Here’s a fun translation challenge for you. You’re translating a German story in which a lady sneezes. Then this line: “Gesundheit!” sagt Herr Schmidt. What does Mr. Schmidt say to her in your English version??

“Health!” Mr. Schmidt said. This is the most literal translation – “Gesundheit” means “health” in English. But that doesn’t sound quite right; we wouldn’t say that in English.

“To your health!” Mr. Schmidt said. This retains the literal meaning of the German word, but puts it in idiomatic English. It’s a bit like the French toast, “à votre santé.” But it requires adding two words not in the German, strictly speaking. And it’s still not what we say in English when somebody sneezes.

“God bless you!” Mr. Schmidt said. This seems best to capture what took place in the original social setting. It is a matter of ritual conventions here, one might hold, not exact content, and hence the use of the normal response for English-language social settings.

“Gesundheit!” Mr. Schmidt said. This treats the German word as we treat Hosanna and Alleluia in liturgical English – leave it in the original and it becomes a part of the vocabulary of the receptor language. It’s what we said in my childhood home, though none of us knew German except my mother who grew up with it. No doubt it was the influence of people like my mother which brought the German word into Midwest English. The problem is that this translation will sound more right to some readers of English than others, depending in part upon where they grew up.

So, which of the above four translations is accurate? All four are, but each in a different way. Each can be defended. It depends on your theory of translation.

Which of the above four translation approaches will we get in our new missal? All four, each in various places in the missal. Judgments had to be made, and there is no single right answer.

If we’ve learned nothing else from this very long process, I hope we’ve learned this: there are no easy answers when it comes to translation.

I hope we’re also learning this: Each of us has only a piece of the truth. All of us need to listen to each other. Our Christian faith calls us to respect everyone’s viewpoint and treat everyone charitably.

Now, there are some great lessons for all of us to learn, and to keep on re-learning! If the whole missal mess helps us do that, I’ll take it as a sign that God is still powerfully at work in his Church.


Send to Kindle