Sunday, November 27, 2011

"And with your spirit"

Today, the first Sunday of Advent, also marks the roll-out of the new English translation of the liturgy--the first since the end of Vatican II.

This new translation has been the subject of controversy for years (so many years that I first wrote about it in 2006, in something like Week Five of this blog's existence), but it boils down to this: the first English translation of the mass was put together relatively hastily, in the wake of Vatican II; it's simple and idiomatic, but there are a number of places where it neglects or misrepresents the substance of the original; a more faithful version had always been intended to replace it, and by the late 1990s "a richer translation that . . . hew[ed] more closely to the Latin without sacrificing clarity" had been completed and approved by every council of English-speaking bishops in the world. However, this translation was rejected by the Vatican. According to Rome, not only the sense of the Latin must be conveyed, but "every Latin word must be accounted for, and vocabulary, syntax, punctuation, and capitalization patterns found in the Latin must be reproduced as much as possible" (quoted text comes from this timeline of the history of English translations of the mass).

So disagreeing as thoroughly as I do with the Vatican's translation theory, I was prepared to hate the new translation. I'd gotten a preview of parts of the new translation in various articles and handouts over the past six months, and though I didn't think it was as awful as some commentators, I was still wary.

But listening and responding at mass today, I decided that it's neither a net gain nor a net loss. I actually like some of the new translation's circumlocutions and five-dollar words: as a literature teacher, I believe there's sometimes both aesthetic and intellectual value in language that draws attention to itself, that doesn't come totally naturally, that requires work to figure out. So while there's surely no meaningful difference between describing the second person of the trinity as "one in being with the Father" and describing him as "consubstantial with the Father," the second rendering is one that draws attention to itself, and hence to the doctrine it's articulating. In general, I like the way the new translation foregrounds a number of theological issues, like the incarnation, and in places its Latinate, archaic syntax does achieve a strange, reverent beauty.

On the other hand, there are at least as many awkwardnesses (Cosimo spent the second half of the service mouthing "oblations," with a look of comic disgust, following a particularly ugly new bit of prose that included the offending word), and lots of things that simply don't seem to matter. I don't know why the liturgy of the Eucharist now has the priest referring to the "chalice" Jesus drank from instead of the "cup" ("chalice" may be more faithful to the Latin, but surely it isn't a more accurate description of the actual drinking vessel), or what essential is being conveyed by having the congregation respond to the priest's "the Lord be with you" with "and with your spirit" instead of "and also with you."

Will the new translation lose congregants? Possibly, though I think not right away; regular church-goers are going to make a game effort to adapt to the new translation, and if it causes some people to feel more alienated from the church and to drift away, that effect will be perceptible only over time. But you know, the liturgy is the least of the reasons that people feel alienated from the church--and much as I enjoy fulminating, any energy I have would probably be better spent addressing those other reasons.


Jeff said...

I've only read the new mass and haven't yet heard it aloud, but the translators' insistence on Latinate terms like "oblation" and "consubstantial" really made me see, as I hadn't before, just how Anglo-Saxon in language the "old" English mass really is.

"Father, hear the prayers of the family you have gathered here before you. In mercy and love, unite all your children, wherever they may be." That's mostly Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, and it paints a poignant little picture, while the new version sounds like it was drafted by a lawyer: "Father, in your mercy grant also to us, your children, to enter into our heavenly inheritance." (Look at the placement of that "also." It's the work of someone who's thinking more about the source language than the target language. Anyone's who's studied and translated Latin has written dead English prose like this; I'd have hoped that official church translators would have developed more flair than first-year grad students.)

Whatever flaws the "old" mass may have had, its replacement has me appreciating anew its simple, solid imagery and lack of pretension.

Flavia said...


Yes, that's a really smart observation, re: the Anglo-Saxon in the old translation. It's stunning to think that this new translation actually reflects some efforts to smooth out the awkwardness of the first pass the committee made after receiving the Vatican's directives (and after public outcry).

I'll say that I think it sounds better than it reads, though that may just reflect the fact that our pastor is a warm and personable fellow with great stage presence (and a former professor of liturgy); not every priest, alas, can read in a way that helps to convey to his audience the sense of every clause.

Anonymous said...

I actually do think there's a meaningful difference in some of it. Seen and unseen does not mean the same as visible and invisible. There are lots of things I don't see right now that are still, strictly speaking, visible. Invisible is another kettle of fish. I also think there might be a meaningful difference between the terms "being" and "substance" but it's probably lost on most people. But since the technical Greek term behind consubstantial is homoousias and ousia is better rendered substance than anything else, I'll take it.

Jeff said...

Okay, I have to retract part of the second paragraph of my comment, because it turns out the eucharistic prayer I considered too Latinate is actually part of the old rite, not the new translation! Whoops. ...although I still think much in the new translation bears out my contention that it just sounds too legalistic. Translators often have to sacrifice euphony for accuracy, but thoughtful translators don't have to do so at every turn.

Anonymous said...

The one I have a serious problem wtih is early in the mass when we say "for my sin, for my sin, for my really horrible sin" (or whatever it is) ... are we supposed to beat ourselves and put on hairshirts too? The rest of it is not bad I guess.

Flavia said...

Anon: there are three different penitential rites that the presider can choose among (just as there were in the old translation), and I doubt the breast-beating one will be particularly popular.

Options B and C are fine, though, with B probably being my favorite (1.Have mercy on us, O Lord/2.For we have sinned against you/1.Show us, O Lord, your mercy/2.And grant us your salvation) and C retaining the perfectly serviceable "Lord have mercy/Christ have mercy/Love have mercy" responses, though the priest's lines have changed slightly.