What Would an Englishman Have Said?

Ronald Arbuthnott Knox.
Ronald Arbuthnott Knox.

I said it was the translator’s business […] to preserve the idiom of his original. That means, not that he must copy it, which would be easy enough; he must transpose it into the idiom of his own language.

A hundred turns of phrase confront you as you read the Old Testament which make you sit back in your chair and ask yourself, “What would an Englishman have said?” When I say “an Englishman,” I do not mean a modern Englishman. The Old Testament record is of events that happened a very long time ago, under primitive conditions; to strike a modern note in rendering it is to make fun of it.

The new Catholic version of Genesis which has appeared in the U.S. contains one such lapse into the vernacular. When Eleazar, Abraham’s steward, has gone to Mesopotamia to find a wife for Isaac, this version represents him as “waiting to learn whether or not the Lord had made his trip successful.” Now, I am not objecting to that as an American way of talking. My objection is that an American would not speak of the Mormons as having had a successful trip to Salt Lake City in A.D.1850. A successful trip suggests shifting your cigar from one side of your mouth to the other as you alight from your airplane in San Francisco. It does not suggest trekking over many miles of desert on a camel.

Ronald Knox, Trials of a Translator (1949).

Curator: Christian Clay Columba Campbell

Christian Clay Columba Campbell is a Roman Catholic of the Anglican Use. As Senior Warden of the Cathedral of the Incarnation (Orlando, FL), he organised the process by which the parish accepted the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus, petitioning to join the Catholic Church. The Anglican Cathedral is now the Church of the Incarnation in the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.

Personal queries should be directed to me at eccentricbliss dot com.

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