30 September 2011

Lost In Translation with the Roman Missal?

September 30 is the Feast of St. Jerome (nĂ© Eusebius Hieronymus Sophronius), the patron saint of translators.  In the late 4th Century A.D., St. Jerome translated the New Testament into Latin.  Eleven centuries later, the Council of Trent recognized St. Jerome’s “Vulgate” opus as the official translation of the Bible.

The virtues which St. Jerome displayed during his life was humility with  scrupulousness.  St. Jerome had opined:

I am not so stupid as to think that any of the Lord’s words either need correcting or are not divinely inspired, but the Latin manuscripts of the Scriptures are proved faulty by the variations which are found in all of them.

Since St. Jerome freely admitted ignorance and even embarrassment over mistakes, he was willing to revisit some of his translations to make corrections and additions when warranted. But St. Jerome knew that a translation’s accuracy depended upon the source material.  Sometimes copyist would inadvertently introduce errors.

We should keep these lessons in mind as  Liturgicam Authenticam comes to fulfillment on the first Sunday of Advent throughout the English speaking world with the implementation of the third translation of the Roman Missal. Some may be tempted to blame "the German Shepherd" Pope Benedict XVI for instituting this change back to the future.  But in all actuality it was Pope Blessed John Paul II who issued this encyclical which required that the liturgy must faithfully render the translation into the vernacular to closely reflect the original Latin texts.  There is an anecdote of JP II celebrating a mass and he realized that the meaning of the prayer had been lost in translation from his morning reflections using the Latin text.  Being trained as a linguist, the Pope compared the relevant passages in English, French and Polish and found many of the modern translations lost essential meaning.

Hence Liturgicam Authenticam demands static translation to retain authenticity, rather than the dynamic translation methodology that were rushed into implementation in the wake of Vatican II. To give an example of the difference in translation methodology, take the familiar greeting “The Lord be with you”.  English speaking worshipers for nearly 40 years have responded “And also with you”, which sounds smooth and colloquial.  But the Latin response (also used in many Romance languages) is “Et cum spiritu tuo” or “And with your spirit”.  The English response misses the nuance of spirituality in its dynamic translation to sound relevant.  Some celebrants treat the older response as a mere greeting and rejoin with “Thank you” instead of recognizing that the congregation is calling for the power of the Holy Spirit to help lift us from our human limitations to do something divine such as worship the Divine Liturgy.

There are going to be many changes of wording, mostly on the part of the celebrant priest, but Church officials insist that it is not a new Mass but a deeper experience that nurtures the faithful to celebrate.  That is a positive perspective, but it is making the best of a situation since there will be no leeway from using this new and improved translation.  As Crosby Stills and Nash put it: “Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice but to carry on.”.

The English translation of the Roman Missal is key.  When following the precepts of Vatican II in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many Catholic conferences in Africa and Asia relied upon the English translation of the Roman Missal to further translate into their regional vernacular.  The dynamic translation methodology which was used in the 1973 edition is thought to have lost something in translation and that had a cascade effect on the faithful in countries where Catholicism is a minority faith.

As a conscientious Catholic, I have been faithfully following the implementation of the new translation of the Roman Missal. But I have been quite disappointed that the lack of catechesis coming from parishes and the pulpit.  These are going to be major changes to the way most Catholics worship, but I have not seen concerted education efforts from the different parishes that I have recently visited. All of the sung music during the liturgy (e.g. the gloria, the sanctus, the fraction rite) will have to change since there are too many notes for the current scoring.  The Creed will use unfamiliar words which may have more meaning but do not roll off the faithfuls’ tongues.  Some priests have privately admitted that they are slow to bring up these changes because they anticipate that their parishioners will bristle at the change but that they will just have to live with it because that is what the Vatican acting through the USCCB demands.

Having studied the rubric, I know that some of the static translation sounds clunky to my ears.  For instance, during the First Eucharistic Prayer (which already sounded old fashioned) beacons the Holy Spirit to come down like dew drops to sanctify the offering. Granted, this poetic prayer does not seem like commonplace conversational English.  But that may be the point, that our Sunday obligation is ultimately an opportunity to participate in divinization.  But transcending the ordinary into the extraordinary, we can gain a fuller appreciation of the sacred and translate that into living our daily lives. That’s the theory but it may be easier said than done in adjusting to the revised rubric.

As a Vatican II Catholic, I value the participatory nature of liturgy in which the people of God are an essential part of the liturgy rather than spectators to what is up on the altar.  Being a cunning linguist who loves etymology, I will relish the deeper meaning of the new language.  But some of the flowery, repetitive and run on phrases in the new translation do not fall well on my ears.  So I appreciate the perspectives of Anthony Esolen, a Professor of Literature at Providence College in Rhode Island.  Esolan opines that the poetic and literary structure of the original Latin text may require complex sentences to fully convey the deeper theological meaning.  For instance, one of the prayers during the Feast of the Holy Family builds upon the image of home.

We consider first the home of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and we pray that we will imitate them in our own homes — in “domesticis virtutibus,” which the translators happily render as “the virtues of family life... — so that we may enjoy the glories of the house of God. To translate that three-part prayer, which is one tightly constructed sentence, into a three-part prayer in one tight English sentence, is not to “string phrases together,” but to reflect artistic unity by artistic unity.

That makes sense. Breaking up the long sentence in the original text into three bullet points minimizes the essential relation between the words and the scriptural allusion.  It make take some time to get used to but with proper catechesis, it draws me into a deeper understanding.  Critics of the 1973 translation will deride some of the English collects as “the Lame Duck” version vis-a-vis the Latin original.  I believe that observant Catholics could learn a lot from learning and appreciating the new translation of the Roman Missal, even with the initially awkward phraseology, if we get enough instruction which educates (brings forth) instead of inculcation (pounding in) by ostrich like ordained.

Michelangelo Moses /source AFP
But even faithful translators can get it wrong.  St. Jerome translated Exodus 34 and understood the ray of light emanating from Moses’ head after leaving Mount Sinai as being horns (which it could also mean in Hebrew).  When Michelangelo carved his statue of Moses in 1515, he relied on St. Jerome’s Vulgate verse as the inspiration.  Thus the sculpture of the divine law "courier" at San Pietro in Rome (Vincoli) has two horns.

As English speaking Catholics implement the new Roman Missal, may the higher concepts and ubiquitous participation in the Divine Liturgy not be lost in translation.

h/t  Fr. Z’s What Does the Prayer Really Say blog
h/t   Anthony Esolen
h/t   Translator Interpreter Hall of Fame


petrus said...

Liturgicam autenticam does not demand a "static translation" at all. I would check your source.

Anonymous said...

@Petrus- Thanks for the comment. While it does not DEMAND a static translation, it certainly discourages a dynamic translation. Moreover, there are many caveats to not using a word for word translation of the original text

The video from Msgr. Anthony Sherman sure gives a different impression.

The relevant language "While it is permissible to arrange the wording, the syntax and the style in such a way to prepare a flowering vernacular text suitable to the rhythm of popular prayer, the original text, insofar as possible, must be translated integrally and in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content and without paraphrases or glosses."

I'll rely on word of the Secretariat of the Divine Word.

In short, there is not a DEMAND of a static translation, but to a layman's ears, it the new missal will sound like a static translation of the original Latin text.