Knox found it faulty and in some places unintelligible.

"My favorite one," he wrote in an essay, "is Amos iv. 2 and 3: 'The Lord God hath sworn by his holiness, that, lo, the days shall come upon you, that he shall take you away with hooks, and your posterity with fish-hooks, and ye shall go out at the breaches, every cow at that which is before her, and ye shall cast them into the palace, saith the Lord.'" One can see his point.

So he thought to retranslate the Latin Vulgate of St. Jerome, informed where necessary by the original Greek and Hebrew source texts.

Quite a weekend project, huh? Actually, it took him nine years. But he did it.

His goal was an edition of the Bible that was both accurate and readable. Many, perhaps most, editions of the Bible are meant less to be read than to be studied, disassembled into verses and the verses pored over. Knox wanted to produce a translation which persons could sit down and read and, afterwards, understand what they had read.

It's a completely audacious thing for him to have attempted and astounding that he succeeded. His translation was accepted for liturgical use in Catholic churches in England, Wales, and some other places from its publication in 1950 to the mid-1960s, when other standardized translations came to the fore. The Knox Bible went out of print and became somewhat sought after.

Now Baronius Press, a British publishing house, has republished it. When I heard about it, I made haste to order one. My enthusiasm has been well rewarded. The reward was made greater by the inclusion of a small book, On Englishing the Bible, which is a collection of essays (including the one quoted above) explaining and in some cases defending how he did the translation. It alone is worth the price of the book to anyone interested in languages and especially in the English language.

Of particular note to me is the distinction he makes between "translation" and "interpretation," the latter being conveying what the original text is thought to have meant, rather than what it says. You can imagine the kind of trouble interpretation can produce. Knox stuck to translation, and bless him for it.

I've been reading it nightly for a few weeks now. I look forward to sitting down with it each night and reading a few chapters and, for the first time, actually being able to follow what's going on. It does, alas, remind me that now I need reading glasses. The layout is different for a Bible, with lines that span the page rather than the usual two- or three-column Bible arrangement (though I do wish the type were a little larger or they had done two columns – picking up the next line is not always easy, and such interruptions when reading are unwelcome). But for me, rushing home to read the Bible is an innovation.

So this Thursday, after thanks for family and friends and hospitable surroundings and those things for which we are rightly thankful, I shall be giving thanks, too, for this eye- and heart-opening book, and for the unique fellow who made it happen.


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