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

Friday, September 14, 2007

Lost in Translation

I got in a bit of a discussion yesterday with Todd of Catholic Sensibility (whose link I finally updated in the blogroll, sorry about that Todd) on another blog, in regards to the forthcoming new English translation of the mass, currently due around 2009.

Now, I'm certainly willing to admit this is a liturgy/classics geek set of concerns, but I must admit myself rather interested in the question of the translation of the mass. As you doubtless know, the official edition even of the new "post-Vatican II" missal is in Latin, and each bishops conference (or in this case, group of bishops conferences) is responsible for coming up with a suitable translation into the vernacular.

There's a lot of general muttering about our current translation (which dates from 1973) into English, among those who care about such things. Others might justly wonder what all the fuss is about. Well, I can't speak for others, but for me the main complaint is that the current English translation seems to have felt a need to eliminate many of the adjectives (and tone superlative adjectives down to basic ones) that seem to serve the place, in the Latin, of emphasizing the importance of what's going on.

Perhaps an example would suffice best to show what I mean. This selection is from the middle of Eucharistic Prayer I, not the most used option, due to its length, but doubtless at least passingly familiar to the average pew-sitter. (I picked the selection because I felt it especially highlighted the point I'm trying to make, but this one is hardly unique in this regard.)
Father, we celebrate the memory of Christ, your Son: we, your people and your ministers, recall his passion, his resurrection from the dead, and his ascension into glory; and from the many gifts you have given us we offer to you, God of glory and majesty, this holy and perfect sacrifice, the bread of life and the cup of eternal salvation.

Look with favor on these offerings and accept them as you once accepted the gifts of your servant Abel, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the bread and wine offered by your priest Melchizedek.
Sound familiar? Okay, here's the Latin for that same section:
Unde et memores, Domine, nos servi tui, sed et plebs tua sancta,
eiusdem Christi, Filii tui, Domini nostri, tam beatae passionis, necnon et ab inferis resurrectionis, sed et in caelos gloriosae ascenionis: offerimus praeclarae maiestati tuae de tuis donis ac datis hostiam puram, hostiam sanctam, hostiam immaculatam, Panem sanctum vitae aeternae et Calicem salutis perpetuae.

Supra quae propitio ac sereno vultu respicere digneris: et accepta habere, sicuti accepta habere dignatus es munera pueri tui iusti Abel, et sacrificium Patriarchae nostri Abrahae, et quod tibi obtulit summus sacerdos tuus Melchisedech, sanctum sacrificium, immaculatam hostiam.
Now, if you're like most folks, that perhaps didn't mean a great deal to you, so I will now render it into what doubtless could be accurately put down as a "schoolboy" translation -- trying simply to err toward accuracy rather than English felicity.
And from which, O Lord, we, your servants but also your holy people, remembering the very blessings of the passion of the same Christ, your Son, our Lord, and also his resurrection from the underworld, and glorious ascension into the heavens: we present to you, in your splendor and majesty, from among the gifts that you have given to us, a pure sacrifice, a holy sacrifice, a spotless sacrifice, the holy bread of eternal life and the chalice of everlasting salvation.

May you deign to look on these with a gracious and serene gaze: and accept them, just as you thought it worthy to accept the offerings of your just servant Abel, and the sacrifice of our Patriarch Abraham, and that which your high priest Mechizedek offered: a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim.
Ouch, yes that was pretty rough wasn't it? But note (even accounting for general clunkiness of my translation) how much more descriptive richness there is in the Latin than the current translation allows to come through. (Indeed, given how wordy English is by comparison, always be suspicious when an English translation has significantly fewer words than the Latin original.)

It's not just a bit of cleaning up here and there, I think, that we see in the current translation, but rather a deliberate decision that "English speakers don't go in for all this florid emotion and description." I get the impression the translators may have found the effusions of the Latin verbiage just a trifle embarrassing. I'm picturing the scene in Gosford Park where one of the characters scolds his wife: "Stop carrying on! One might almost think you were Italian."

Well, I'm not Italian. I don't go in for crawling around from one statue niche to the next on my knees. (Which is just as well, because our church doesn't have any.) But nay-the-less, I think we can all afford to grovel a little more and fling down a few more adjectives in the path of our Savior. English speakers, and Americans in particular, don't normally speak as effusively as the Latin would suggest. But then, the mass is not an email, or a PowerPoint presentation.

Sometimes a higher diction, and a more effusive one, seems more appropriate to prayer, which is not after all supposed to sound like normal speech. After all, we don't say: "Dad, in heaven, your name is good. I hope your rule comes soon and everyone obeys you, on earth and in heaven..."


Anonymous said...

It was a rather reasoned discussion, wasn't it? Thanks for the blogroll update.

By the way, I think ICEL had most of your points covered in translating Roman Missal II. I don't know what thinking went into the work behind the current Roman Missal, but I do know that progressive liturgists were pretty much disappointed with it. We certainly were looking forward to the same good treatment we saw in the RCIA (1988) and the Funeral Rites (1989).


Anonymous said...

I nominate Darwin as King of English Translation for US Bishops!

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

It's not just liturgy geeks. My friend A. (whose house y'all just visited--great party!) converted a few years ago, and is still a charismatic evangelical at heart, hand-waving and all ... But she noticed that the translation of the liturgy at her Spanish-speaking parish was much more dignified in tone than at English Masses. I've heard similar remarks from other bilingual Texan Catholics, who ordinarily don't give a fig for these prog.-v-con. debates: they wonder why the English is so tin-eared when the Spanish is so lovely.

Darwin said...


Yeah, it was quite an enjoyable conversation -- which is always something to note when diverse folks go at it over liturgy!

As for me, I don't have a particular brief with one round of translation over another, so long as we end up with something that expresses a little more otherworldliness soon. (I keep being tempted to bring in a Latin copy of the editio typica and read along off that -- in reversal of the old pre-Vatican II approach -- thought I'm sure if it got to the other memebers of parish council it would scare the horses...)


In the country of the blind...


Indeed, a great gathering! I may be wrong on this, but I want to say that even some of the other English-speaking countries got better translations than we did. Honestly, I think most people would like something with a bit more feeling too it, though there are those who suggest that the shock of changing the words would annoy people. (Heck, though, in some parishes the words change every week as it is...)

All I can think of is that somewhere, someone thought that we Americans were too "grown up" to express ourselves more effusively.

Anonymous said...

The liturgical prayers should be elevated and ornate, and not dumbed down. Use of flat lackluster prose, and inaccurate translations as well, serves to detract from the miracle which is about to occur. People don't go to Mass to hear commonplace language. They go to eat the body of Christ and drink His blood. Such an awesome event should be surrounded with the best language we can muster.

Anonymous said...

Ouch, yes that was pretty rough wasn't it?

Nope, it was beautiful. Literally brought tears to my eyes.