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The School of Soft Knox

October 5, 2012

Over at our friend Tim McCormick’s Catholic Bible blog, there is a lot of excitement over the upcoming Baronius Press edition of the Ronald Knox translation from the Vulgate – reprinted for the first time in decades.

But I’m not sure that all of the enthusiasts have actually read the Knox translation (which is available, in slightly modernized text, here).  Looking back to 1949, when the first volume of Knox’s Old Testament appeared, one can find an interesting review by Scottish literary critic David Daiches (who also wrote a well-received book on the King James Version.)


Daiches’s review contains extended abstracts from the King James, Douay-Rheims-Challoner, and Knox translation.  Here are some of the examples he gives:





Gen 1:1-2 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. In the beginning God created heaven, and earth. And the earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God moved over the waters. 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, brooded the breath of God.
Gen. 1:5b And the evening and the morning were the first day. And there was evening and morning one day. So evening came, and morning, and one day passed.
Gen. 3:1a Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. Now the serpent was more subtle than any of the beasts of the earth which the Lord God had made. Of all the beasts which the Lord God had made, there was none that could match the serpent in cunning.
Gen. 3:13b The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat. The serpent deceived me, and I did eat. The serpent, she said, beguiled me, and so I came to eat.
Ex. 15:3 The Lord is a man of war: the Lord is his name. The Lord is as a man of war, Almighty is his name. Jave, the warrior God, Jave, whose very name tells of omnipotence!
Ruth 1:1-6 Now it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehemjudah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons.  And the name of the man was Elimelech, and the name of his wife Naomi, and the name of his two sons Mahlon and Chilion, Ephrathites of Bethlehemjudah. And they came into the country of Moab, and continued there.  And Elimelech Naomi’s husband died; and she was left, and her two sons.  And they took them wives of the women of Moab; the name of the one was Orpah, and the name of the other Ruth: and they dwelled there about ten years.  And Mahlon and Chilion died also both of them; and the woman was left of her two sons and her husband.  Then she arose with her daughters in law, that she might return from the country of Moab: for she had heard in the country of Moab how that the Lord had visited his people in giving them bread. In the days of one of the judges, when the judges ruled, there came a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehem Juda, went to sojourn in the land of Moab with his wife and his two sons.  He was named Elimelech, and his wife, Noemi: and his two sons, the one Mahalon, and the other Chelion, Ephrathites of Bethlehem Juda. And entering into the country of Moab, they abode there.  And Elimelech the husband of Noemi died: and she remained with her sons.  And they took wives of the women of Moab, of which one was called Orpha, and the other Ruth. And they dwelt there ten years.  And they both died, to wit, Mahalon and Chelion: and the woman was left alone, having lost both her sons and her husband.  And she arose to go from the land of Moab to her own country with both her daughters in law: for she had heard that the Lord had looked upon his people, and had given them food. In the old days, when Israel was ruled by judges, there was a man of Bethlehem-Juda that took his wife and his two sons to live in the Moabite country, to escape from a famine. There, in Moab, these Ephrathites from Bethlehem-Juda continued to dwell, Elimelech, and his wife Noemi, and his two sons Mahalon and Chelion; there Elimelech died, and Noemi was left a widow. But still she would be with her sons, who had now married wives of Moabite race, one called Orpha and the other Ruth. So ten years passed, and then Mahalon and Chelion both died. And now, both widowed and childless, she bade farewell to Moab and set out, with her two daughters-in-law, on the journey home; the Lord had been merciful to his people, she was told, and there was food to be had once more.*
2 Sam 1:19-20, 23 The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places: how are the mighty fallen!  Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph….  Saul and Jonathan were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided: they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. The illustrious of Israel are slain upon thy mountains: how are the valiant fallen?  Tell it not in Geth, publish it not in the streets of Ascalon: lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph…  Saul and Jonathan, lovely, and comely in their life, even in death they were not divided: they were swifter than eagles, stronger than lions. Remember, Israel, the dead, wounded on your heights, the flower of Israel, cut down on your mountains; how fell they, warriors such as these?**  Keep the secret in Geth, never a word in the streets of Ascalon; shall the women-folk rejoice, shall they triumph, daughters of the Philistine, the uncircumcised?… Saul and Jonathan, so well beloved, so beautiful; death no more than life could part them; never was eagle so swift, never was lion so strong.

Daiches notes that a very few of these differences arise from the Vulgate text:

*Now there are some differences between this [Knox’s] rendering and that of King James which result simply from the differences between the Vulgate and the Hebrew.  (The phrase “while one of these held sway,” for example, derives from the odd Vulgate rendering of  “בִּימֵי שְׁפֹט הַשֹּׁפְטִים” as “in diebus unis judicis.”)  And we need not be disturbed the use of the Vulgate forms of proper names, as in “Noemi.”

**The statement is in question form in the Vulgate:  “quo modo ceciderunt fortes?

But Daiches’s overall verdict, rendered with good cause, is that Knox engaged in paraphrase, replacing ancient rhythms with his own.

The rhythms of the original Hebrew can be perceived in some degree in the Vulgate and in the most literal English translations from it; and those original rhythms are certainly found in the King James version, whose translators seem to have made some attempt to capture them; but there is no trace of them in this new [Knox] version, which has a kind of fluency in narrative alien alike to Hebrew and Jerome’s Latin….

Monsignor Knox might reply that he is making his translation for modern readers, who require a less primitive idiom, a more sophisticated tone.  To which it can only be said that the tone of the Bible – either the Hebrew or the Vulgate – is not sophisticated and it is doing violence to it to render it as though it were.  Further the primitive narrative style of Genesis and the other early books of the Bible has a folk quality of its own that it seems a shame to lose….

Monsignor Knox has a feeling for prose rhythm, but clearly the kind of prose rhythm he prefers is not that of the Old Testament – it is not, in fact, one which can be applied to Old Testament narrative without considerable use of padding and use of inversion….

This is flowing English, but it is not what the Bible says.  Paraphrase is desirable when the idiom of the original sounds strange or awkward when literally translated, but there is nothing strange or awkward in the literal King James rendering [of  Genesis 3:1.]

Sometimes Monsignor Knox’s dislike of simple emphatic rhythms leads him to pad a sentence to the point of seriously weakening the meaning….

The real difference between the […] versions does not derive from differences between the Hebrew and the Vulgate – these are rarely significant, and it should be added that often when they are Monsignor Knox indicates his awareness of the difference in a footnote – but from a deliberate attempt on the present translator’s part to shift the narrative into a new style.  It is a more modern style, certainly, but it is not its modernity so much as its other special qualities that strike one….

This is vigorous and eloquent, but it is not the vigor and eloquence of folk elegy; it is rather the studied plaintiveness of the late 19th- or early 20th-century stylist….

A translation ought to convey something of the quality of the original in tone and style, and the fact remains that the “feel” of Monsignor Knox’s prose is wholly unlike either the Hebrew or the Vulgate Latin.  In presenting the Old Testament in sophisticated modern rhythms, much of the grandeur, the simple lyricism of the emotional passages, the limpid of primitive episodic quality of the best Biblical narrative, is lost.  And although there are often gains, they do not altogether compensate.

Daiches’s 1949 review predates Kenneth Taylor’s Living Bible and Eugene Peterson’s The Message, but his analysis in many places could be applied equally well to those works as well.  Knox, like Taylor and Peterson, overlays a modern sensibility to the ancient text, making it into a Frankenstein text, ancient stories rendered in the modern fluidity of the text of airport bookstore bestsellers.  If this is what one is looking for, then I can recommend the Knox translation, but one should not mistake reading Knox for reading the Bible.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 6, 2012 7:23 am

    “a Frankenstein text” indeed!

    At least that Knox translation of Exodus (i.e., Exodus 15:3) is monstrous. It seems that Knox has tried to sew supposed Hebrew sounds together with Latin sounds that result in freaky English. What’s most unfortunate is that here is an instance in which Jerome’s Latin Vulgate follows the Hebrew Bible much closer than does the Greek Septuagint. It might be helpful to see the Hebrew and Everett Fox’s translation of that compared with the Latin and John Wycliffe’s translation of that.

    יהוה איש מלחמה יהוה שמו׃

    YHWH is a man of war, YHWH is his name!

    Dominus quasi vir pugnator omnipotens nomen eius

    The Lord is as a man fiyter, his name is Almiyti;

    The Latin allows the unspeakable Tetragrammaton to be spoken aloud with Dominus and suggests its rhythmic repetition with ominpotens. The Latin also uses quasi as it struggles with the Hebrew metaphor making it rather a simile (and still avoiding the paraphrase of the Greek Septuagint, which has κύριος συντρίβων πολέμους, or “The Lord, when he shatters wars” as per the NETS English).

    What does “Jave” signify other than some Romanized imposition? Jerome is much more careful here than Knox lets him be. How can one read “the warrior God” into the text? Clearly both the Hebrew Bible and the Latin Vulgate are making a comparison (by metaphor and by simile) “is a man of war” and “is like a man of war.”

  2. November 25, 2014 11:20 am

    This is a very late comment, so my apologies. However, if you look at Knox’s final version of Exodus 15:3, he does not go with “Jave” as in hid first draft. Instead, he uses the traditional “Lord” throughout. There is also a helpful note by Knox:

    “Whose very name tells of omnipotence’; in the Hebrew text, ‘his name is Yahweh’. This was the divine name communicated to Moses in Ex. 3.14; commonly in the Latin version this is translated ‘the Lord’, but here ‘the omnipotent’ as if to stress that it is a significant word, and not a mere title.” has the entire Baronius Press edition.

  3. November 25, 2014 11:32 am

    That appears to have been a later revision.

  4. November 25, 2014 11:50 am

    Yes, I have noticed that a number of differences between different editions of the Old Testament, particularly in the Psalms. I have an earlier edition of the Psalms being sent to me, which I hope to use to compare with the final Baronius edition.

    Good to hear from you Theophrastus!

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