Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Correct Translation

I have a confession: rather than practicing those indespensible scales I have been perusing the Catholic blogosphere- both time consuming and occasionally frustrating! After two hours of digging I feel like every synapse in my brain is firing. There are just too many worthy issues to discuss and not nearly enough time... and given that this is an big election year everything is spinning in overdrive.

A series of posts on the Commonweal blog caught my eye. The USCCB's rejection of the newly proposed Roman Missal translations (reported 8 July) has generated a firestorm of response.

And here is where I descend into the generalizations: On one hand many US Bishops disliked the archaic language of the 2008 ICEL proposal. There is a great need for sensitive and resonant texts. Afterall, if people can't comprehend language what use has it?

On the other side champions of the newly proposed texts see this as a refreshing return to the authentic spirit of of the Latin texts- or at least a bona fide step in that direction. The 1997 ICEL translation was a 'watered-down' politically correct sham.

Looking at side-by-side excepts from the Missale Romanum, the Cramner/Duffy Reformation-era English, and the 1997 and 2008 ICEL renditions we can make some interesting observations. The differences are clear but the the motivations, ideology, and Ecclesiology behind them is at best debatable and at worst open to pure and shameless speculation.

For example: the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time: from 1997 we get "O God, the strength of all who hope in you..." From 2008 we have "O God, the strength of those who hope in you..." What's the difference? "All." Oh, we can read so much into this!! It's just like that worn over "pro multis" debate: 'God didn't come with that hippy inclusive language. He came with law and hard teachings. The Church is a special club and only certain people can make it.' Well, maybe. To echo the Academy Award-winning film There Will be Blood, "The doctrine of universal salvation is a lie, a lie!..."

Indulge me with another highlight, this time from the 12th Sun in OT. The 1997 version says "Lord God, teach us to hold your holy name both in awe and in lasting affection..." 2008 goes like this: "Grant us, O Lord, fear and love of your holy name always and in equal measure..." Key words that pop out , for me, are "teach" vs. "grant," "fear" vs. "awe," and "affection" vs. "equal measure."

My guesses on each... "Teach" is an everyday word that any English speaker comprehends quite quickly. "Grant" sounds legalistic or even archaic, to put it negatively...maybe 'formal' is a less derogatory description. I am trying to imagine, "Mom, prithee grant unto me thy blessings such that I may take the car for the evening." Who talks like that? Should the language of the Liturgy be the language of everyday (vis-a-vis meaningful and comprehensible)? Perhaps the broader question is, what kind of God do we have and how ought we approach him? "Does God wait to smite us with his divinely jeweled orb and sceptre?" or is he our "friend"? Maybe both, perhaps? If so, how do we strike a balance?

"Fear vs. awe:" Like "Fear of the Lord" disappearing from some Cathechetical texts, this is another one that draws the battle lines. Screams the Trad: "People these days need to be reminded that everything we have comes from God! We would cease to breathe if he forgot us for an instant! We can die at any second! Did I mention how terrible Hell is and that real people you and I know will probably go there?" Anyone ready for 1950's style sexual repression, depression, closet alcoholism, and abuse? An authoritarian culture of fear? Well, purely correlated, purely correlated. Then Sr. Starbeam butts in: "You stupid people and your fixation on fear. God loves all and forgives all- I'm okay, you're okay, God too. We care way too much about these old fashioned legalistic concepts of God and the Church. God is a woman and a beautiful one. We should be in awe of her feminine mystique. Fear? The only thing you should fear is me and my improvised liturgy!"

As for "affection" vs. "equal measure"...Huh? How do they even come up with this stuff?! Don't tempt me to start stereotypes about clergy, loony Latinists, and intimacy hangups. Ever read Song of Songs? God loves the Church in a visceral way, to put it mildly. These were earthy Mediterraneans writing- they knew how to be blunt and have fun. I guess I gave away my preference on this one.

Okay, I digress, massively! One of my Latin professors, a weathered classicist with more books in dead languages than the Library of Congress, once relayed this relevant story to our class: "As we were translating passages one day I had three students with three rather distinct renditions of one line. We heard them all and then one girl, sitting in the very back row, right in there" (he pointed to the very same seat), "asked, 'But, Dr. W-, what is the correct translation?' And then I just laughed." Why? **Disclaimer: This answer may cause some folks' skin to crawl**: there isn't one! Yes, I know, this seems to reek of "moral" relativism. But think, if you've ever studied a language you know this is absolutely true. And what about Babel? Don't we believe as a matter of Faith that language and communication hurdles are just one of many consequences of sin?

So, the point to all my ramblings: chasing the perfect/correct translation is chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. We'll never get it. To me this seems almost common sense but I am always surprised by what I find out there! To be clear, I acknowledge that a translation may be correct insofar as it is 'officially' endorsed or prescribed by the Vatican. I cannot, however, believe or even take seriously someone who thinks any given translation is unquestionable. There are too many factors to consider and none can accommodate them all: formality, accessibility, intelligibility, rhythm, ...even length, to name a few (how dryly pragmatic)!

Rather than the 'correct' translation we ought to seek the 'best' translation- and even that presupposes expectations built on a consensus. I hope and pray that the USCCB can agree on some concrete parameters which will guides its suggested revisions. Otherwise we're back with the same problem... And whatever they eventually agree upon I'm okay- even if I can't reconcile it with my ideology and preference. That's hard to swallow. When we say something is "correct" I suspect we often mean that it is merely congruent with our strongly held convictions or preferences- which is nice if it happens, incidentally. Either way, I trust the Bishops of this Country to make a choice that anyone can respect. If I don't like it I'm not going to go off and switch Rites or found the SSPX.

And then, some day, getting the ICEL and Vatican to validate it all? That mountain is safely in the distance, for now.


japhy said...

12th Sun in OT. The 1997 version says "Lord God, teach us to hold your holy name both in awe and in lasting affection..." 2008 goes like this: "Grant us, O Lord, fear and love of your holy name always and in equal measure..." Key words that pop out , for me, are "teach" vs. "grant," "fear" vs. "awe," and "affection" vs. "equal measure."

Here's the Latin and my meager attempt at translating it:

Sancti nominis tui, Domine, timorem pariter et amorem fac nos habere perpetuum, quia numquam tua gubernatione destitus, quos in soliditate tuae dilectionis instituis.

(Holy name your, Lord, fear equally and love you-make us to have perpetually, for never your governance it-failed, those in solidarity your love you-establish.)

"Lord, make us to have fear and love, equally and eternally [or: unending], for your Holy Name, for You never fail to govern those whom You establish firmly in your love."

(At least the 1997 translation is an improvement over the 1985 one: "grant us an unfailing respect for your name, and keep us always in your love", which doesn't match the verbs with the proper subjects and objects.)

As for your analysis, you're comparing the wrong words. The proposed 2008 version uses "fear" for "awe" and "love" for "affection". It uses "equal measure" for "both"; it also correctly binds "always" ("lasting") with both fear and love, rather than just love (affection).

As for "Teach" vs. "Grant"... in my opinion, even "grant" is a bit too weak here; the Latin says fac nos habere -- "make us to have" -- which identifies God's grace as the driving force. And there's more:

"Teach us to..." has the implication that once He has taught us, we can do it on our own; if you've been taught well enough, you don't need the teacher anymore. "Grant us..." makes it sound like merely a gift; getting a coat that's two sizes too big doesn't change us magically to fit into it.

But "make us to have" establishes the conversion -- the change -- needed in us to truly fear and love His name, equally and forever. God needs to produce this change in us; we need Him to make us anew.

Chase said...

Your blog is becoming stale.