Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Lost in Translation, II

When I did my post at the end of last week about translating the mass, I found myself with an strong desire to take a shot at doing not only a clunky, totally literal translation, but to try my hand at writing a realistically speakable translation. I hushed this desire on the theory this would be a rather futile exercise: since I'm neither a true classicist nor a liturgical expert and obviously not a voice of input on ICEL. But since there seemed like there was a certain amount of interest in translation, I've decided to dig into the question a little more for the only reason that really flies in blogging: because I feel like it.

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.

"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.
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.

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.

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.
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.


Anonymous said...

That's a pretty good translation. So when are you going to float this by the appropriate committees? ;-)

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Your second post got me interested in looking up both the Latin and English for this part of the liturgy in the Tridentine Mass.

Guess what? The Latin is exactly the same as in the Novus Ordo. I wouldn't have guessed it just by comparing the English translations.

So if parts of the new Mass were the same, why didn't they just use one of the then current English translations? And then just translated stuff that really was new in a similar style. If they had done so, I don't think there would have been so much disgruntlement among the laity.

Just for comparison, I thought I'd give the translation used by my old St. Joseph missal so you can see how it compares to yours:

"Mindful, therefore, O Lord, not only of the blessed Passion of the same Christ Your Son, our Lord, but also of His resurrection from the dead, and finally His glorious ascension into heaven, we, Your Ministers, as also Your holy people, offer to Your supreme Majesty, of the gifts bestowed upon us, the pure Victim, the holy Victim, the all-perfect Victim: the holy Bread of life eternal and the Chalice of unending salvation.

"And this deign to regard with gracious and kindly attention and hold acceptable, as You deigned to accept the offering of Abel, Your just srevant, and the sacrifice of Abraham our patriarch, and that which Your chief priest Melchisedec offered to You, a holy sacrifice and a spotless victim."

Darwin said...


I have the feeling that each publisher must have had their own translation -- of widely varying quality. Here's the one I eventually found online from the '62 missal:

Mindful, therefore, Lord, we, Your ministers, as also Your holy people, of the same Christ, Your Son, our Lord, remember His blessed passion, and also of His Resurrection from the dead, and finally of His glorious Ascension into heaven, offer to Your supreme Majesty, of the gifts bestowed upon us, the pure + Victim, the holy + Victim, the all-perfect + Victim: the holy + Bread of life eternal and the Chalice + of perpetual salvation.

Deign to regard with gracious and kindly attention and hold acceptable, as You deigned to accept the offerings of Abel, Your just servant, and the sacrifice of Abraham our Patriarch, and that which Your chief priest Melchisedech offered to You, a holy Sacrifice and a spotless victim.

It kind of makes sense at a line by line level with the Latin next to it, but as its own text it's pretty opaque.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Yes, different publishers did indeed have their own translations as our our family collection of missals bears out. The Catholic Family Daily Missal has a more antique tone using "thee," "thy," & "thou," instead of "you," acoompanied by words like "didst" and "unto."

A British missal published by Sheed & Ward 1949 - 1952 has yet another translation which is perhaps a little freer than the one in my St. Joseph missal, but certainly more graceful than the one we use today:

"And now, Lord, we thy servants, and with us all thy holy people, calling to mind the blessed Passion of this same Christ, thy Son, our Lord, likewise his resurrection from the grave, and glorious ascension into heaven, offer to thy sovereign majesty out of the gifts thou hast bestowed upon us, a sacrifice that is pure, holy, and unblemished, the sacred Bread of everlasting life, and the Cup of eternal salvation

"Deign to regard them with a favorable and gracious countenance, and to accept them as thou wast pleased to accept the offerings of thy good servant Abel, and the sacrifice of our father Abraham, and that which thy great priest Melchisedech sacrificed to thee, a holy offering, a victim without blemish."

(Hope I'm not getting too tedious here by quoting yet another translation. Just thought you might be interested after having translated it yourself.)

knit_tgz said...

This has been very clarifying to a non-English speaking Catholic like me. I am Portuguese, so as we have a language which came from Latin, it is much easier to keep the tone and meaning of the Latin original. As the daughter of two translators, I know how hard it is to keep the tone and style of a text, not just the meaning, without making a clumsy and awkward-sounding translation. But in the end, traslation is also a matter of choice. The people who translate decide whether to keep the original style and tone or to change it.

Literacy-chic said...

Nice translation narrative! This was enjoyable on a number of levels. When I was an undergrad I tried my hand at translating some French poetry--into verse. And I did take 2 semesters of Classical Latin and 1 of Ancient Greek, so I do know about some of the specific issues you mention here, though it's been a long time and I was never proficient enough to attempt anything but a very literal translation of very basic Latin prose.

One observation you make here in response to O'Leary, that
the Gospels are generally pretty plain-spoken in their prose, is borne out by the fact that New Testament Greek is standard fare for translation in beginning level Greek textbooks!! The purpose of the liturgical texts is, however, very different from that of the Gospel texts, as you imply but don't quite say directly. The Gospels have the dual purpose of communicating a message and telling a story--both of which require plain speaking in order to reach the widest audience possible. Once that audience has been reached, the liturgy inspires the exultation and mirrors the uplifting of the soul. I like your theory that 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. Very nicely stated.