I have had formal study in Latin for many years, but I learned more from one teacher than all the rest together.
It was the second year of Latin, in a new school. The first year had been sleepy and boring – Britannia est insula and the like – but this class was full of excitement. The teacher had a simple maxim: ‘work out who’s doing what to whom.’ We learned declensions and verb forms and grammar, but we didn’t treat the Latin as a sort of puzzle, to be deconstructed into ablatives absolute and datives of agent. We actually learned to read the language.
We started that year with Caesar. Things could go badly wrong in the provincial forests if you didn’t know who was doing what to whom: the Gauls could end up slaughtering the Romans, or Caesar’s troops could send their commander on a forced march, instead of the other way round.
What was absolutely forbidden was to translate word-for-word. It was the sense, rather than the syntax, that mattered. I worked harder in that class than I had ever worked before, but by the middle of the year I could look at a reasonably simple sentence – I remember this one in particular:
Ibi perpauci aut viribus confisi tranare contenderunt aut lintribus inventis sibi salutem reppererunt
and know, as a whole and virtually at sight, exactly what it meant – more or less, ‘There [on the banks of the Rhine] a few men, relying on their strength, attempted to swim across, while a few others found their safety in boats’. I had not previously come across linter (a small boat) but given that it was an alternative to swimming across, that the river was likely too wide to jump and too deep to ford, and that a linter had to be found before it could be used, it was clear what was going on.
Whether or not this teacher knew it, he was following the thinking of Noam Chomsky, the celebrated and controversial linguist who taught us to distinguish between ‘deep’ and ‘surface’ structures of a language. The deep structures, at least in Chomsky’s early thinking, represented underlying components (‘kernel sentences’) that were independent of the target language. These were then transformed into English or French or Latin of a given style and register of speech. Hence – returning to Caesar – the following surface forms share a common deep structure.
copias suas Caesar in proximum collem subduxit (‘Caesar leads his forces away to the next hill’)
Copiae suae Caesare in proximum collem subductae sunt (‘His forces were led away by Caesar to the nearest hill’)
even though one is in the active and the other the passive voice. I find it interesting, by the way, that while I was able to read the first sentence instantly, rendering it in the passive was a bit of a struggle, e.g. to ensure that the passive perfect verb agreed in number and gender with the subject. This is largely because my Latin is weak, but I think it also demonstrates that ‘surface structures’ vary hugely across languages.
Chomsky published his influential Syntactic Structures in 1957. The authors of Comme le Prévoit seemed to be following his thinking when they wrote in 1969 that
§5. A liturgical text, inasmuch as it is a ritual sign, is a medium of spoken communication. It is, first of all, a sign perceived by the senses and used by men to communicate with each other. But to believers who celebrate the sacred rites a word is itself a “mystery”. By spoken words Christ himself speaks to his people and the people, through the Spirit in the Church, answer their Lord.
… §7. Thus, in the case of liturgical communication, it is necessary to take into account not only the message to be conveyed, but also the speaker, the audience, and the style. Translations, therefore, must be faithful to the art of communication in all its various aspects, but especially in regard to the message itself, in regard to the audience for which it is intended, and in regard to the manner of expression.
§8. Even if in spoken communication the message cannot be separated from the manner of speaking, the translator should give first consideration to the meaning of the communication.
Anscar Chupungco describes the liturgical translation process in more detail. For our purposes the ‘source’ language is Latin and the ‘receptor’ language English:
This process also aims to discover the relationship between the ‘kernel’ and the other segments of the text, or, in other words, its global historical, cultural, doctrinal, and literary context. The process concludes with the ‘recomposition’ of the text in the new form of the receptor language.
With its particular cultural and linguistic qualities the new form should be able to clothe the content in the same manner as the original form has done. It is implied that the new form possesses equivalent qualities wherewith the content can be adequately expressed. In a way, we can describe the process of translation as the passage of content from one cultural form to another than represents equivalently the original form. A good translation is thus able to produce in the audience of the receptor language the same effect as the source language has on its original audience. In short, it achieves the same purpose as the original text.
[Anscar J Chupungco OSB, “The Translation of Liturgical Texts”, in Chupungco, ed, Introduction to the Liturgy (Liturgical Press, 1997).]
Chomsky’s theories have been controversial – the subject of the ‘linguistics wars’ of the 1970s and 1980s – and he himself eventually moved away from his earliest notion of ‘deep structure’. Nonetheless, I think that no language scholar would argue that syntax and underlying content are fundemantally the same thing.
This is where Liturgiam Authenticam goes so badly wrong: it seems to abandon the idea of the liturgy as a medium of communication. As best I understand it, Lit Auth asserts that the Latin of the Mass has not only a ‘sacral’ vocabulary but also a ‘sacral’ syntax that has to be followed in every language into which it is rendered. In a tangled way, it seems explicitly to contradict the idea that Chupungco sets out above:
§19. The words of the Sacred Scriptures, as well as the other words spoken in liturgical celebrations, especially in the celebration of the Sacraments, are not intended primarily to be a sort of mirror of the interior dispositions of the faithful; rather, they express truths that transcend the limits of time and space.
In other words, it is unimportant that the faithful understand the words as they are spoken; it is the words themselves, not their meaning, that ‘express truths that transcend the limits of time and space.’
Hence we get the remarkable §29 of Lit Auth:
It is the task of the homily and of catechesis to set forth the meaning of the liturgical texts, illuminating with precision the Church’s understanding regarding the members of particular Churches or ecclesial communities separated from full communion with the Catholic Church and those of Jewish communities, as well as adherents of other religions – and likewise, her understanding of the dignity and equality of all men. Similarly, it is the task of catechists or of the homilist to transmit that right interpretation of the texts that excludes any prejudice or unjust discrimination on the basis of persons, gender, social condition, race or other criteria, which has no foundation at all in the texts of the Sacred Liturgy. Although considerations such as these may sometimes help one in choosing among various translations of a certain expression, they are not to be considered reasons for altering either a biblical text or a liturgical text that has been duly promulgated.
Liturgiam Authenticam therefore agrees that correct understanding is important – but apparently this understanding doesn’t have to occur during the liturgy itself. That is why I have heard more than one homily explaining that, while we say ‘for many’, what we really mean is ‘for all’.
I can only imagine that, as the Mass is translated on these bizarre principles to languages like Japanese and Turkish, where the surface structure differs wildly from that of English, more such problems will emerge. Eventually the language becomes a sacral babble, one that requires the faithful to carry along a hand missal. In which case, why not stick to the Latin? That would certainly make the work of music directors easier.
I think that Chomsky, Comme le Prévoit and my second-year Latin teacher had the right view of translation. But if this view is no longer licit, then we should say Mass in Latin and not bother translating. Perhaps this was the intent from the start. Caesar might well have approved.