I await with great delight the first translation of the Novus Ordo Mass into English. The bland, Scripture-muffling, colorless, odorless, gaseous paraphrase American Catholics have had for forty years often was not a translation at all, nor even a paraphrase into English. It was a paraphrase into Nabbish, the secret official language of the New American Bible.
To help those who have grown up with it and so are less able to form a single, concrete image in their minds or remember a single happy turn of phrase, it might prove instructive to examine some of the principles of Nabbish. I shall list the principles one by one. If the reader wants to learn Nabbish on his own, he should simply take all the lessons in an old and reliable book of English style, say the classic Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and invert them. Or he may ask himself, “What are the things that make poetry lovely or memorable?” and eliminate them.
Principle One: Prefer the general to the specific, the abstract to the concrete, the vague to the exact. Consider how Jesus spoke to the people of Galilee and Judah. “The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.” The love of God is like that of a man who had two sons, the younger of whom took his part of the inheritance and traveled to a far country, where he squandered it on harlots. “Do not cast your pearls before swine.” How can you say to your brother, “Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all along you have a plank in your own?
What does one do to turn the word of God into Nabbish? Blunt it whenever possible; grind down the word of God into a dull-edged sword. Here, for example, is a famous verse from Psalm 23, translated into early modern English in the King James Bible: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. That is exactly what it says in Hebrew. The King James translators, naive as they were, believed their task was to submit wholly to the word of God, its meaning, its connotation, its imagery, its rhetorical force. They found the unusual compound tzal-maweth and shuddered from the beauty of it: the shadow of death. Imagine walking through that valley. The trees loom; a strange silence comes over us; we do not know what awaits. It is, unquestionably, one of the most memorable images in all of Scripture. Most English Bibles retain it.
But in the New American Bible it is: Even though I walk in the dark valley I fear no evil. Notice the muffling. The affirmative yea, translating the Hebrew gom, is simply folded into the conjunction. The verb tense—Hebrew has no future—with its delicate shading of supposal and purpose (“I trust in the Lord, I affirm that I will not fear”) is flattened down to the present. And then that shadow of death, the shadow we all feel at times, is reduced to the ordinary and comfortable adjective dark.
In Nabbish everything that is in any way specific must go. Take this passage from the Sermon on the Mount: And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say to you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
When William Edmund Barrett wrote his novel about a wandering mason named Homer Smith who was cajoled into building a chapel for a convent of penniless refugee nuns from Germany, he called it Lilies of the Field, and assumed that everyone knew exactly what words of Jesus he was referring to. We can see the lilies of the field, the brave flowers on their long stems, waving across the land in a sweep of deep green and white. And that is exactly what the Greek says, ta krina tou agrou. And we consider them first, we observe them, how they grow. The King James version replicates the emphasis of the Greek sentence, the strong pause after field and then the concentration of our thought on one feature of the lilies, namely, how they grow. Well, in Nabbish we cannot have anything so sharply delineated, and delicately specific, as lilies, or a field, and we also must blunt the stress on these flowers by folding them into the middle of a subordinate clause. Thus: Learn from the way the wild flowers grow.
A memorable line? No? Then it is true to the spirit of Nabbish.
Principle Two: Prefer the neuter, the indefinite, and the impersonal. St. Paul is in prison, awaiting execution. He is writing to his beloved disciple, the bishop Timothy. He regards the many years of his life spent preaching the word of God; he thinks of the shipwrecks, the stonings, the narrow escapes, the joys and the sorrows. And he utters those bold words that ring in the heart of every true Christian. Here they are in the Revised Standard Version, an exact translation of the Greek into contemporary English (and quite close to the King James): I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
The first clause is simply stunning. Ton kalon agona egonismai, says Paul, giving us a new idea: that there is, in fact, a good fight to fight, the good fight, the beautiful fight to bring the good news to all mankind. The verb is simply the noun fight in a different grammatical form. We imagine the saint personally in the agon of life, literally the arena, fighting. Not in Nabbish, though. In Nabbish we take St. Paul from that good fight to, say, a spelling bee, or just to something or other with someone or other, with outcome unclear: I have competed well. Try to remember that as you await your own last hours. Just try.
Or take the exhortation of the same St. Paul to his brother Christians in Corinth. He fixes their attention with four straight imperatives. The first, gregoreite, means, literally, “Be awake! Keep watch!” The King James renders it, “Watch ye,” which the Revised Standard Version updates thus, “Be watchful.” We recall Jesus’ parable about the five wise virgins and the five foolish virgins, and his warning to the disciples to keep awake, for no man knows the hour or the day. In Nabbish we keep the general idea, sort of, but miss the specific image of wakefulness: Be on your guard.
But the real Nabbish is to come. St. Paul employs the striking verb andrizeisthe, a word built from the noun aner, meaning man—not man in the general sense, however, but in the specific, hearty, masculine sense of somebody who is, for instance, strong enough to lower a paralytic on a pallet through the roof of a house (aner), rather than somebody male who happens to have two sons (anthropos). The King James translators render exactly what St. Paul means, with the verb quit meaning, roughly, “render an account of yourself”: Quit you like men. That is, acquit yourselves like real men; show your true manliness under duress. Well, we can’t have that. It is too directly personal—and too masculine. So we put a muff around the word of God. Here it is in the forgettable Nabbish: Be courageous.
In the New American Bible this neutered evasiveness is widespread; in each case it turns our attention from a specific person, whether man or woman, to an indefinite somebody or a whoever: What God has joined together, no human being must separate and Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.
It is not that Nabbish prefers the feminine to the masculine. That too should be neutered whenever possible. When the angel Gabriel reveals to Mary that she will bear the Son of God, he also tells her that Elizabeth is with child—and Elizabeth, in the Revised Standard Version, is Mary’s kinswoman. That word exactly captures the Greek he syngenis, both the feminine gender and the root meaning of kin, of being of the same birth or kind. The word also suggests an ancient world of meaning, of women who assisted one another in times of trouble. In Nabbish we rid ourselves of all that. Here is what Gabriel says in Nabbish: Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age.
Principle Three: Prefer the office memorandum to the poem. Let us go to one of the most powerful and astonishing poems in all of Scripture, the prologue to the Gospel according to St. John. We pick it up at the sixth verse, in the King James Version:
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.
He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that light.
That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.
He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.
He came unto his own, and his own received him not.
But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth.
As John uses simple and direct language, the opportunities for the translator to efface the poetry of this passage must necessarily be limited. Still, we can guess what those opportunities might be. The first sentence, with its lovely rhythm and strong emphasis on proper names, should be jumbled and recast. The old-fashioned verbal phrase bear witness, suggesting both what is said and what is seen directly or witnessed, should go. The emphatic ending of two successive sentences on the word not should be softened, as also the clear repetition of his own. Then, too, the suddenly concrete words blood and flesh should be generalized, and the parallelism of will and will should be broken, and flesh and flesh. The strong verb dwelt should be softened, and the precise and theologically profound only begotten should be reduced. The bold naming of the Father should be tucked away in a possessive adjective.
Finally, there is that wonderful old word beheld. The Greek verb theaomai suggests more than mere seeing. It suggests viewing, gazing, and beholding; it is related to the word thauma, which means a wonder—something to look upon with awe. As writers in Nabbish, we’d like to muffle that sense of awe if we can. Here is the poem in Nabbish:
A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him.
He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him.
But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God.
And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.
Ah, the boxcar-bumping of Nabbish! Natural generation, human choice, a man’s decision—thudding softly as their train rumbles across the dusty plains of oblivion.
Anthony Esolen is professor of English at Providence College.