I ran across something today that got me thinking about the revised English translation of the liturgy again. I guess I should let this go, but things I read keep bringing it back up. Maybe I am obsessed, or maybe this is a case of a process Richard Feynman described: you keep a bunch of problems in your head, and every time you learn something new, you try to apply it to one of them to see if you can make further progress on it.
A few weeks ago I made two posts (here and here) on the phrase “visible and invisible” in the new translation of the creed. Today, catching up on my daily scripture readings (I am really far behind!) I ran across this passage from Romans (Tuesday of the 29th week in Ordinary Time, read on October 22, emphasis added):
Brothers and sisters:
Through one man sin entered the world,
and through sin, death,
and thus death came to all men, inasmuch as all sinned.
If by that one person’s transgression the many died,
how much more did the grace of God
and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ
overflow for the many.
For if, by the transgression of the one,
death came to reign through that one,
how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace
and the gift of justification
come to reign in life through the one Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, just as through one transgression
condemnation came upon all,
so, through one righteous act
acquittal and life came to all.
For just as through the disobedience of one man
the many were made sinners,
so, through the obedience of the one
the many will be made righteous.
Where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more,
so that, as sin reigned in death,
grace also might reign through justification
for eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
As you all will recall, one small translation change in the Missal that sparked a great deal of discussion was the translation of pro multis in the Eucharistic prayer as for many in place of the earlier for all men. We discussed this in a post two years ago; at the time I noted something my son Kiko, the budding Latinist, said to me: pro multis may be translated as either for many or for the many depending on context. A variety of other reasons, for and against the new translation, were advanced in the comments. Many people (including several European bishops conferences) argued for retaining for all or changing it to for the many. This, however, was over-ruled by Pope Benedict. Sandro Magister provided thorough though somewhat partisan coverage: e.g. see here. On the other hand, the German bishops dragged their feet and last month announced they were keeping their old translation as (in German) for all.The underlying problem is balancing a translation style which hews to as close to a literal translation of the Latin text as possible versus the theological point that Christ died to save all people. I was led to revisit this question because in the above passage, where Paul is making a very strong point about the universality of the sacrifice of Christ, the text is translated into English four times as the many. I therefore decided to consult the underlying Latin text. I used the Biblia Sacra Vulgata made available online by BibleGateway.com. (This is also called the Stuttgart edition: see Wikipedia for more details.)
In Romans 5:15, the many is used to translate multi and plures:
sed non sicut delictum ita et donum si enim unius delicto multi mortui sunt multo magis gratia Dei et donum in gratiam unius hominis Iesu Christi in plures abundavit
In Romans 5:18, all people is used to translate omnes homines:
igitur sicut per unius delictum in omnes homines in condemnationem sic et per unius iustitiam in omnes homines in iustificationem vitae
And finally, in Romans 5:19, the many is used to translate multi:
sicut enim per inoboedientiam unius hominis peccatores constituti sunt multi ita et per unius oboeditionem iusti constituentur multi
Now this is of course a somewhat backwards process, since the English text of the NAB is not translated from the Latin: both are translated from the Greek. Consulting an online interlinear text at blueletterbible.org, it appears that in both 5:15 and 5:18, the underlying Greek work is polys, meaning many, multitude, etc. (Note that the Latin text translates this word in two ways in 5:15.) And to add to my confusion, this is the same Greek word used in the institution narrative in Matthew 26:28, and there translated by the NAB as many.
Though it is very tempting to draw a sweeping conclusion from this, my awareness of my own ignorance, combined with my own limited experience as a translator, makes me proceed cautiously. Nevertheless, I find it striking that in one place the same Greek word can be translated as the many and in another as many, and that the Latin text uses multi(s) in both places. The temptation is to use this as evidence that pro multis could have been translated as for the many or for the multitudes instead of as for many without doing any harm at all to the Latin text while emphasizing the universal nature of Christ’s sacrifice. However, there may well be nuances of the use of the language in the various passages that argue for one reading in one place, and a different one elsewhere. I cannot resolve this question, and perhaps it is moot: as a Church we have better things to do with our time, as Pope Francis has made clear. But it is fun to think about.
The real bottom line: I wish I spoke both Latin and Greek to answer this question. Thoughts, corrections, and emendations would be appreciated.