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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Intercontinental Ballistic Missal: A Primer

It seems that, after what the Times calls "thirty years of labor, intrigue and infighting," the new translation of the Roman Missal for use in English-speaking regions has been approved, and will be coming to a parish near you in November.

The story in a nutshell: (a) the new version is closer to the original Latin; (b) and not many people appreciate Latin syntax these days.

The new translation has already been subject to considerable attack, notably by the Association of Catholic Priests -- which, nota bene, represents about 10% of the Catholic priests in Ireland. They accuse it of being theologically questionable and possibly sexist, as well as, and above all, full of bad English. Meanwhile, the traditionalist blogospere has embraced it as a "correct" translation, although, in all honesty, their enthusiasm is necessarily limited for anything that is not in God's own Latin.

Indeed, to read the publicity on both sides, one would might leave with the sense that this was some bitter defeat for the "liberals" and an equally exhilarating victory for the "conservatives." And it's not as though there isn't a germ of truth to that interpretation. But, and we sincerely hope most readers already grasp the point, ecclesiastical debates rarely boil down to anything so simple. If pushed, most sober citizens will acknowledge that the matters in question in a project like this have little to do with the usual tired markers of ecclesiastical partisanship: genital theology, abortion, child molestation, inclusive language, social welfare, religious freedom, the salvation of the Jews, or human perfectibility.

The questions that translators, bishops and ultimately pastors grapple with, when preparing and introducing liturgical texts, are much less exciting to the average secular newspaper reader. For example: How shall we balance the desire for clear communication, even to the undereducated, with that for fidelity to the original text? Does "fidelity" mean what translators call "dynamic equivalence," i.e., getting the idea across, or "verbal equivalence," i.e., getting the idea across with words and sentence structures which correspond closely to those of the original? How important is the use of words (such as "consubstantial") with a history of technical use in theology, but little currency in common speech? Is there, or should there be, a distinctive idiom for liturgical language, the sort of thing that is sometime called "hieratic English"? Critically, what constitutes "beauty" in English prose?

As you can imagine, these meaty matters will never interest the newspapers. But we hope that they interest Egg readers, most of whom have at least a passing concern for truth, beauty, and worship.

The arguments over the new translation do touch, directly, upon the intentions of Vatican II and, indirectly, upon some questions of ecumenism, both of which might possibly interest an outsider, and to both of which we shall come momentarily.

For those who would like to delve a little deeper, here are some basic resources:
Here is a sample comparison of the current and forthcoming translations, borrowed from the USCCB:

Prayers at the Preparation of the Gifts


Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made. It will become for us the bread of life.

Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this wine to offer, fruit of the vine and work of human hands. It will become our spiritual drink.

Lord God, we ask you to receive us and be pleased with the sacrifice we offer you with humble and contrite hearts.

Lord, wash away my iniquity; cleanse me from my sin.


Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you: fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life.

Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodnesswe have received the wine we offer you: fruit of the vine and work of human hands it will become our spiritual drink.

With humble spirit and contrite heart may we be accepted by you, O Lord, and may our sacrifice in your sight this day be pleasing to you, Lord God.

Wash me, O Lord, from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.

Orate, fratres

Pray, brethren, that our sacrifice may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.

Pray, brethren (brothers and sisters), that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.

Yes, the new translation is syntactically clumsier. Perhaps now the Vatican will rethink its use of Google Translator in place of native speakers. (We tease, for pity's sake.)

But, in all honesty, we are not comparing Shakespeare to Dryden. Neither of these translations is a testimony to the grandeur and nuance of the English tongue. On the other hand, neither is so wretched that it makes you want to cry. Frankly, each has its own charms. So in the end, we're willing to call it even-steven, and move on.

We suggested that the new missal touches on the legacy of the Second Vatican Council, and here's why. In the heady years which followed the council, its authority was claimed for an immense number of changes in Roman Catholic life and practice, and most especially in worship. For many people, it is these changes -- few of which were actually called for by the council's own documents -- which constitute the "legacy." But at the same time, there was a movement to separate the council proper from some of the things that were done in its name. Hence we have John Paul II, making quite clear his position that Vatican II meant to encourage neither a blurring of the lines between Roman Catholicism and its Protestant dialogue partners, nor the propagation of Marxism disguised as theology by even the best-intentioned of Jesuits. And, now, we have Benedict XVI, who has made no less clear his position that the council fathers never meant to jettison, nor even marginalize, the role of the Latin language in the Latin Church -- much less to encourage goofy experimentation with the sacred liturgy.

In that sense, then, this missal is one important part of the half-century-old struggle to discern and define (dare we say control?) the meaning of Vatican II. Yes, there are plenty of people, not all of them in the press, who would like to reduce this to a simple case of liberals-versus-conservatives, but it is far more than that. It is a slow process of reckoning not only with one council, but with modernity itself.

This is one of the ecumenical aspects of the new missal. Those of us outside the Roman communion have our own versions of the struggle with modernity, sometimes quite different -- but never entirely so. The other is less abstract. In the last half of the 20th century, and especially the last quarter, there was a certain degree of convergence among Christian liturgies, particularly among the Roman, Lutheran and Anglican families. In matters of translation, the emblematic organization was the International Consultation on English Texts, which gave us most of the stolid, wooden liturgical language to which we have become accustomed. It's successor organizations, the (Protestant) ELLC and (Roman Catholic) ICEL, have since continued doing the same dirty work.

Lately, however, the paths seem to have diverged into a yellow wood. For the past ten years, Roman liturgical translation has sounded a retreat, of which the new missal is the first major product. Much of Protestantism, on the other hand, has continued its ... well, advance is not the best word for it. Have you seen the ELW psalter?

So the question is whether, assuming that Roman Catholic liturgiology continues its present course, Protestantism will continue in the direction set during the 1970s, or make some sort of corresponding course correction. Not, we hasten to add, toward the Douay-Rheims style of ultramontane bad English. We could do better, much better, by simply reclaiming Cranmer and King James. And, to what looks daily more like their credit, some Protestants never gave up either one.


mark said...

Your grandfather strongly endorsed the use of "elevated" liturgical language.

Father Anonymous said...

Very few people disagree. The problem, of course, is with defining "elevated."

Slapping a few "thees" and thous" into bad writing doesn't make it good. (Although, for some people, it may create an aesthetic illusion of goodness or even piety). At its worst, this sort of thing can get bad indeed.

The ICET and translators of its era were seeking a "noble simplicity," and although I have never liked their work, I have to admit that when there are textual differences between the LBW and ELW, it is the latter which usually adds words and clauses to a simple prayer. (With an exception for the newer ELLC translations, which have some advantages in this department; hence the disappearance of the superfluous "power" from the creed.)

So, just as it isn't a "liberals-versus-conservatives" story, neither is it an "archaic-versus-modern English" story. The problem is that taste is so variable, not to say difficult to legislate.

I wish we could just ask Robert Fagles and William Arrowsmith to take charge of all liturgical translations. Except that they're both dead.