Lost in Translation: Part 2

Ed. note: Gabe Huck continues his four-part series discussing the translation. The column below was published in the October issue of Celebration magazine (www.celebrationpublications.org), and we thank them for the permission to reprint it here. Part I is available here.

On Sunday, November 20, our assemblies will speak and hear their last of a simple if sometimes inadequate English. The 40-some-year-old ritual texts will, a Sunday later, be replaced by an English so much less adequate that its defenders come off, to be kind, as tone deaf.

The story of how we came to this place was told well and succinctly by Robert Mickens in three brief Tablet articles in June and July of this year. In the second of these Mickens comes to the crucial moment in 2001 when the Congregation for Divine Worship

issued a fifth instruction on translating liturgical texts, Liturgiam Authenticam. In a break from the previous four instructions, it unveiled a new set of translating principles. From now on – the document said – translators were to apply “formal equivalence,” carefully assuring that every word in the Latin text was replicated in the vernacular. The instruction, which is still in force, also directs that the vocabulary, syntax, punctuation and capitalization patterns found in the Latin must be reproduced as much as possible. And, of course, the document took aim at inclusive language. An overriding concern of the document was that translations employed what is called a “sacral vernacular” that was different from ordinary speech. Liturgiam Authenticam also drove a stake into the heart of the well-established ecumenical efforts at composing common texts. “Great caution is to be taken to avoid a wording or style that the Catholic faithful would confuse with the manner of speech of non-Catholic ecclesial communities or of other religions, so that such a factor will not cause them confusion or discomfort,” it said. . . .

If 2001 spelled doom for ICEL, then 2002 will be remembered as the year that Cardinal Medina delivered his crushing blow to that Episcopal power and authority over the liturgy that the young Fr. Ratzinger spoke about during Vatican II. On 16 March, the CDW formally rejected the 1998 English Sacramentary, four years after the 11 English-speaking conferences of ICEL had approved it and submitted it to Rome. Then in April 2002, the CDW announced the establishment of Vox Clara, a committee of 12 senior English-speaking bishops appointed by the Vatican to help it oversee the translations. The Vatican finally had a mechanism for asserting more control over the conferences and ICEL. (The Tablet, June 25, 2011)

Liturgiam Authenticam thus drew together and nailed down the following: 1) Any vernacular used in Catholic liturgy is to be a slavish rendering of the Latin. 2) Any sort of effort toward an inclusive vernacular liturgical language will be denied. 3) The vernacular must somehow find a sacral tone. And 4) who will be the arbiters of this? Not those untrustworthy conferences of bishops who actually speak the various languages, but the Vatican bureaucracy. The strategy was clear: if English is the middle language between Latin and the local languages in so many cases, then English must be written like Latin.

Why not? Hold on. Vox Clara’s definitive answer to how that is to be done will be heard but little listened to on the First Sunday of Advent 2011.

There are so many grounds for bemoaning and opposing the situation. Certainly one of these is the use of liturgy and its words to make a political conquest over the decentralized church Vatican II envisioned. Another is the assumption that the liturgies of the Roman Catholic church are to be worded with a non-inclusive language because that pleases the rule makers, all of whom are certainly male and without a sense for how non-intrusive inclusivity has progressed in English the last 40 years.

We should discuss two other facets of what LA did to all of us. First, can the slavish rendering of Latin into a vernacular, let alone a “sacral” vernacular, ever sustain the ritual deeds of Christian assemblies? Second, why does it sound like they are dictating and we are accepting that our liturgy must begin with Latin texts as if they somehow hold a scripture-like place in our common prayer?

So first, what does it take for a “formal equivalency” English translation to be strong English, strong for prayer together and able to bear the weight of repetition? Consider a successful example:

Pour forth, we beseech thee, O Lord, thy grace into our hearts
that we, to whom the incarnation of Christ, thy son,
was made known by the message of an angel,
may, by his passion and death,
be brought to the glory of his resurrection.

This text, well known to many, seems to do all that Liturgiam Authenticam demands of English. It’s one long English sentence translating one long, elegant Latin sentence into 44 English words, but it flows. One doesn’t get lost. It helps that the English is mostly one- and two-syllable words. It helps that when praying aloud the voice almost can’t help making the right pauses and putting the right emphases. But its excellence is due at least in part to the basic but never exhausted content of the Latin prayer. It takes gratefully what it takes for granted: our baptism into the paschal dying and yet the glory of the word-made-flesh.

As translation, this text seems somehow natural. The just-on-the-edge quality of this English sentence passes without notice simply because it is so well-formed. And it calls no attention to itself or to the craft that went into making it. You will find this text, unchanged from the prayer above, except “thou” is “you,” on the Fourth Sunday of Advent in the coming sacramentary. But that single bit of good sense and taste should not mislead us. Lest that happen, consider the collect for the First Sunday of Advent in the new book:

Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God,
the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ
with righteous deeds at his coming,
so that, gathered at his right hand,
they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom.

Come again? Contrast that with the banished version of the 1998 book as approved by all the English-speaking bishops:

Almighty God,
strengthen the resolve of your faithful people
to prepare for the coming of your Christ
by works of justice and mercy,
so that when we go forth to meet him
he may call us to sit at his right hand
and possess the kingdom of heaven.

Not great, but because it was apparently judged a failure by the norms of LA, it was replaced with “Grant your faithful . . . ” Judge for yourself.

Now consider this bit of the Exsultet translation by Dame Maria Boulding of Stanbrook Abbey. To the great relief of many, this was retained without change in the new edition from the work of the 2008, the pre-tinkering and unpublished edition of the sacramentary:

This is the night of which it is written:
The night shall be as bright as day,
dazzling is the night for me, and full of gladness.
The sanctifying power of this night dispels wickedness, washes faults away,
restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners,
drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.
O truly blessed night,
when things of heaven are wed to those of earth, and divine to the human.

Now compare, overall and image by image, these same lines in the ICEL translation approved by the bishops in 1998:

This is the night of which the Scripture says:
“Even darkness is not dark for you, and the night will shine as clear as the day!”
How holy is this night, which heals our wounds and washes all evil away!
A night to restore lost innocence and bring mourners joy!
A night to cast out hatred!
A night for seeking peace and humbling pride!
O truly blessed night when heaven is wedded to earth
and we are reconciled with God!

Worthy English both, I think. But different. Different ways of choosing the English word and building the English structure. Our language has so many ways it can work. As does Latin. The translator makes choices. Somehow the first text above escaped the net of LA.

In a time when ICEL was helping not simply with translation but at times with alternate texts, ICEL proposed offering an alternative text for use in English-speaking churches. That text approached the above section in this way:

This is the night, most blessed of all nights,
when your creating Spirit stirred again
to turn back chaos and renew the world,
redeeming it from hatred, sin, and strife.
This is the night, most blessed of all nights,
when all the powers of heaven and earth were wed
and every hungry human heart was fed
by Christ our Lamb’s own precious flesh and blood.

We see in all three texts that a strong English is more likely (not to mention more honest) when it translates a strong Latin. That, in the opinion of many, is enough to show how futile it is for the Vatican to insist on an English sacramentary limited by Latin texts that seldom have the poetic power of the Exsultet. They may indeed capture Latin rhetoric well, but often do this without much of anything on which to base a strong prayer in English. For, as we should expect, these languages do their work in very different ways. By the same plain reasoning, no other language’s book should be held to imitation of an empty English necessitated by sticking to Latin’s long sentences, many abstractions, loads of clauses, all of which work (we’re told) in Latin rhetoric.

These three Exsultet translations manifest something else: Once you get beyond “Push” or “Pull” on the shop door, translators must make judgments where right and wrong are probably not the best words to describe what happens. No translation will say exactly what the original says to one for whom the original language is the mother tongue. But the receiver language? Read the English instructions on something you purchased recently where the English is clearly one of the receiver languages for taking the pills or assembling the gadget. Adequate? Probably, but here adequate is enough. When the original is prayer or exhortation or acclamation in the assembly, then the receiver language has to be challenged to do the work of a ritual text in all the unique ways of English or Japanese or any language. This is far more challenging work. This seems not to be recognized by the LA directives as faithfully implemented in the coming sacramentary. Until ICEL’s leadership was dismissed and new staff, loyal to LA, was assembled, the ICEL translation projects were increasingly conscious of the responsibility of those to whom translation is entrusted for the liturgy.

Somehow we expect now so little of our words in the assembly. No one ever remembers a collect. Few pay attention. By the time we say Amen we are unlikely to recall to what we are giving our Amen. Why? This would be a challenge today even if we were taking to heart the need for crafting English worthy of its ritual task. Inundated with words from all directions, we expect little, demand little, attend little. Some want liturgy’s words only to take them back to an imagined childhood. Most simply presume that this speaking of prayers is what a presider does and, never having been struck by a good text brought to life by a good speaker, only some sort of listless background music is expected and that’s what is heard.

Perhaps we have LA to thank. Down here in the dumps, we may begin to know what sort of language fails and what sort might sustain.

(To be continued.)


12 responses to “Lost in Translation: Part 2”

  1. Fr. Jim Blue Avatar
    Fr. Jim Blue

    I appreciate that someone is finally focusing on the Easter Proclamation. Thus far it seems to have escaped notice in the critique of the 2010 Vox Clara product.

    I am not sure which version we will be using here. Since we have a special setting that we have used for many years I suspect we will continue with the 1974 text.

  2. Mark Miller Avatar
    Mark Miller

    “Push – pull” are not always simple either.

    In Russian “push” – on a door – is ” way from you”
    and pull is : “toward you.”

    and “the wisdom to know the difference” – (the Serenity Prayer) – is: “to tell one from the other.”

    Mark Miller

  3. Halbert Weidner Avatar
    Halbert Weidner

    I was glad for the comparisons of decent English texts rendering a decent Latin text. I had Latin the first time in 1959 and my teacher had nothing but contempt for late Latin and especially for the watered down stuff in the Catholic liturgy. My classmates, “lifers” seminarians who came in after 8th grade studied years of Latin and Greek but all classical texts. They were way over prepared for koine Greek in the New Testament and the decadent Latin in the liturgy. I am glad this article talked about the weakness of the original Latin liturgy. The Exultet is great, and an exception.

  4. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
    Karl Liam Saur

    It should be added, for those who are unaware, that the collect for Advent IV is the traditional translation of the concluding prayer for the Angelus, which is why it’s relatively well known. I’ve used it for years as a example of the difference between Latinate vs Saxon English; one should be aware of the difference in texts that are repeated regularly versus those that are repeatedly less regularly….

  5. Paul Inwood Avatar
    Paul Inwood

    Here is the final paragraph of the Preface to the Exsultet, only to be proclaimed by a deacon:

    Therefore, dearest friends,
    standing in the awesome glory of this holy light,
    invoke with me, I ask you,
    the mercy of God almighty,
    that he, who has been pleased to number me,
    though unworthy, among the Levites,
    may pour into me his light unshadowed,
    that I may sing this candle’s perfect praises.

    I suspect that this is going to cause some scratching of heads among our deacons friends this coming Holy Week. And then more scratching of heads among those who listen to the proclamation.

  6. Paul Inwood Avatar
    Paul Inwood

    A problem in the Exsultet is going to crop up in this line, quoted above:

    when things of heaven are wed to those of earth, and divine to the human.

    “Wed” is perfectly acceptable in US English. In other countries, however, the participle has to be “wedded”, as indeed it is in the translation we have been using up to now. “Wedded” is also acceptable in the US, whereas “wed” is not elsewhere.

    It’s the same case as “fit” (US) and “fitted” (elsewhere), in “the coat fitted (fit) him perfectly”.

    ICEL seems to have suffered a lapse in awareness of its international role when perpetrating “wed” in the Exsultet. You can bet your bottom dollar that any UK publisher submitting proofs with the word altered to “wedded” will receive an imperial raspberry from the guys in DC!

    1. John robert francis Avatar
      John robert francis

      I am breaking a vow, though it is a private, not a solemn, one. I will do a suitable penance.

      I have no idea how “wed” came to be used in the now received text of the Exsultet. I too have heard that the deeply-learned translator of the text for ICEL II was the late Sister Maria Boulding, OSB, of Stanbrook Abbey. And the director of the ICEL office in that period was a priest of Birmingham, and not Birmingham in Alabama.

      As one who worked, now some time ago, in that office in Washington, the city of my birth, I would have favored “wedded” over “wed.” I would have found that natural to the English I grew up with, and the added syllable, it seems to me, is needed for the sake of euphony.

      Saint Jerome, pray for us in our time of need.

      1. John robert francis Avatar
        John robert francis

        I was denied permission by higher authority to edit my comment above. The clock must have run out. I fear that even my preferred “wedded,” as in 1998, would not overcome the totally broken-backed 2008 text, ” When things of heaven are wed to those of earth, and divine to the human.” The end of the line simply falls off a cliff. I want to doubt that this was what Maria Boulding proposed.

  7. Jeremy Stevens Avatar
    Jeremy Stevens

    But I thought the translator of the new version of the Exsultet was the late Dame Maria Boulding, O.S.B. of Stanbrook Abbey (UK)?

  8. Hugh Farey Avatar
    Hugh Farey

    The New Missal for the UK is not generally available yet, so I don’t know how it differs from the US’s version, but I’m pretty sure that apart from adjusting a lot of spellings (honour/honor etc.) and various grammatical differences, we will maintain ‘our’ Our Father, which I believe is quite different from ‘yours.’ We will continue to say “Lead us not into temptation,” for one example, and I’ve no doubt there are others. There may even be vocabulary changes – I don’t know if ‘cookie’ or ‘sidewalk’ occur in the missal, but if they did, I would certainly expect UK English bibles to use ‘biscuit’ and ‘pavement.’
    For all I know, Australian, South African and Asian English missals may have idiosyncracies of their own as well.

    1. F C Bauerschmidt Avatar
      F C Bauerschmidt

      As far as I know, we will continue to say “Lead us not into temptation” as well.

      1. Hugh Farey Avatar
        Hugh Farey

        Ah, my mistake. Who says: “Do not put us to the test,” which I have used in some US missions in Asian parishes?

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