The Holy Bible translated by Monsignor Ronald Arbuthnott Knox

In 1939 R.A. Knox began the translation into modem English of the Clementine text of the Vulgate Bible. The New Testament was privately printed in 1945, and after some five hundred revisions, was subsequently authorized by the Hierarchy for public use. The Old Testament was published in two volumes in 1949, was authorized, also after certain revisions had been made; and a one-volume edition was produced in 1955. This version effectively replaced the Douai-Challoner translation for Roman Catholics in the English-speaking world.

In his Translator's Note to the first volume of the Old Testament, dated, perhaps significantly, St. Jerome's Day 1948, Knox details his method: ‘Throughout the books which are included in the Jewish canon, I have translated from the Vulgate, with constant reference to the Massoretic text: I have naturally consulted the Septuagint in cases of difficulty, although (except in the Psalms) it seldom throws much light on discrepancies between the Latin and the Hebrew. In a handful of passages where the Vulgate text yields no tolerable sense, or yields sense which evidently quarrels with the context, I have rendered from the Hebrew, giving a literal translation of the Latin in a foot-note. Where the Latin makes good sense, but is at variance with the Hebrew, I have indicated the fact of disagreement, but without giving the full Hebrew text if the difference is slight, or if the Hebrew text is itself unintelligible. Very occasionally, where even cautious scholars believe that the true text of the origin has been lost, I have put in three dots to mark the possibility of an omission. In translating Judith, Tobias, and certain parts of Esther, I have translated from the Vulgate, interpreting it as far as possible in the light of the Septuagint Greek. At the same time, I have kept an eye on the Hebrew and Chaldaean versions of Tobias, with their interesting variants.’

Knox also writes criticism of his work, as he had of the privately printed version of the New Testament. His answers to these criticisms are to be found in a series of articles published in 1949 in one volume entitled On Englishing the Bible[1]. This outline of his philosophy of translation in his racy and often humorous style makes entertaining reading. In his Preface he talks of the new wave of translations being undertaken on both sides of the Atlantic and doubts ‘whether we shall ever again allow ourselves to fall under the spell of a single, uniform text, consecrated by its antiquity.’ He continues: ‘And as each new adventurer sets out on his quest for that North West Passage, the perfect rendering of Holy Writ, he will do well to take note of buoys that mark the channel. Let him ask, not how I did the thing, but how I thought the thing ought to be done.’[2]

Having established that he is going to work from the Clementine recension of the Vulgate text, he explores the two methods of translating, which he describes as the literal (by which I take him to mean word-for-word translation) and the literary. He concludes: ‘If you are translating for the benefit of a person who wants to be able to read the word of God for ten minutes on end without laying it aside in sheer boredom or bewilderment, a literary translation is what you want - and eve have been lacking it for centuries.’[3] By ‘literary’ he means what is known as ‘dynamic equivalence’, a method which has become so established over the subsequent half century that few would now feel the need to defend it. It behoves us, however, when reading his translation, to remember the tradition from which he was breaking. In his discussion about the difficulty of translating idioms of one language into those of another, he touches the heart of every translator's problem, but it is an even greater problem when translating Scripture, as so many of our English idioms are derived from the earlier versions of the Bible. There are other sayings and phrases, which though perhaps not part of everyday English usage, have become hallowed by constant repetition. Knox feels that a Bible translator must not let such phrases slip through the net.

On the problem of Hebraisms Knox writes: ‘Douay was consistent; it translated the Latin word for word, and if you protested that its version sounded rather odd, replied woodenly, ‘Well, that's what it says’. In the eleventh psalm, for instance, you get the words ‘Deceitful lips, they have spoken in heart and heart’. Even Challoner saw that that would not do, so he pillaged from the Authorized Version and gave us, ‘With a double heart have they spoken’. I don't see what a double heart could be except an abnormal anatomical condition, or an obscure kind of convention at bridge; but anyhow it sounds a little more like English. But when the Latin had ‘Renew a right spirit within my bowels,’ that was what Challoner put; and when the Latin had ‘Examine, 0 Lord, my kidneys’, Challoner put that down too; only he changed kidneys to the obsolete word ‘reins’, hoping that his readers would not look it up in the dictionary. We are sensible of these Hebraisms, and most of us would like to see the last of them. But there are hundreds and hundreds of other Hebraisms which we do not notice, because we have allowed ourselves to grow accustomed to them. We should have thought it odd if we had read in The Times, ‘General Montgomery's right hand has smitten Rommel in the hinder parts’, but if we get that sort of thing in the Bible we take it, unlike Rommel, sitting down. ‘Mr. Churchill then opened his mouth and spoke’ — is that English? No, it is Hebrew idiom clothed in English words.[4]

Here I quote Knox's translation of Jonah's prayer which we have already looked at in other articles in this series: ()
Jonah 2.1.ff

And what of Jonas? At the Lord's bidding, a great sea-beast had swallowed him up; and there, in the belly of it, three days spent he and three nights. This was the prayer which Jonas made to the Lord his God, there in the belly of the sea-beast; Call I on the Lord in my peril, redress he grants me; from the very womb of the grave call I, thou art listening to me! Here in the depths of the sea's heart thou wouldst cast me away, with thy flood all about me, eddy of thine, waters of thine, sweeping over me, till it seemed as if I were shut out from thy regard: yet life thou grantest me; I shall gaze on thy holy temple once again. Around me the deadly waters close, the depths engulf me, the weeds are wrapped about my head; mountain caverns I must plumb, the very bars of earth my unrelenting prison; and still, 0 Lord my God, thou wilt raise me, living, from the tomb. Daunted this heart, yet still of the Lord I would bethink me; prayer of mine should reach him, far away in his holy temple! Let fools that court false worship all hope of pardon forgo; mine to do sacrifice in thy honour, vows made and paid to the Lord, my deliverer!

Knox claims the right for the judicious use of paraphrase which he calls ‘a bogey of the half-educated’. He also sees the need to adapt the matter to English sentences, As he says, ‘ is the clear fact about St. Paul that he thought in paragraphs. St. John, on the other hand, has an insatiable passion for full stops.’ In all this, however, he is aiming at what he calls ‘timeless English’; in translating the Bible he is aiming at something that will not be ‘dated’. Readers must judge for themselves from the passages which follow, whether he has achieved this aim. It is questionable, I think, whether the aim is, in fact, achievable, but given that Knox decided to retain the ‘thou’ form, he has left us with much that a modern reader might very well baulk at.

As usual with the extracts I quote I give Tyndale first for comparison. I begin with Joshua 14.9ff:

And Moses sware the same season saying the land whereon thy feet have trodden, shall be thine inheritance and thy children for ever because thou hast followed the Lord my God continually. And now behold, the Lord hath kept me lusty (as he said) this forty and five years, even since the Lord spake unto Moses, while the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness. And now see I am this day four score and five years: and yet am as strong at this time, as I was when Moses sent me: look how strong I was then, so strong I am now, to war and to do all manner of things.
And Moses promises me that day, Thou, who hast taken the part of the Lord my God, shalt live to have a portion in the very land thou hast traversed, and leave it to thy race in perpetuity. The Lord has made good his promise, and life is still mine. That word was spoken to Moses forty-five years since, when Israel began its wanderings up and down the desert and now, a man eighty-five years old, I am as vigorous as I was when I went on that errand; in battle or on the march, the strength of the old days is still with me.

What is striking here, is the freshness and accessibility of Tyndale, whilst I wonder whether Knox has secured, as he hoped ‘that Englishmen of 2150, if my version is still obtainable then, shall not find it hopelessly ‘dated’.’[6]

Knox is interesting on the opening passage of John's Gospel; ‘...take that well-known phrase in the Last Gospel, ‘the light shines in darkness, et tenebrae eam non comprehenderunt’ — does that mean that the darkness could not understand it? Or that the darkness could not smother it?’ Here I give Knox's solution to this one first, followed by Tyndale.

At the beginning of time the Word already was; and God had the Word abiding with him, and the Word was God. He abode, at the beginning of time, with God. It was through him that all things came into being, and without him came nothing that has come to be. In him there was life, and that life was the light of men. And the light shines in darkness, a darkness which was not able to master it.
In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God: and the word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by it, and without it, was made nothing, that was made. In it was life, and the life was the light of men, and the light shineth in the darkness, but the darkness comprehended it not.

Knox admits that he found himself unable to treat the Old Testament in the same way as he had approached the New. ‘The New Testament was new, the Old Testament was old. The New Testament was written, mainly, by people who thought in Aramaic and used Greek as a kind of Esperanto; it has not the vigour of a living language. The Old Testament was written. mainly, by people who were using their own tongue, and expressed themselves naturally into it. A different treatment was called for, or the whole thing went desperately flat.’[7]

For comparison, then, I give Knox's opening verses of Hebrews which we have seen in REB and Phillips; and his version of Genesis 1.1 ff., but here I confess my own opinion that Tyndale cannot be improved upon.

Hebrews 1.1ff
In old days, God spoke to our fathers in many ways and by many means through the prophets; now at last in these times he has spoken to us with a Son to speak for him; a Son, whom he has appointed to inherit all things, just as it was through him that he created this world of time; a Son, who is the radiance of his Father's splendour, and the MI expression of his being; all creation depends, for its support, on his enabling word. Now, making atonement for our sins, he has taken his place on high, at the right hand of God's majesty, superior to the angels in that measure in which the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs,
Genesis 1.1ff
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. stirred the breath of God. Then God said, Let there be light; and the light began. God saw the light, and found it good, and he divided the spheres light and darkness; the light he called Day, and the darkness Night. So evening came, and morning, and one day passed. God said, too, Let a solid vault arise amid the waters, to keep these waters apart from those; a vault which God would separate the waters which were beneath it from the waters above it; and so it was done. This vault God called the Sky. So evening came, and morning, and a second day passed.
In the beginning God created heaven and earth. The earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the deep, and the spirit of God moved upon the water. Then God said: let there be light and there was light. And God saw the light that it was good: and divided the light from the darkness, and called the light day, and the darkness night: and so of the evening and morning was made the first day.

And God said: let there be a firmament between the waters, and let it divide the waters asunder. Then God made the firmament and parted the waters which were under the firmament, from the waters that were above the firmament: And it was so. And God called the firmament heaven. And so of the evening and morning was made the second day.

In his Preface to the one-volume Knox version of the Bible, the Archbishop of Westminster, Bernard Cardinal Griffin, writes: ‘We would see a Bible in every home, a Bible which is read regularly and which has a real bearing upon the life of those who use it. Its very production should be as worthy as possible of the sublime material it contains; easy to read and a joy to handle. It is to meet this need that Monsignor Knox's translation is now presented in one volume and I trust that this version, which has already made so great a contribution to the life of our people, will succeed in giving increasing numbers a greater understanding of the inspired message it bears.’ To this same end Tyndale gave his life.

? Hilary Day


  1. Published by Bums & Oates, London.
  2. On Englishing the Bible, p.vii.
  3. p.3.
  4. p.7.
  5. p.12.
  6. p.52.
  7. p.97-8.

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