The following is an excerpt from “Trials Of A Translator” (1949). This little excerpt demonstrates not only Monsignor Ronald A. Knox’s tremendous grasp of languages, but also shows he was quite humorous!
O MUCH FOR sentences; and now, what of phrases? It stands to reason that no two languages have exactly the same idiom; that the English for “Comment vous portez-vous?” is not “How do you carry yourself?” If anybody has come across that extremely rare book, English as she is Spoke, he will know what I mean. The book was a phrase-book compiled by a Portuguese author for the benefit of English travelers in Portugal. And you do not need much critical insight to detect the fact that this well-meaning gentleman knew no English at all. He knew French; so he translated his sentences into French and then did them into English with a dictionary. Consequently, when he wanted to render a Portuguese idiom which meant, “to wait about, to kick one’s heels,” he could do all right for the first part of his process; he knew that the corresponding idiom in French was “croquer le marmot”—I have no notion why. The English, therefore, for kicking one’s heels was “to crunch the marmoset.”
It is an extremely entertaining book; but, if you come to think of it, practically every translation of the Bible you have ever read makes errors which are quite as ludicrous—only we are accustomed to them. Douay was consistent; it translated the Latin word for word, and if you protested that its version sounded rather odd, replied woodenly, “Well, that’s what it says.” In the eleventh psalm, for instance, you get the words “deceitful lips, they have spoken in heart and heart.” Even Challoner saw that that would not do, so he pillaged from the Authorized Version and gave us “with a double heart have they spoken.” I don’t see what a double heart could be except an abnormal anatomical condition, or an obscure kind of convention at bridge; but anyhow it sounds a little more like English. But when the Latin had “renew a right spirit within my bowels,” that was what Challoner put; and when the Latin had “Examine, O Lord, my kidneys,” Challoner put that down, too; only he changed kidneys to the obsolete word “reins,” hoping that his readers would not look it up in the dictionary.
We are sensible of these Hebraisms, and most of us would like to see the last of them. But there are hundreds and hundreds of other Hebraisms which we do not notice, because we have allowed ourselves to grow accustomed to them. We should have thought it odd if we had read in The Times: “General Montgomery’s right hand has smitten Rommel in the hinder parts.” But if we get that sort of thing in the Bible, we take it—unlike Rommel—sitting down. “Mr. Churchill then opened his mouth and spoke”—is that English? No, it is Hebrew idiom clothed in English words.
SOURCE: “Trials Of A Translator” (1949)