Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Translation practice and the liturgy

Those of you who care about such things may have heard that the Catholic Church has announced that it's revamping the English-language liturgy so that it hews more closely to the language of the Tridentine Latin orginal.

In and of itself, this move doesn't seem particularly controversial and might even appear desireable--who, after all, could be against greater accuracy in translation?--but it's worrying for several reasons.

First, it's one more example of the Vatican's centralization of authority. While during Vatican II the translation of the liturgy into the vernacular had been assumed to be the right and responsibility of individual countries and their local bishops, now the Vatican is insisting that all translations follow the Latin scrupulously and be overseen and approved by Rome itself. (Although in theory this decision affects all vernacular translations, the effort seems to be directed mostly at the English-speaking world.)

Second, the Vatican is not merely acting to correct acknowledged inadequacies--whether of meaning or of style--in the current translations. In fact, the International Commission on the English Liturgy (ICEL), made up of representatives from 11 English-speaking countries, had been working on a new translation of the liturgy for some 30 years, "aiming at a fuller, richer, more poetic and exalted tone" while remaining faithful to the original.* Because of Rome's displeasure with the nature of their translations, however, the ICEL has been purged of its original leadership and its decades of work have been completely scrapped.

I don't have inside or detailed knowledge of the process, so most of my information comes from what I've heard on NPR and (especially) from this article in last December's Commonweal magazine. However, according to the article's author, John Wilkins, one of the issues that first worried the Vatican was the translation committee's use of inclusive language. Inclusive language, people--like not using "mankind" and "men" and "brothers" when it was reasonable to assume that a broader audience was intended.

But I don't want to get sidetracked into making this about the church and gender, since that's a separate, neverending, but ultimately not very interesting rant. To me this story is about the erosion of local autonomy in the church--and, at least as crucially, about intellectual and linguistic idiocy.

Here, according to Wilkins, is what the Vatican thinks about translation:
Instead of conveying an equivalence of meaning between the Latin and English texts, as had been ICEL’s practice hitherto, the congregation [for the doctrine of the faith] . . . wanted translations that conveyed an equivalence of individual words.

. . . . .

[The Vatican's 2001 instructions on translation] insisted that translations follow an extreme literalism, extending even to syntax and rhythm, punctuation, and capital letters. The clear implication was that in this way it would be possible to achieve a sort of “timeless” English above the change of fashion, a claim reminiscent of that made for the Ronald Knox translation of the Bible, which today is so dated that it is not read except as a period piece. [Italics mine]
I don't even know what to say to that, except that it seems to reflects the same anti-modern, un-nuanced, and frankly almost talismanic attitude toward words that our current president has: it's the belief that language is completely transparent, that words have only one meaning, and that by invoking the right ones--"liberty" and "freedom," say--you're somehow making an entirely clear and unassailable statement. "Interpretation," on the other hand, is evidence that you're imposing mere "opinion" on something that all right-thinking people know means something completely different.

Well, I'm sorry. The Constitution is a living document. "American values" has no single sense. Language is not transparent. And the Church is its members, has changed over time, and is capable of being better than it is.


*All quotations are from Wilkins's article, which is a fine and very worthwhile read despite the author's penchant for gawdawful cliches along the lines of, "But the committee had an ace in the hole," "storm clouds were now gathering over the ICEL," and "Rome was moving toward a knockout blow."


jo(e) said...

Pretty much everything the Vatican does these days is worrisome.

meg said...

Ohhhhh yeah. Speaking as someone whose main research area is Bible translation, I can only roll my eyes (and before you accuse me of mixing my metaphors, you bet that qualifies as speaking).

First of all, it was St. Jerome -- creator of the Vulgate Bible that is Rome's end-all and be-all -- who insisted on sense-for-sense, not word-for-word translation. (And don't get me started on all the changes that Jerome made to the Hebrew and Greek originals.)

Aside from the basic centralization, bash-the-yanks trend going on in Rome, there are two things that really chap my hide about this:

First of all, Rome is backsliding into a senseless reverence of the Vulgate as divine work that Vatican II repudiated and that was even questionable at the Council of Trent (1546+).

And second, the recent totalitarian turn in the Church flies in the face of the whole notion of Congregation, which is and must be central to religion. Or should be, if they read the Bible -- but one wonders sometimes.

Anonymous said...

An interesting post. I heard this news yesterday as D. and I were on our way home from the Episcopal General Convention (so much interesting going on in the world of organized religion these days!). When the NPR reporter read an example of the current liturgy and then the new liturgy that the Vatican is insisting on, I turned to D. and said, "So essentially they're giving up on Rite II and insisting on Rite I," i.e., giving up on the RC version of what the Episcopal Church adopted as liturgy in 1979 liturgy and going back to the 1928 liturgy. In other words, I agree with your assessment of the situation as anti-modern. Very troubling.