The Lord’s Prayer: The word-for-word and sense-for-sense debate continues.

“It’s not a good translation . . . I am the one who falls. It’s not Him pushing me into temptation to then see how I have fallen. A father doesn’t do that, a father helps you to get up immediately. It’s Satan who leads us into temptation, that’s his department”


For some of us, the lines “Our Father, who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name…” are ingrained into our unconscious; rote learnt in draughty school halls during the daily ritual of collective worship, the Lord’s Prayer (or by whichever name you know it) is an inherently evocative text for many adults who were educated in the UK. Whatever denomination of believer or non-believer we might be, the words of this paradigmatic example of Christian liturgy roll off the tongue with such unthinking ease that their apparent meaning or significance passes us by. Even for those who regularly attend services in church, the recitation of such mainstays of the Eucharistic ritual become so automatic that the true meaning of ‘the Word’ – or even, each word – rarely forms part of our reflections.

Indeed, we are all guilty of neglecting to recognise or perhaps are unaware of the fact that the Word which we dutifully recite every Sunday is not ‘the’ Word in the strictest sense; it is a reinterpretation, an adaption, a textual inheritance bequeathed to the next generation from the cultures of yore. The relationship between the prayers that are said in churches today and those from which they originate is one involving translation.

Such occurrences may occur inter-lingually (between two languages) and be diachronic (across time) or synchronic (from one point in time). The translation of the Gospel according to Daniel written in Aramaic and translated into English is an example of the former whereas the translation of a prayer composed in Latin in the Vatican in the modern day, which is then translated into English is an example of the latter. Equally, a translation/adaption of the King James Bible into Peterson’s ‘The Message: the Bible in contemporary language’ is an example of where translation/adaption happens intra-lingually (between texts written in the same language). In fact, in some cases, it is not even correct to pair source and target texts in this way, as Bible translation is notorious for involving the use of many source texts/translations in order to complete a translation.

Those with any scant knowledge of the history of academic research within the realm of Translation Studies will be more than aware of the ubiquity of biblical translation in early translation research, which has led to the shaping and reflection of the translation profession and its practice. Nonetheless, the research output from the Translation Studies community demonstrates that the Bible as an object of study has moved on to pastures new. Despite this move in focus, discussions, observations and reflections concerning biblical translation still remain relevant – in particular, those related to the polarised approaches of sense-for-sense and word-for-word – and will continue to do so as long as canonical religious texts remain central to ecclesiastical practices.

In recent weeks, Pope Frances, who has come to be known for his liberal views and interest in addressing controversial issues at the heart of Catholicism, has reignited discussions surrounding the retranslation of one verse of the aforementioned prayer, the Our Father. His comments were revealed in an interview on TV2000, an Italian Catholic TV channel in which Pope Frances believes that the translation of the line, “lead us not into temptation”, should be changed to “do not let us fall into temptation.” (BBC, Dec 8, 2017) The Pontiff’s justification for this change is that a father would not lead his children into temptation. No father would lead you into temptation and then see how you fall: “It’s not a good translation . . . I am the one who falls. It’s not Him pushing me into temptation to then see how I have fallen. A father doesn’t do that, a father helps you to get up immediately. It’s Satan who leads us into temptation, that’s his department” (Squires, Telegraph, Dec 13, 2017)

Upon reflection, the Pope  here may be right; Satan, translated from the Hebrew  for ‘enemy’ or ‘adversary’, is the ungodly antagonist to the Almighty who, in all likelihood, is our tempter to sin. In this sense, the translation might not appear to be a ‘good’ because it is misleading the audience. At least, the might be the view of those more liberalist factions of the Catholic church. Indeed, in an article in the Guardian, the Anglican theologian, Rev Ian Paul (Guardian, 8 Dec, 2017), suggests that traditionalists are likely to act with caution regarding the adoption of this translation. Indeed, the Catholic Church in recent years has only just adopted more far-reaching changes to Mass as a result of retranslations and so the adoption of this relatively small change, despite its presence in one of the central prayers of Christianity, is not likely to happen over night. Indeed, he continues, when you tamper with translations such as that of the the Lord’s Prayer known by a great deal of people “you risk disrupting the pattern of communal prayer. You fiddle with it at your peril.”

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Rev Paul cites the Greek word peirasmos (transliteration) as the linguistic culprit which evokes two opposing meanings: firstly, to test a man’s fidelity and, secondly, an enticement to sin. The current, most commonly known version of the Our Father suggests that God entices man to commit sin; the Pope’s suggestion is that sin is not a temptation dealt by God but is external to the believer as an enemy of human nature. The translation process is further compounded by the fact that the text we know so intimately today is a translation from the Latin vulgate, which is a translation of the ancient Greek, which is, in turn, a translation from Aramaic, the ancient language spoken by the Son of God. So, which is the source text. In Translation Studies, there is a fundamental distinction that is often made between where the text is from and where it has been translated in order to better understand the relationship between the two texts. In this case, the English translation found in the New Testament is a translation, of a translation of a translation. Yet the target text we use today is being judged by a source text that, in theoretical terms, is not its true counterpart. It is therefore understandable that differences in interpretation will arise dependent on which text is being employed as a source of reference. Nonetheless, this is only one element of this story that is interesting in terms of translation.

Putting theoretical and linguistic factors aside, such a suggestion by the Pontiff might not seem like anything too extravagant, ground-breaking or even important to those of us who have not persevered with our prayers; nonetheless, his actions – or, at least, his suggestions for actions – do place the act of translation in an interesting position. It cannot be denied that the visibility of translation and discussion/critique fo translation is, on the whole, a peripheral activity. We rarely read about the impact of (re-)translation in the Anglophone world beyond the confines of a literary supplement but, here, translation has made front-page news. We might argue that the translation of religious texts has always drawn greater attention for obvious reasons. Since the execution of Tyndale in 1536 the translation of religious texts has pitted the word-for-word and opposing sense-for-sense approaches against each other resulting in not only reformation and revolution but also mistrust, execution and death. Although the Pope’s suggestions will clearly not lead to any of the aforementioned eventualities concluding in his untimely demise, the discourse surrounding the media attention that the Pope’s comments have generated, has propelled translation from the periphery to the centre: at least, for the time being!

Much the media discourse generated from the Pope’s suggestions has not only generated positive and negative views of his suggestion but, also, has included authors who have highlighted how such a publicly announced viewpoint raises people’s awareness of the power of translation and how it can be dangerous. Finally, it has also enlivened the debate between word-for-word and sense-for-sense translation as well as the concept of revisiting a translation in order to revise or update it.

“The church has a long history of fiddling with the the Lord’s Prayer and debating the right wording.”

For example, Caleb Lindgren of Christianity Today (Dec 14, 2017) lead his article entitled “Should the Lord’s Prayer Be Changed?” with the following opening line: “The church has a long history of fiddling with the the Lord’s Prayer and debating the right wording.” Although the author does not commit to a particular viewpoint, Lindgren’s opening line and, in particular, the verb he employs to describe the act of translation as ‘fiddling’ suggests that translation here is a form of touching-up, manipulation and adjustment motivated by the necessity for conformity with external requirements. It also suggests – more negatively – that certain factions are critical of this piecemeal approach to translation where only parts of the whole are considered. Some might argue that the Pope’s suggestion is just a simple example of editing, but this author is perhaps a little more sceptical about approaching translation in this way.

Other analyses in the media surrounding this interview with the Pope have put a more positive spin on his rendering labelling this translation as a type of updating or revising. FIDELIS (Dec 13, 2017), writing in the Belfast Telegraph, clarifies his standpoint by saying that he is often critical translation within the Catholic church as it is often “archaic” and that perhaps this updating of the Lord’s Prayer is the “tip of a huge Catholic iceberg” where translations are often “woeful, clumsy, unclear and at times grammatically unsound”. Re-translation as a means to update common prayer would be, for FIDELIS, the first step to entice youngsters back in the church. Whether such an approach would hold the key to the Catholic church being able to swell their numbers at mass remains to be seen; yet this article demonstrates that the “grammatical definitude and ceremonial solemnity” (Sundaram, Oct 15, 2014) of the liturgy renders it meaningless for many parishioners today. Therefore, in this case, translation as a form of updating and revision is seen as a potential force for good and, the Pope’s intervention, is paradigmatic of a greater change that is required across the entirety of Catholic scripture.

Despite those that speak out positively of the Pope’s intervention, translation of religious texts still sparks a sense of unease amongst some commentators and worshipers and reignites the debates surrounding the advantages and disadvantages of sense-for-sense and word-for-word translation. Although often studied within the context of the Reformation, these polarised approaches to the translation of religious texts still appear to be highly pertinent today. And, in many cases, the belief that holds for those proponents of the word-for-word approach is that religious scripture should be unclear and liable to misinterpretation because it is the job of the religious leader to “ward off theologically and pastorally harmful misinterpretations” (Hill in Lindgren, Dec 14, 2017). For example, Wesley Hill, assistant professor of biblical studies, Trinity School for Ministry supports the Pope’s intervention as an example of a religious leader’s obligation to provide ‘clarification’ for worshipers but is critical of the Pope’s stance of adopting a new translation.

Also, Andrew Wilson, teaching pastor at King’s Church London believes that “we should translate texts accurately and leave the strangeness as it is, although, I can see why people and pastors (and popes) want to tidy it up.” (Wilson in Lindgren, Dec 14, 2017). In this case, translation of religious texts is not just about being able to clarify strangeness, it is also qualifying strangeness as accurate translation practice within this context. It is interesting that whilst in religious translation accuracy is aligned with ‘strangeness’ in literary or audiovisual translation, strangeness might be construed as ‘inaccuracy’. The word of God is sacred and must not be changed but might also the voice of an author or a poet be sacred? Would we feel in the same way about the ‘accurate’ translation of Shakespeare as we do about the Bible? I would be inclined to say that it is a matter of personal opinion and belief.

“we should translate texts accurately and leave the strangeness as it is, although, I can see why people and pastors (and popes) want to tidy it up.” (Wilson in Lindgren, Dec 14, 2017)

Linked to this, another, more extreme issue arises out this debate related to the ownership of the text. When a translator renders a literary work into a foreign language the original author is still credited with the production of the work. The translator’s presence to a greater or lesser extent is dictated by a number of cultural, social and market-factors. Nonetheless, it is usual that translators are credited to some degree for their contribution to dissemination of the work in another cultural context. With regards to religious translation, R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, suggests through his comments that the translators role – at least as a writer – is minimal. Mohler (in Povoledo, Goodstein and Cowell, New York Times, Dec 8, 2017) speaks of his shock and appal in relation to the Pope’s intervention: “This is the Lord’s Prayer. It is not, and never has been, the Pope’s prayer, and we have the very words of Jesus in the New Testament. It is those very words that the Pope proposes to change. it is not only deeply problematic. It’s almost breathtaking.” Also, for Phillip, F. Lawlor, editor of Catholic World News, it is “problematic” because it attempts to alter something that is highly ingrained in the consciousness of Catholics.

“This is the Lord’s Prayer. It is not, and never has been, the Pope’s prayer, and we have the very words of Jesus in the New Testament. It is those very words that the Pope proposes to change. it is not only deeply problematic. It’s almost breathtaking.”

It is clear that the debate between word-for-word and sense-for-sense translation in religious texts is still relevant not only in religious contexts but also in Translation Studies; it is not exclusive to the discussions of Luther and Tyndale but is very much alive. Furthermore, Craig S. Keener, professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary (in Lindgren, Dec 14, 2017) points out that the debate that has ensued as a result of the Pope’s intervention “will help people have a better understanding of what [prayers] mean – or should mean – when they pray this prayer.” Here, Keener adopts a more positive outlook on the potential role of translation in Catholic liturgy. Neither a mystifying nor demystifying tool but an opportunity to reflect and engage more directly with the religious texts that we recite habitually as a matter of course.

Whichever viewpoint we choose to adopt regarding the role of translation, it is clear that religious translation is still a fruitful area of study that should not be neglected. Although I doubt that scores of children sitting in those draughty school halls or those attending mass are all going to be fully engaged in the analysis of the translation of religious texts, guided research might enable us to analyse more fruitfully how religious texts are received by different social, age and gender groups and the relationship between these groups and the two different approaches that have permeated through religious translation since the earliest renderings of the Aramaic Bible into Greek

One comment

  1. This could certainly be a never-ending debate! I am curious about the different commentators that reacted to the Pope’s suggestion in the British press – did any of them refer to the Spanish “Padre Nuestro”? “Do not let us fall into temptation” clearly has not been pulled out of a hat (quite literally, “no nos dejes caer en la tentación”). I would love to read about how the two versions evolved.

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