NYT: What Do You Look for in Modern Translation?

This, two pieces by Daniel Mendelsohn and Dana Stevens at the NYTimes, is very good: “What Do You Look for in Modern Translation?”

Mendelsohn on accuracy: “But while insufficient accuracy is a problem, so, in a way, is too much accuracy.”

And on sensitivity to formal considerations: “While it’s often impossible to recreate elements like rhythm, rhyme and enjambment, to ignore them is another kind of betrayal.”

And on texture: “Good translators work hard to bring across the feel of the original writing.”

And on tone: “Tone is everything… Clytemnestra is not Joan Crawford.”

Stevens on two recent translations of Homer: “In their eagerness to make Homer accessible to impatient 21st-century ears, both new translations sometimes opt for speed and directness at the cost of nobility.”

Mendelsohn is right on the mark on the limits of any translation. Though talking of another context, his words could be taken as a critique of Liturgiam authenticam for trying to do the impossible: “Every text is, to some extent, a bafflement to its translator, because every language, like every writer, has characteristics that can’t be ‘carried across’ — which is what ‘translate’ means — into another tongue, another culture.”



23 responses to “NYT: What Do You Look for in Modern Translation?”

  1. Lynn Thomas Avatar
    Lynn Thomas

    This was an interesting pair of articles, as were some of the comments that followed. Quick thoughts off the top of my head, and admitting that I’m not sufficiently skilled in any language but English to evaluate fidelity to the original, I hope for a translation that both engages me and well conveys the meaning and purpose of the original – sense, tone, and texture all – with rather less concern for the exact words of the original. Where the original words can carry meaning across, by all means use them, but where the meaning doesn’t carry, or disrupts things in the target language, then choose another word.

    It has to be reasonably engaging, else I’ll put it down and read something else. It has to convey the meaning well, or why bother? And the original deserves the dignity of preserving tone and texture, besides preserving the meaning that those qualities carry.

    Now, back to work.

  2. Jonathan Ziegler Avatar
    Jonathan Ziegler

    Of course, we can avoid the translation difficulties by composing liturgical texts directly in the vernacular. I see no reason why we should be tied down to an Urtext missal, and why bishops conferences, individual bishops, and individual pastors and parishes shouldn’t be free to develop liturgical rites and texts that speak directly to the people.

    1. Elisabeth Ahn Avatar
      Elisabeth Ahn

      @Jonathan Ziegler – comment #2:

      “composing liturgical texts directly in the vernacular… to develop liturgical rites and texts that speak directly to the people”

      What does this mean? Could you elaborate on this a bit more? What would be some examples of such endeavors?

      1. Jonathan Ziegler Avatar
        Jonathan Ziegler

        @Elisabeth Ahn – comment #4:

        I think briefly what I am describing is liturgical pluralism with regard to rites. I don’t see why each parish or diocese or bishops conference can’t have their own “use” or “rite” which is developed by them and for them in the vernacular, instead of having a Latin text/rite imposed from Rome.

        I don’t know the history of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, but didn’t he basically shorten the Liturgy of St. Basil (for pastoral reasons, I suppose). What about the history of the rites used in Salisbury (Sarum) or York or Aberdeen? I think those might be examples of how local communities have developed rites and texts that pertain to their own people.

      2. Elisabeth Ahn Avatar
        Elisabeth Ahn

        @Jonathan Ziegler – comment #5:

        Thank you.

        I confess that I still don’t really understand what is meant by the “vernacular” in the liturgical context, even with all the googling I did.

        With that said, while not a fan of the new/current version of the English translation myself, I do rather like that the same rites and texts are used all over the world, so that, for example, when I go home (to Korea), masses there are celebrated in pretty much the same way as they are here in the States, in Korean and in English, respectively of course.

        But that is probably NOT what you meant by “rites and texts that pertain to their own people,” eh?

      3. Jonathan Ziegler Avatar
        Jonathan Ziegler

        @Elisabeth Ahn – comment #7:

        Well, I might beg to differ then, when you say that “the same rites and texts are used all over the world” since there already is quite a variety of liturgical rites. If you self-select and only go to Roman rite liturgies, perhaps. But that’s like someone saying that all over the world, Mass is in Latin – but only if I only go to Latin masses.

        Anyway, my larger point is that liturgical development is similar to linguistic development and should be allowed to develop organically just like languages. To bind celebrations of liturgy (whether they are Western or Eastern origin) to only that in the official books, is like telling people they’re only allowed to to speak Received Pronunciation, and completely ignores the reality of how people really speak.

      4. Elisabeth Ahn Avatar
        Elisabeth Ahn

        @Jonathan Ziegler – comment #8:

        “…there already is quite a variety of liturgical rites.”

        My bad. When I said “all over the world” I was thinking primarily Korea and the US, which is all over my world, but not the world (obviously).

        I’m still curious though. Within the present US context, what would “organically developed” liturgies that honor “the reality of how people really speak” look like? I’m guessing you’re talking more than revising (again) the current rite of the English missal, correct?

        Or did I miss your point again?

      5. Jonathan Ziegler Avatar
        Jonathan Ziegler

        @Elisabeth Ahn – comment #9:
        “…I’m guessing you’re talking more than revising (again) the current rite of the English missal, correct?”

        Well, “revising” is a word with a very active sense. I would prefer a more passively phrased “allowing changes to develop on their own without interference” So there aren’t specific things I can predict will change – I suppose that would be like trying to predict how language will change in 100 years.

        But I don’t think the changes can happen naturally until there is a relaxation on the form/structure of the rites, on the texts, calendar, vestments, etc.

        I suppose though, the first change I could imagine happening is some congregations who are unhappy with the new translation will go back to the previous edition, just as some would choose to keep the current version

    2. Christopher Douglas Avatar
      Christopher Douglas

      @Jonathan Ziegler – comment #2:
      “…speak directly to the people.”

      Uh, how about prayers addressed directly to God? Is there any difference? Or is the most important thing that they speak directly to the people?

      Of course, I know that the Most High God transcends any translation; that isn’t my point.

      1. Jonathan Ziegler Avatar
        Jonathan Ziegler

        @Christopher Douglas – comment #15:

        “…speak directly to the people.”
        Uh, how about prayers addressed directly to God? Is there any difference? Or is the most important thing that they speak directly to the people?
        Of course, I know that the Most High God transcends any translation; that isn’t my point.

        I”m not really sure what is your point then, since your comment that God transcends any translation seems to show that the style of text should be determined by appropriateness for the people.

  3. John Swencki Avatar
    John Swencki

    In discerning the meaning of a passage of Scripture, Pius XII said we should try to determine that meaning the human author intended. Should that also be a rule of thumb in translating (liturgical) texts?

  4. Fr. Jack Feehily Avatar
    Fr. Jack Feehily

    Once again I plead for a serious reconsideration of the claim that vernacular texts must accurately align with early, mid, or late medieval texts in Latin. We know the purposes of collects, prayers over the gifts, and prayers after communion. And we certainly have individuals whose living of the faith make them well qualified to compose vernacular prayers. Let those who are convinced that vernacular texts must sound as much as possible like the Latin texts from which they were translated have the RM3 to themselves. Why not more than one approved text which reflects the faith of the church?

  5. Jonathan Day Avatar
    Jonathan Day

    Repeating a comment from another post, I would like to call attention to an article in New Blackfriars by Thomas O’Loughlin: “Is Every Translation a Vernacular Translation?” O’Loughlin is a Professor of Historical Theology in the University of Nottingham. The article is insightful and highly relevant here.

    Its freight is that true translation is not about ‘figuring out’ the text in the original language (e.g. Latin), deciphering it, decoding it. Rather, a good translation leads to “natural speech in the recipient’s language”. In assessing a translation, O’Loughlin poses the following question: does the result capture the meaning of the original and then express it in a way that respects the users’ use of language?”

    Hence, faced with the sentence puellam nauta amat, a ‘decoding’ would be something like “Girl [accusative, object, etc] … Sailor [nominative, subject, etc] … loves [present, indicative, etc] → The sailor, or a sailor, loves a girl, or the girl.” That is a useful crib for decoding the Latin, but hardly a translation.

    The article is readable online here.

    Thanks again to Pádraig McCarthy for finding it.

  6. Brendan Kelleher svd Avatar
    Brendan Kelleher svd

    In recent times I find myself doing a lot more translating from Japanese to English. Requests come from a variety of sources, including texts that include a lot of technical vocabulary from the world of medicine. Quite simply Japanese grammar and rhetorical style mean I have to look both to the meaning of individual terms and to the wider context, be it the individual sentence or even the paragraph. Circularity in argument, leaving elements of the fuller arguement unspoken will often result in a very incoherent “literal” English text. Until I get a text that reads as English numerous rewrites are the norm.
    Also in my recently assumed role as head of the diocesan liturgical commission, both at the gathering of leaders held at the beginning of last month, and in requests and or communications from the local ordinary, I have become more involved in the ongoing discussion (?) regarding the translation of RM3 into Japanese; previously I was informally consulted by a colleague who serves on the Bishops Commission since I taught English for many years and belong to the generation that did Latin in High School and in the Seminary. Going directly from Japanese to Latin is demanding and time consuming, it really is a matter of two different thought worlds colliding. Our journey to a satisfactory translation still has many miles to go. I shall be keeping both the NYT articles and that linked by Jonathan Day close to hand.

  7. Timothy O'Brien Avatar
    Timothy O’Brien

    I can’t see how Mendelsohn’s article can be construed as a critique of Liturgiam Authenticam. I would think his first two points on accuracy and sensitivity are more inclined to support its aims particularly in the comments on Horace.
    A particular point of dispute here is always going to be whether a translation should appear to be natural to the new language in which the text appears or whether by maintaining a slight foreigness from the ordinary intonations of the new language it actually provokes a more intense exploration of meaning in the long term. I don’t think this is a conflict which can be resolved and it’s a good one. Just as attempts to too closely replicate the original may become precious – an over simple nativisation in the new language may just end up being banal and forgettable.
    This is where a consideration of the aims of baroque art, so often casually reviled without any real engagement with its real principles, can be helpful. Translation should also include a consideration of the sensory and sonic qualities of the texts and the acknowledgment that meaning is not only derived from intellectual engagement with each word but also apprehended through sensory combinations of words which can also reference and suggest the culture and meanings of the original text.
    One book a while ago which examined this area (though it does go on) was Douglas Hofstadter’s Le Ton Beau de Marot where the author considers the music of language as a factor in translation.

  8. Ann Olivier Avatar
    Ann Olivier

    Hmm. This discussion about rites that should reflect local culture reminds me of a graduation rite at Tulane University here in New Orleans just this last June.

    As the world knows, New Orleanians LOVE parades and any old excuse can prompt one any time of the year. At the culmination of the Tulane graduation there was actually a parade of the academics in their rather colorful robes following a jazz band complete with second liner umbrellas, AND the person who was awarded an honorary degree — no less than the Dalai Lama himself — joined the parade under his own unbrella and seemed to be enjoying it.

    How far do we want the local cultures to go in designing the rites? And aren’t the local people themselves the experts on what the local culture really is?

  9. Philip Endean SJ Avatar
    Philip Endean SJ

    Mendelsohn may indeed be pointing up a big flaw in Liturgiamallegedly authenticam. But I am struck by how his criteria, helpful as they are, leave open many of the issues raised by RM3: just what counts as an appropriate tone for worship?

  10. Glenn Lamb McCoy Avatar
    Glenn Lamb McCoy

    Re #13, 15 and 17: I think this topic touches the heart of the matter. Are the words used in worship important to God, important to us, or both? This brings us right back to imminence and transcendence. If we are solely communicating with the transcendent Most High God, why do we need words at all? But if we are standing in the presence of Jesus and acting as the Body of Christ, then we as one body are speaking with the voice of Christ and hearing with the ear of Christ. I care very much whether the members of the body are engaged in the meaning of the words we speak and hear. Maintaining an intentional “slight foreignness” in translated prayer seems to imply that there is a select elite who speak the actual sacral language of the Most High God, which is “foreign” to the rest of us. Jesus spoke profound truths in simple everyday language, and left us common bread and wine for his sacramental presence. Do we really need to gild the lilies of the field before we can offer them to God?

    1. Christopher Douglas Avatar
      Christopher Douglas

      @Glenn Lamb McCoy – comment #18:
      You raise an important point, although I disagree with your conclusion.

      1. “why do we need words at all?” Reductio ad absurbum. We’re talking about public worship.
      2. I think that whom you consider the elite exactly backwards. I think that you underestimate the ability of the less than ideally educated to internalize lofty language which isn’t their everyday vernacular. Wildly underestimate them. They can’t absorb? They can’t understand? They can’t receive what has been passed down and what their grandparents knew? You are the elite, making pronouncements from on high. More humble working folk have no problem understanding, “Grieve not, the Holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption….” or “I come not to bring peace, but a sword…” In fact, I think that working class people, who are bathed in humanity, understand these kinds of words better than the Ivory Tower set. Earthiness is a great educator.
      3. I used, advisedly, the words, “Most HIgh God” because I had the good fortune to be at the 8 am, no music, Mass of an old Monsignor, who celebrated his 60th anniversary of ordination with absolutely no fanfare. But, he began his sermon with these words, “I have been for sixty years a priest of the Most HIgh God.” When he said those words the room changed. Afterward, on the portico, we all commented on how the words Most High God affected us…and this from a wonderful man who probably would have rather been on the golf course. Elevated language has power. Power to inspire.

  11. Timothy O'Brien Avatar
    Timothy O’Brien

    Regarding comment #18 and the idea I presented of “slight foreigness”. Your interpretation of this in totally opposed to what I intended. I do not in any way endorse the idea that translations should be made so only an elite fully understand them. The point of ‘foreigness’ is that engagement with the text is not about immediate apprehension of surface meaning. This is something that has nothing to do with prior education but is about recognising that we continually grow in understanding . I think that a text which draws you in by a desire to explore it more deeply usually achieves this by first of all using arresting sounds and secondly by indicating layers of meanings which will not all be revealed at once but by contemplation. Poetry basically. This is absolutely not an elitist point of view – in fact I think it is often true elitists that argue for superficially understandable texts because they assume that everyone but themselves is too dull to understand complexity. Comment #19 expresses this notion well. By foreigness I intended to indicate something that was not entirely in the recipient’s immediate subjective experience yet is nevertheless congruent with it to make one want to understand more. Perhaps strangeness would have been a better term. The language of Jesus may have been everyday – in the sense of people who understood the entire Jewish tradition as part of their everyday life – but I don’t believe it is actually simple in meaning – many parables are in fact quite paradoxical and demand more than superficial engagement. Texts with no confronting element and no sensory attraction are ill adapted to engaging anyone in any lasting way.

  12. Glenn Lamb McCoy Avatar
    Glenn Lamb McCoy

    Re: #19 and 20. I think you just supported my original question. Of course God is ‘Most High.’ God is always BOTH Most High AND intimately present and embodied in the actual people who gather to worship as the Body of Christ. I wrote: “Jesus spoke profound truths in simple everyday language, and left us common bread and wine for his sacramental presence.” His words were deeply poetic without the use of ‘lofty’ terminology, and these words have kept the world engaged for millennia. Fishermen and shepherds, scholars and mystics have all found lifetimes of meaning in his words. Of course no one should ever be content to stop with ‘surface meanings’, nor should one assume that words themselves must be ‘slightly foreign’ or not immediately comprehensible in order to carry the freight of revelation. Given all those fishermen and shepherds, it is curious to me that both comments seemed to jump to the conclusion that the word ‘elite’ implies that I think uneducated people are incapable of grasping complex concepts. The topic here was language and translation. Using specialized terminology within an academic or scientific community is fine for communicating within a specific discipline, but this can lead to poor word choices when reaching beyond those circles. And Jesus spoke and continues to speak to everyone.

  13. Timothy O'Brien Avatar
    Timothy O’Brien

    #21 Why is it curious that we jumped to that conclusion about elite when 1. that it was what it usually means in ordinary speech and 2. you referred to an elite who speak the “actual sacral language” – implying an education in it. However that is minor compared to your distortion of my foreignness comment. The original comment at #12 was about foreigness of intonation not about foreigness of actual words yet you have decided in your latest remarks that this means that words I think “must be slightly foreign or not immediately comprehensible” – that is not my point at all and I don’t agree with it as a ‘must’.

  14. Glenn Lamb McCoy Avatar
    Glenn Lamb McCoy

    Re #22: Point taken- sorry I misunderstood that you were referring to intonation and not vocabulary. The translation of poetry is dear to my heart, and a tin ear for tone on the part of the translator distresses my soul. I’m afraid my mind was on those who defend the tangled syntax and Latinesque vocab of RM3 by claiming that this is appropriate because it underscores our need to struggle when we try to understand the mysteries of our faith.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *