Mudsock Heights

Mudsock Heights

Of the many versions and translations of the Bible, I think the Knox Version is the most reliable. (Credit: Dennis E. Powell)

Lost in Translation

By Dennis E. Powell | Posted at 11:21 PM

It took a few months of daily communication requiring translation software for me to notice the similarity.

The software — Google Translate, a product called DeepL, and Apple's translator (which does to languages what its maps did a few years ago to geography) — seems to be close to accurate much of the time. Sometimes that is good enough. Often it isn't. The mistranslations are so serious so often that one learns to ask the correspondent to rephrase the sentence. With luck the realization comes before much damage is done, and war is averted.

In due course the recipient of the messages comes to hear them not in the tones of the person who wrote them but in the soporific voice of the computer.

(It is like the awful computer-generated videos that make up about half of YouTube now. Someone somewhere types in a subject, and the miserable Artificial Idiocy that is all the rage and a voice generator crank out a slick video, which is fine if slickness is the only goal. It is assembled, words and pictures, from the results of an internet search, which ought to be warning enough. I don't know why, but historical subjects have been especially set upon by the automated cyberlocusts, and thus a video about the 1882 death of Old West gunman Johnny Ringo informs us that in addition to being a member of the notorious "Cowboys" gang he was also in the Beatles. Behold the future.)

Though identifying the particular distinguishing attribute is difficult, one does learn to recognize things that are not from humans but from machines. There's something unhuman about the computer-generated stuff. No one ever talks or writes like that.

Well, with one exception. Committees write and speak like that. In doing so they cause a great deal of damage both to their message and to the language, by rendering the work soulless.

Which could be why I noticed the similarity mentioned in the first sentence, above.

Each morning I read the day's Bible passages as provided by the U. S. Council of Catholic Bishops. These are the same passages that are read at Mass that day. They are universally terrible. The translations officially employed by what's left of the Catholic Church in this country would put Apple translation to shame. I have come to think of them as the “Holy Bible, Google Version.” It is as if theywere put together by people determined to delete any beauty, poetry, vivid imagery, and, yes, meaning from this holy collection of books. (Nor is this solely the work of Juan-Peron-wannabe Francis and his band of edict-flinging anti-religious thugs. People have been trying to destroy the Church for a long time, though "is the pope Catholic?" used to be half of a joke, the other half having to do with a woodland activity of bears. Now it is funnier if the bear and the pope are switched. I would be happy to devote some time and space to this tragic turn of events but it would require me to be more uncharitable than the season allows, and at the moment we have other ecclesiastical fish to fry.)

The one thing the God-awful daily online translation currently employed by the Church does get right is book, chapter, and verse. Armed with those data, I can look them up in a proper translation and find out what the Bible really says.

It would take a Bible-sized book to recount the history of the Bible. St. Jerome was the original translator, or at least the translator of what came down to us today, putting it together from its Hebrew, Aramaic (probably), and Greek components into one Latin collection known as the Vulgate. That was in the 4th century, just as it was being decided what books were to be included. This can be a rabbit hole all its own — if you look at the various “gospels” of this person or that, “discovered” every year or two and always contradicting the Bible as handed down to us, you can imagine what it was like back then, when much of that stuff was fresh and in circulation. The selections were not obvious. In some cases — the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are basically the same thing, rewritten for different populations, and what they share can be taken as accenting the things the early Church fathers thought especially important.

The common people during the first millennium of the Bible’s existence (and again now) were largely illiterate. The Bible was kept from them, anyway. It was interpreted for them by ministers, kings, religious officials, and others, some of whom may not have been interested primarily in the greater glory of God. In the 16th and 17th centuries, “popular” editions became available, at least to those who could read and who could afford books.

“The Holy Bible” was the Roman Catholic Bible, descended from Jerome’s Vulgate, until the reformation. Then Martin Luther decided that seven books of the Bible oughtn’t make the cut, and they were stricken. (They are still in the Catholic Bible and are included as appendices in some Protestant editions.) I include this fact as an illustration of the various forces that have come to bear on the Bible in its nearly 1700 years of existence.


For centuries the Douay-Rheims version was the standard Catholic Bible. Knox made it both readable and authoritative.

There ultimately came to be published and widely distributed two Western versions of the Bible. For Catholics it was the Douay-Rheims edition, published c.1600. For Prostestants there was the King James version, published slightly later and based at least in part on Douay-Rheims (which we know because it picks up a few mistakes from the earlier version).

These were the standards. Bits of Biblical language that have jumped to common idiom almost always came from one of these. When we quote Bible passages from memory — John 3:16 is the gold standard — it is the King James rendition we remember. It was the job of the priest or preacher to know the Bible and to be able to explain the more obscure parts. (Presumably they steered clear of Amos 4:2, which is gibberish, involving meat hooks, other hooks, and fish hooks, or occasionally pikes and boilers and cauldrons.)

From time to time it is decided the language has changed enough that a new translation is in order. In the U.S., publishers went hog-wild with this in the 20^th^ century, when you could find a “Bible” that said pretty much anything you wanted. (See the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, above.) In the late-ish 19^th^ century, John Henry Cardinal Newman began work on a translation but did not complete it. In the late 1930s the Church in (though not of) England commissioned what is to me the definitive Bible, the one I turn to after getting the citations daily from the USCCB website.

Ronald A. Knox is the most brilliant man you’ve never heard of. The son of an Anglican bishop, he himself became an Anglican priest before converting to Catholicism. He wrote a series of highly successful detective stories. A lover of fun, he wrote a parody criticism of Sherlock Holmes in 1911 that drew response from Arthur Conan Doyle himself and is seen as the basis of Sherlockian studies. His 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction set standards observed more than a century later. In one of his essays he “proved” that Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” was written instead by Queen Victoria. He had a BBC radio show, and in 1926 did a “dramatic reading” that led listeners to think that London was being destroyed by rioters.

He was a friend of many in the English-Catholic literary set, and G.K. Chesterton said that Knox shepherded Chesterton’s conversion to Roman Catholicism. Knox’s homilies, many of which have been compiled in a series of excellent books, are the master at work and of value to any Christian, Catholic or not. Following his death in 1957, his authorized biography was written by his friend Evelyn Waugh.

Though largely forgotten now, Ronald A. Knox was no lightweight. Soon after his death in 1957, Evelyn Waugh (“Brideshead Revisited,” “Love Among the Ruins”) wrote his biography. (Credit: Dennis E. Powell)

When it was decided in 1936 that a new version of the Bible was needed, Knox was chosen for the task. His devotion to serious study and research was even greater than his love of fun, and over nearly a decade he went to the sources and produced what in my estimation is the most authentic Bible in existence.

He didn’t just translate the Vulgate, as others had done. Where he was uncertain of the meaning of a passage, he went back to the material St. Jerome himself had used. A brilliant linguist, Knox recognized that Latin, Greek, and Hebrew words often have multiple meanings, and a complete understanding of those words was needed for a translation to be accurate.

He described the process in a BBC broadcast 70 years ago, with his usual good humor.

“If you are setting out to translate the Bible, do it all yourself,” he said. “Or, at any rate, if you’re pressed for time, do the New Testament yourself and get a friend — one friend, not more — to do the Old Testament for you.” Go to the link and listen to the whole thing. You will find it time well spent. He also spoke about the process, and his remarks survive.

The translation took nine years. The arithmetically inclined will notice that the nine years beginning in 1936 in England involved upheaval — the Germans were bombing the country daily during part of it. Msgr. Knox had taken lodgings in a rural English estate, that he might do his very exacting task in peace and quiet, but then came the bombings and soon he was surrounded by the students of a Catholic girls school who had been evacuated from London. Each Sunday afternoon he would give them a talk, a homily written just for them. These were popular to the extent that when the girls’ parents came up from London for a visit, the girls would tell them they wanted to be back at school in the afternoon to hear Msgr. Knox. These talks were compiled into the charming and instructive “slow motion” books: “The Mass in Slow Motion,” “The Creed in Slow Motion,” which over several weeks of talks explains the Apostles Creed word-by-word, and “The Gospel in Slow Motion,” which is an anthology of some of his other talks to the girls.

All of which he did while also translating the Bible. He was not accustomed to being surrounded by little girls, and his progress was no doubt hindered a bit, but the experience may in a way have breathed new life, new enthusiasm into him. (This is my own surmise.)

The Knox Version of the Bible got completed. The New Testament was published in 1945; the Old Testament four years later. It was adopted as the official translation by the Catholic Church in England for the few years between its publication and the beginning of the Church being dismantled in England and elsewhere. (I was able to find a rare 1948 Missal whose readings were from the Knox translation, as a gift for a traditionally minded young priest, who must be encouraged by the laity because, God knows, the Magisterium won’t do it. Someday I’ll find another, for me.)

Baronius Press brought out a new, single-volume edition of the Knox Version 11 years ago. I bought a copy and copies for young relatives whose ultimate arrival in Heaven is important to me. I do not know how well it sold, but apparently not well enough — it is now out of print again. Narrow is the gate, but a few copies passed through. (It had one terrible flaw: it was printed in small, Bible-sized text, but in one column rather than the standard two. It should have come with a straightedge to make reading it easier. Or it could have used the normal two-column layout.)

You can find it online, but not in the most readable form.

Just last night I discovered and happily listened to a reading of the entire Gospel of John, Knox translation. I recommend it. The British accent takes a couple minutes’ getting used to, but after that it fills the void in our souls — well, mine, anyway, and I have a considerable void to fill.

If I am to entrust my immortal soul to any version of the Bible, it is the Knox Version.

It would be interesting to know what Ronald A. Knox would think of modern machine translation, though I don’t think it is difficult to guess.

The AI translation software available to us loses much.

In the Knox Bible, I don’t think anything is lost in translation.

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large at Open for Business. Powell was a reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio, where he has (mostly) recovered. You can reach him at

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