Now, the tricky thing about translating something is that different languages often work in rather different ways. For instance, because of the structure of Latin, it's easy to hang a lot of descriptive clauses on a noun or even a relative pronoun without losing the tread of your meaning. It's also easy to hang participial phrases on a noun or pronoun in Latin which effectively act as semi-independent clauses with the participle acting as the verb.
Thus, in the section of Eucharistic Prayer I which I worked on in the last post, it's not at all unusual that the two paragraph, 100-word section is made up of only two sentences. However, as you try to translate into English, it can become difficult to keep the meaning clear without producing a tangled and repetitive sentence.
So for example, one of the sections I found a bit tricky was "offerimus praeclarae maiestati tuae" which I translated as "we present to you, in your splendor and majesty". Now in Latin, the adjectives praeclarae and maiestati hang directly on the "to you". But if you say something like "we present to you, splendrous and majestic, these gifts" it is unclear whether it us, God, or the gifts which have these attributes.
Another example comes near the beginning of the passage, where the descriptive phrase "servi tui, sed et plebs tua sancta" hangs on the "we, remembering". This is simple and clear in Latin, but in English the interjection of the phrase (which emphasizes the contrast of being both God's humble servants but also his chosen people sanctified through the sacraments) muddles things up and makes it easy to lose track of what the sentence is about.
Now, one of the things that struck me as I was looking at some of these issues was that since Eucharistic Prayer I is the Roman Canon which has been a part of the liturgy in the west for 1500 years, there must be plenty of old translations from the facing-text missal days. So I did a google search on the phrase. I found a couple translations, but I also found a recent piece by quixotic Catholic blogger Fr. Joseph O'Leary, which dealt with the question of the translation of the Roman Canon and the new ICEL translations in particular.
As it happens, O'Leary's piece answers some of my questions as far as what the original ICEL translators back in 65-73 were thinking. In advocating the virtues of the current English translation over the forthcoming ones, Fr. O'Leary says:
They are aware of the archaic roots of the Roman prayer-style, which is an inculturation of the liturgy into Roman Imperial culture. To some extent their translation is an effort to reinculturate the prayer into the conditions of the present. The timeless, ahistorical attitude taken by the new literalist translators is alien to the contemporary sense of history and also to the Christian sense of history.So basically, the argument as to why almost all of the adjectives and emphatic repetition are left out of the English translation is: We're assuming that's not part of the essential prayer, but rather an "inculturation" of the prayer into Late Antiquity which we in the modern age should strip out because we don't talk that way. Which is, I think, pretty close to my theory that the original ICEL translators found the prose of the mass a little too grovelling in its spirituality, and decided to produce a more calm, adult version for sophisticated modern audiences.
"Latin words such as 'supplices' and pairs of words such as 'rogamus ac petimus' are employed for reasons of rhythm and style or rhetoric; they do not represent thought content which need or should be explicitly translated" (p. 28). Other examples of words that have a rhetorical function in Latin which loses point in translation are 'placatus,' 'digneris,' 'cognita-nota,' 'donis ac datis' -- literalistic translation produces an impression of superfluity and many pleonasms.
I really don't know that I buy this inculturation argument, however. Elsewhere, O'Leary argues that the use of this rhetorical grovelling has more of a pagan than a New Testament feel to it. I'm not sure I entirely buy that. Certainly, the Gospels are generally pretty plain-spoken in their prose. However, Revelation especially is definitely generous in its use of adjectival color and exaltation of the divine. Nor, honestly, has much of the pagan work that I've read showed that much grovelling in relation to the Roman gods.
Also, I think it's important to note that the other ancient liturgies used in the Eastern Churches contain similarly "mere mortals in the presence of the Almighty" type language. I don't think it's at all an unnatural reaction to humanity's encounter with the all-powerful and eternal to get rather humble.
However, this kind of highly vertical expression is not often found in modern American society. Americans a very egalitarian lot, and we much prefer expressing warm feelings to expressing strong ones. Think of the universal "extemporaneous prayer" formula "Lord, we just..."
To my mind, the appropriate response to this situation is to try to write an English translation which is intelligible to the English-speaking mind, yet tries to bring into the American-thinking mind some concept of extreme reverence for and humility before the divine. I'm not a great stylist, nor a great translator, but along those general lines I came up with the following, which I hope is moderately speakable English, while retaining the theological allusions and general attitude of the Latin original:
And thus, O Lord, we – mere servants and yet chosen by you as a holy people – remember the graces won for us by the passion of the same Christ, your Son, our Lord. Recalling his resurrection from the dead and his glorious ascension into heaven, we offer this to you, God of splendor and majesty, from among the gifts that you have bestowed upon us: A pure sacrifice. A holy sacrifice. A spotless sacrifice. The holy bread of eternal life and the wine of everlasting salvation.This takes more liberties than my previous attempt, but I think it's still much closer than the one in current usage, while trying not to be literal in the more stilted fashion. One of the things that this whole exercise (both trying to do a translation of just these two sentences, and reading up about the issues involved) has brought home to me is that it is no simply matter to move things such as this from one language into another. The ancient liturgical translations (as with the translation of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom into Old Slavonic) were generally done by one person of incredible holiness, who had the liberty and ability to be a little bit creative in preparing a translation that brought the liturgy properly into another tongue and mind. Such things are not achieved by committees, so no wonder that we're having difficulties in coming up with something of comparable quality. Similarly, it helps underline the benefits of keeping certain parts of the liturgy in the original language, while perhaps translating only the changeable parts into the vernacular to aid the understanding of the congregation.
We beg that you deign to look with favor upon these offerings and accept them, just as once you found it worthy to accept the offerings of your just servant Abel, the sacrifice of our Patriarch Abraham, and those which your high priest Melchizedek offered: a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim.