15 February 2007

Translation Wars?

I’ve had a few emails asking me to comment on the “translation wars” raging in the English speaking Catholic world. I’m not sure I have anything new to add to the discussion, but here are some thoughts:

1. There is no inherent contradiction in having liturgical language that is: beautiful, functional, and orthodox. Only translation ideologues insist on privileging one of these to the detriment of the others. The current translation of the Missale strikes me overly functional, not very beautiful, and dodgy with regards to orthodoxy (can we all say, “Semi-Pelagian?”).

2. I’m not sure a slavish translation of the Latin text is going to get us an English text that is broadly useful in the American church. Don’t get me wrong: I want an accurate translation…but I also want a translation that is not going to be overly decorated and unintentionally funny. Theological accuracy and clarity are more important than beauty; but, again these are not mutually exclusive.

3. The debate over using “theological terms” (i.e., consubstantial) strikes me as absurd. American Catholics are well-educated and willing to learn. Put three lines in the bulletin explaining the theological terms and move on. To claim that we shouldn’t use theologically accurate language b/c folks might not understand it is insulting. Let’s challenge Catholics to rise a little above their current understanding of the faith. Why is that a problem?

4. The Vatican’s call for the development of a “sacral vernacular” (Liturgiam authenticam, n. 47) is a fantastic idea. This is an opportunity for a meeting of the minds—theological, practical, pastoral, creative, etc.—in the creation of a “dialect” for Catholics to use in their worship. Two extremes seem wrong: using marketplace language in the liturgy or using overly elevated or decorated language. What would a sacral vernacular look like, I wonder? Surely an accurate translation of the Latin Missale would be a good start…but we risk making the Mass sound like a bad parody if we don’t adjust some of the more florid repetitions and obscure concepts.

5. For those who complain about a distinct language for worship: given the reality of multiple daily languages (work, home, friends, colleagues, superiors, etc). why is a language for worship so odd? I mean, any given person in the country is required to function within several languages in order to succeed. We move easily between the language we use at home to the language we use at work to the language we use with our boss. Why not a language that marks out the liturgy as something distinct? Granted: these are not languages per se, but they do constitute different ways of construing and managing daily circumstances.

Well, for what it’s worth…comments?


  1. Good points.
    For what it's worth, the world language of flight is English.

  2. Anonymous2:21 PM

    Can we put you in charge?

    No, honestly, no matter who are doing the translations, they should be people who read a lot of good literature and poetry written in English. People who read too much Greek, Latin, and German without counterbalancing with good English, particularly those who spend a lot of time reading documents aimed at experts in a given field, develop a tendency toward very long and complex sentences, albeit grammatically permissible in English, whose complexity is such that it impedes understanding, especially so when these sentences are supposed to be spoken out loud to people who may or may not have the written text in front of them rather than read on the printed page with the inherent ability to backtrack and reread.

    I want an accurate translation, by which I mean an accurant translation of the meaning which will not necessairly be a word-by-word translation because of the differences in languages. I want something that sounds beautiful. I don't want to be told not to bother my pretty little head about those tough concepts. I'm a grownup in one of the most literate and educated societies history has ever known and I'm willing to learn to fill in the gaps left by CCD.


  3. I personally think that the problem with both the New American Bible and the ICEL texts is that they have been done by committee.

    I think it also is evident that where good translations of the Bible, or good translations of liturgical texts have been made, they have been made by individual people (such as Jerome, or Archbishop Cranmer), or by groups of individuals working on individual pieces of texts (such as the Septuagint, which according to tradition, meant the 70 Hebrew scholars in Alexandria who each translated a portion of the Tanach; or the English Jerusalem Bible, who used the same method).

    My point is that as long as committees are doing the translation, you are going to have the lowest common denominator of its members, rather than the highest. As Mark Twain said, "The camel was a horse built by committee."

  4. Anonymous5:33 PM

    Did Marie intentionally write that very long and complex sentence to explain her problem with people who write very long and complex sentences?

  5. Maria,

    My thanks for your vote of confidence. I agree with you. Not that I should be in charge, but that the translation cmte needs a few poets and playwrights. Second to my theological obejctions to the current translation is my objection to the clunky pace of the text. The alternative opening prayers, for example, are usually OK. But they tend to use subordinate clauses too frequently. This makes the sense of the sentence difficult to hear much less follow. Liturgical language shouldn't be poetry, but it should capture the ear and demand attention.

    Fr Philip, OP

  6. Father: I could not agree more. Catholic are not born dumb, they are made dumb. A large part of the blame lies with the folks who think that just becuase all of us don't have S.T.L. after our name we can't grasp anything past a 3rd grade reading level.

  7. Cathy,

    I continue to be amazed at the condescension of the liturgically progressive bishops who insist that your average Catholic can't understand basic theological terms. This seems to me to be an attempt at keeping the sacred guild language out of the hands of the plebs. Of course, this sort of elitist posturing for the "good of the people" isn't all that uncommon among revolutionaries. What it usually means is that the "people" don't agree with what the revolutionaries are doing in their name, so the revolutionaries have to invent "reactionaries" against which they then put themselves as heroes. I've said it before: there's an interesting parallel to be drawn btw the Red Guard thugs of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Spirit of Vatican Two thugs of the 1960's, 70's, and 80's.

    Fr. Philip