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The Responsorial Psalm Texts: Why They Sometimes Differ (Part II)

Last week I scratched the surface on why the texts of the psalms can sometimes differ. The text in the Lectionary is required to be used in all printed resources; however, any translation which has received an imprimatur and recognitio from the Holy See is permitted to be sung. This week we will delve into the main reason for differences in the texts: the method of translation. When translating a Biblical text, there are two methods: formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence.

—Formal equivalence seeks a word-for-word translation—words or phrases are translated with fidelity to the lexical details and grammatical structure of the original language. Literal translations are good for Bible study as sometimes understanding the meaning hinges upon subtle cues in the text. These cues are preserved in formal equivalence. However, relying too heavily on formal equivalence can lead to the Hebrew and Greek styles intruding into the target language creating awkward sentence structure. Another downfall of literal translations is some words or expressions are no longer understood today and they tend to be more wordy.

—Dynamic equivalence seeks a sense-for-sense translation—words, phrases, or whole sentences are translated for readability and understanding in mind. Dynamic translations allow translators to preserve the meaning, but utilize syntax and grammar proper to the target language. However, relying too heavily on dynamic equivalence can lead to paraphrases, colloquialisms, and vary greatly depending on the doctrinal views of the translator. Dynamic equivalence translations also tend to become quickly dated due to language changes—as we all know, words or phrases can change meanings in as little as a decade!

There is no Bible translation that is 100% formal. Some balance between the formal and dynamic is always necessary. The difficulty lies in producing a translation that faithfully adheres to the original language while being able to be understood. In 2001, Saint John Paul II issued Liturgiam Authenticam, a document which governs how Biblical and other liturgical texts are translated. Here is no. 20:

While it is permissible to arrange the wording, the syntax and the style in such a way as to prepare a flowing vernacular text suitable to the rhythm of popular prayer, the original text, insofar as possible, must be translated integrally and in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrases or glosses. Any adaptation to the characteristics or the nature of the various vernacular languages is to be sober and discreet.

Here are a few examples of different Catholic translations of Psalm 103:12-13 and which way they lean:

*RSV-CE (1966) - Very Formal

As far as the east is from the west,

    so far does he remove our transgressions

         from us.

As a father pities his children,

    so the Lord pities those who fear him.


Lectionary (2000) - Formal to Balanced

As far as the east is from the west,

   so far has he put our transgressions from us.

As a father has compassion on his children,

   so the Lord has compassion on those who fear



*CEV (1995) - Very Dynamic

How far has the Lord taken our sins from us

    Farther than the distance from east to west!

Just as parents are kind to their children,

    the Lord is kind to all who worship him.








 * = not approved for liturgical use

There are some very notable differences in these translations which were approved by the USCCB pre-Liturgiam Authenticam. The need for a solid balance between formal and dynamic equivalence is pretty evident even with just these two verses! We will finish this topic next week—I did not expect to go to a Part III when I began this topic. Thanks for sticking with me so far!


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