Monday, December 19, 2011

A Final Word About New Words

Today, I celebrated my 30th Mass using the new English translation of the Roman Missal. Most have been regular parish Masses, but also Masses at the University parish and at the local Catholic school, a funeral, and a Mass for teens at their Confirmation Retreat.So much has been said and written - some of it wise, much of it foolish - about this new translation in these brief 3 weeks it has been in use (on top of the mountains more said and written prior to its introduction - either anticipating the parousia or dreading the apocalypse), that one hesitates to add anything more!

That said, it has been, on balance, a good experience. Repetition remains the mother of learning. The more frequently one recites the new formularies, the more familiar and easier they become - quicker than I had honestly expected! People (myself included) do lapse on occasion. Hence the importance of always having the text in front of one - even for simple responses. It is, in fact, for that very reason that the hardest parts for me are the "private" priestly prayers, said silently, which often accompany other actions. In the "Tridentine" liturgy, there were "Altar Cards" to address precisely this problem. When, for example, the priest went in cornu epostolae to prepare the chalice, he could read the accompanying prayer, even though the book was well out of his visual range. Of course, eventually, I will have those prayers memorized too. So this issue will become moot - hopefully sooner than later!
In ordinary English, complex Latinate constructions are no longer much in favor. Indeed, in ordinary speech (as opposed to literary English), I think a good case can be made for simple sentences with strong Anglo-Saxon words wherever possible. But, of course, we are not talking about ordinary English here, but liturgy, worship, prayer. People have always assumed that such language should be somewhat special. Thus, for example, the King James Version of the Bible (which for all its foreign-sounding English remains the most sold English version of the Bible in the world even today) was apparently written not on contemporary Jacobean English, but in the Elizabethan idiom of the previous generation - familiar enough to be completely comprehensible, but still different enough to sound "sacred."

That said, if the only issue involved were one of translation, I think a case could certainly be made for lightening up a bit on the Latinity. Not every lengthy, multi-clause sentence absolutely needs to be translated as one single sentence in English! But again the point is not just translation but fidelity. It wasn't just a question of simpler, less complex English in the 1971 version of, for example, the Confiteor, the Gloria, and the Domine, non sum dignus. Those prayers were tragically truncated. Important elements of those prayers (now thankfully restored) had simply disappeared. were it politically possible to guarantee that a simpler, less complex-sounding (but still dignified and elevated) translation would be truly faithful to the sense of the original, I think a very good case could be made for preferring such an alternative. Realistically, however, the only way, in our contemporary political climate, to guarantee such fidelity seems to be to require absolute word-for-word literalism. Given that dilemma, I see no practical alternative to literalism. For liturgy must be about fidelity.

1 comment:

  1. Well said, City Father, in faithful but simple sentences! Perhaps future English missal translations will benefit from the contributions not only of Latin scholars and theologians, but also of a few good Catholic novelists, literary souls with a love for Shakespeare and Jane Austen. However, I think more prominent changes could take place over several years, rather than one weekend.
    What's needed is a bicameral ICEL, with one chamber consisting of nose-to-the-grindstone Latinists, and the second of literary dreamers.