A Beautiful, Old, Oral Translation

In _Books by Heart_, we learn a quirky old Bible translation. It can get a bit arcane. But it also offers some surprising hidden features.

Why Use an Old Translation?

In case you haven’t noticed, the translation you’re memorizing is … old. “Thees” and “thous” are liberally sprinkled throughout sentences that feel rather Shakespearean.

The language seems strange to our ears. The rhythms are different. Occasionally, a word is completely foreign.

The reasons are simple. This is the Douay-Rheims Challoner translation, and it was originally composed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, then heavily revised in the eighteenth century. That’s old. To our modern ears, the DRC is extremely similar to the more well-known King James Bible, also from the seventeenth century.

You’re almost certainly hearing a different, modern translation every Sunday at church. So why would I use this version?

Freedom

First, because this version is in the public domain.

I don’t see the point of memorizing anything under copyright. We memorize to recreate, remix, reuse. Copyright shackles this creativity.

True, you probably wouldn’t get sued for repeating a copyrighted translation to your children. But freedom matters, and it begins in theory.

Almost all contemporary translations of the Bible are under copyright. Open any devotional book, and the small print will include a note explaining that the Bible verses are quoted with permission.

I appreciate the tremendous effort and expense that goes into translation. This is not the place to tackle the logistics of both claiming a text is Divine Revelation and then putting it under copyright. It’s complicated.

Fortunately, a translation in the public domain neatly sidesteps all this. The public domain is free.

Oral Rhythms

But the age of the DRC also offers a surprise side benefit: oral rhythms.

In his major work Orality and Literacy, Walter J. Ong compares a passage from the Douay Old Testament (the seventeenth century version) to the same passage from the contemporary New American Bible.

We might think the Douay is different simply because it’s “old”, and not analyze any further. But Ong shows that the Douay is oral, “produced in a culture with a still massive oral residue.”

This is huge.

Bible rhythms are critical to moving beyond reading, into speaking these verses. And now we find that this quaint, arcane translation is actually better suited to oral recitation than almost all contemporary translations.

In my memorizing, I’ve found two main aspects of the DRC that distracted me at first, but turned out to be helpful oral features.

The Opening “And”

Did your teacher ever tell you not to begin a sentence with “And”? Have you noticed that practically every other verse you’ve learned so far begins with “And”? Why the difference?

As Ong explains, the use of “And” is oral. Think about how you tell a story. You naturally say, “We did this. And then we did this. Oh, and then that happened.” We use those connecting words in the rhythm of speech.

But when we write, we feel we have to edit out that part of the natural speech rhythm. Modern Bible translations use all sorts of variations on the opening “And”, even though in the original Greek, it’s basically the same word or two over and over again. These modern translations are meant to be read, not spoken and heard.

The older translation can take getting used to. But pick up a modern Bible, and read the verses you’ve learned so far out loud. Now say your DRC verses again. Can you hear how all those repetitions of “And” sound more like natural speech?

Repetition

This leads to a larger difference between oral and written culture: repetition. Your teacher probably also taught you not to keep repeating the same word. If your character is sad at the beginning of the paragraph, he can’t be sad again for awhile. He has to be wistful or depressed or downcast — out comes the thesaurus.

This advice is problematic, even for writing. For speech, it’s fatal. Repetition is essential. Think about good speeches, or even commercials. They always repeat the essential points. Commercials cram the company name as many times into thirty seconds as is humanly possible. They say the phone number at least twice, if not three or four times. Repetition makes you remember.

Repetition can also build emotion, as the same word acquires stronger and stronger meaning, building like a wave.

So when you see words or phrases repeated in the DRC, try not to mentally filter them out. When you speak them, the repetition will help you remember, and help you feel the rhythms.

What About Accuracy?

Yes, biblical scholarship has advanced since the eighteenth century. The DRC has the special disadvantage of being a “translation of a translation,” since it’s based on the Latin Vulgate (although they did consult the original Hebrew and Greek texts). Some spots are certainly less accurate than a contemporary translation.

However, translation isn’t an exact science. For the stories we’re learning, the differences from contemporary translations are more a matter of language than actual “errors”.

Besides, don’t forget the oral rhythms. What we lose in textual accuracy with the DRC, we gain back in faithfulness to oral rhythms. As I mentioned, in the Greek, all those sentences really do begin with a word similar to “And”.

Arcane Language

The arcane language can help or hinder. In many passages, I find the old language to have a force and beauty that seems lost in modern translations.

In other places, the sentence construction, or even the vocabulary, is just too foreign for me. I find myself adjusting the phrasing, as the forces of mental gravity tug the phrases into shapes more consistent with my internal laws of linguistic physics.

But as I said earlier, it’s worth the effort to learn the text perfectly. Unless you want to mark the text with your edits, so you can see them, you should learn the text as it is written.

Could You Memorize a Modern Translation?

If you truly dislike this translation, you can always use the verse schedule and follow along in your own Bible. You’ll face a few challenges:

  • A modern Bible will cram everything into paragraph blocks, so you’ll lose the critical visual reminders of rhythm that I have in this book. Consider typing out the verses and breaking them into rhythmic lines.

  • But don’t share what you’ve typed with anyone, because a modern translation is probably under copyright. (Though a few are freely licensed.)

  • Stay open to the DRC. You may find that what a modern translation gives you in easier words, it takes back in the more “bookish” rhythms.

Enjoy the DRC

I hope I’ve made the quirks of this translation a bit less mysterious. The DRC does take some getting used to.

The translation in this book is old, but the oral rhythms make it easier to remember than modern translations.

I have a dream to learn the original languages and make a new, freely licensed translation that uses modern language but is steeped in rhythms. Until then, the oral overtones in this translation make it a great choice for learning these stories by heart.