An Issue for Future Liturgical Translations (3): Verbal Forms of Court Etiquette

Given the reaction to my speculations about the propriety of presenting God as a slave-holder and baptized Christians as his house-slaves in translations of the Roman Canon, I propose the following with some trepidation. Since my concern here is NOT mistranslation of an underlying Latin text (the focus of #1) but whether and how to translate aspects of a text generated at a point in history whose cultural assumptions may be far from our own (the focus of #2), I look forward to any insights that might move this discussion forward.

Gerald O’Collins’ (with John Wilkins’) helpful booklet Lost in Translation: The English Language and the Roman Mass (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press 2017) alerts the reader to a concern of Comme le pre’voit, the set of guidelines directing liturgical translation until the release of Liturgiam Authenticam:

“…Comme le pre’voit speaks of historical matters accurately. It recalled, for instance, that in the Latin liturgy ‘many of the phrases of approach to the Almighty were originally adapted from forms of address to the sovereign in the courts of Byzantium and Rome.’ Hence translators should ‘study how far an attempt should be made to offer equivalents in modern English for such words as quaesumus, dignare, clementissime, maiestas, and the like’ (CLP) 13. Unfortunately, those who prepared the 2010 Missal…seem to have failed to put this question to themselves.” (27)

“The 2010 Missal relentlessly pursues…the unctuous or fulsome paths of [Byzantine and Roman] courts, with ‘graciously’ incessantly introducing prayers: ‘graciously grant,’ ‘graciously accept,’ ‘graciously choose,’ and so forth. ‘We pray’ is likewise regularly inserted….” (39)

What O’Collins describes above is what I mean by “verbal forms of court etiquette.” In other parts of Lost in Translation, the author argues convincingly (at least to me) that the insertion of these elements of ancient court address needlessly complicates these prayers in English. In addition to O’Collins’ discussion of how or whether to translate quaesumus inserted into prayer-texts (perhaps for the sake of cursus or concinnitas), I would raise the possibility that the Deity is sometimes addressed with court vocabulary, obscured in our translations by leaving particular words in lower case.

For example, the Collect for the 29th Sunday of the Year reads in Latin:

Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, / fac nos tibi semper et devotam genere voluntatem, / et maiestati tuae sincere corde servire. Per Dominum….

The 2010 Missal translation reads:

Almighty ever-living God, / grant that we may always conform our will to yours / and serve your majesty in sincerity of heart. Through our Lord….

I remember when I prepared to pray this text aloud I was confused: I thought I knew what it meant to “conform our will to” God’s but it wasn’t clear to me how we might “serve [God’s] majesty in sincerity of heart.” My confusion dissipated when I considered that “tuae maiestati” might be a polite form of address, normally rendered in English with capital letters: “Your Majesty.” I then remembered Latin letters written during the patristic era that frequently used such honorifics in addressing the recipient of the letter: “Your Clemency,” “Your Grace,” “Your Mercy,” “Your Piety,” etc. I am left with the question of whether or not future translators would choose to indicate these honorifics (if in fact they are) by means of capitalization or simply omit them in favor of some form of the pronoun “you” (“grant that we may always conform our will to yours / and serve you in sincerity of heart”).

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22 comments

  1. Noting Fr Joncas’s more general question, I would just like to put this out there: the perhaps common idea that courtly etiquette does not obtain in our culture shows how well our own modern court etiquette may be in our cognitive blindspots. If anything, for example, we certainly now have vivid examples of erstwhile legislators groveling before authority; but before that, we certainly know how to beseech myriad celebrities and tycoons.

    It’s quite easy to see what at surface may differ between one cultural context and another; it may take more work to see what endures in common beneath the surface. In other words, the moment we start to assure ourselves of how different we are from those that went before us is a good moment to check that thought and be more critical of it. Btw, there is an opportunity for a certain virtue in cultivating this habit: it can help us cultivate solidarity with people we might not otherwise identify with. (Empathy is squishy and not nearly as fruitful as solidarity, which requires act of will.) And solidarity is part of the oxygen necessary for social and interpersonal trust which, in case anyone hasn’t noticed, is getting scarcer in the ether at least.

    If we want to stop “othering” other people, it may be easier to kickstart that with those who have gone before us. (To be clear: this is not a critique of Fr. Joncas’ post: rather, his post has implications that occasioned these thoughts of mine.)

  2. I thank Mr./Prof. Saur for his insight. I was somewhat aware of that when reflecting on the difference between my own USA upbringing and those in other English-speaking cultures. For example, I would think “Your Majesty” has an entirely different resonance for someone in England. I was also somewhat dumbfounded when I first heard “Your Grace” used in casual conversation to address a bishop (in Ireland or England, as I recall).

    Would you be willing to give some examples of courtly etiquette operating in the USA? (I think of “Hail to the Chief” being played at the entrance of the president, but I don’t think “Chief” would be a common honorific for the president, although it may have a connection with “Commander in Chief”.) And just for fun, I like pointing out the “Christ, the chairman of the board” is not an inculturated version of “Christ the King”….

  3. Think of the theatre that is the annual State of the [Union/State/City] address for presidents/governors/mayors. We have annual awards ceremonies (not just the Kennedy Center Honors with head of state in attendance, but all the usual industry honors). The red carpets of display of fashions by our aristocracy. The annual listings of wealthiest people and families in business magazines. The ringing of bells at the NY Stock Exchange announcing the the advent of a new womb for heirs of wealth – we ape and resent our wealthfactors, just like aristos of old; it’s better than canons from the Tower…. And we have our versions of hippodromes, with Reds (Standers) and Blues (Kneelers) instead of Blues and Greens. If anything, as our politics gets scraped back to the tribalistic typicality of human history, we’re probably getting more, not less, of this.

    And I am not a professor. Sorry.

  4. With all due respect to KLS’s interventions, Mike Joncas’s post was about verbal forms of court etiquette. None of KLS’s examples seem to contribute to that discussion: they concern parallel honorific phenomena, rather than verbal forms.

    Your Majesty is not in fact the correct form of address in England. The Queen is properly addressed as Ma’am (pronounced “Marm”). In addition, terms of honorific address are often used in England in a sarcastic or jesting way. I frequently jokingly refer to my wife as “Her Maj”; people will address a priest friend as “Your Holiness” with a smile on their lips —a further reason for eliminating honorifics in liturgical translation.

    I said on this blog some time ago that the grovelling language we find in the 2010 Missal is redolent of the court flunkey who kisses up in order to gain a favour from his master. We do not take it seriously when we encounter it on TV or in the cinema in period pieces and elsewhere (e.g. Blackadder), and the same is true in the liturgy. Such language evokes nothing more than sniggers.

    On a point of info, in England “Your Grace” is the proper mode of address for an Archbishop (as opposed to a bishop, who is “My Lord”), although in practice prelates these days are addressed simply as “Bishop” (or “Archbishop”) or “Bishop [first name]”.

  5. What is needed in this discussion is to back up and ask: Why does traditional liturgy (Eastern and Western) utilize “court etiquette”? Is it simply that the liturgy happened to grow up around courts, and, well, we don’t have courts any more, so we should get rid of all this ceremony and language? Or is there something deeper going on? I have grappled with this more fundamental question in two articles at NLM that could enrich this discussion.

    http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2017/01/a-defense-of-liturgy-as-carolingian.html#.WgJH4I-PL4U
    http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2017/10/revisiting-courtly-liturgy.html

    1. I think it’s important to distinguish between courtly rituals and courtly modes of address, which is what Mike Joncas’s post is about. No one is saying that there is anything “wrong” with bows or genuflections, but the use of words such as “vouchsafe”, “deign”, “beseech” and so on are no longer part of our lives.

      Two side notes on the articles that Peter linked to:

      The first article states that it is illicit for the presiding priest not to distribute Communion. But there are occasions when the priest is too feeble to do so, and will simply sit down and have a deacon or others distribute in his place. Canon 930 even talks about priests who cannot stand. GIRM 93 refers to the role of the presider in distributing Communion, but does not say that he has to do so. GIRM 162 refers to assistants for the presider. The law is not black and white.

      The second article takes a swipe at Collegeville which it brands as the root of the perception of monasticism as austere, angular, etc. But in fact this is true of many monasteries. Simplicity, austerity and clean lines are characteristic of many communities, not necessarily even Benedictine ones.

      1. If we follow a court ritual, doesn’t the language of that ritual follow? It would seem that the language should go with the action.

      2. Here’s Comme le prévoit 1969, second half of para 13:

        Many of the phrases of approach to the Almighty were originally adapted from forms of address to the sovereign in the courts of Byzantium and Rome. It is necessary to study how far an attempt should be made to offer equivalents in modern English for such words as “quaesumus,” “dignare,” “clementissime,” “maiestas,” and the like.

        I don’t think anyone would seriously maintain that our liturgy still follows courtly ritual, although some manifestations of it resemble nothing so much as liturgical marionettes acting out a drama.

      3. Scripture consistently refers to the kingship of God. Perhaps in our democratic age we have lost the vocabulary of dealing with Kings. I don’t think we should be so ready to reject the vocabulary of a past age if we don’t readily have one to replace it. And perhaps in an age of secularization, reminders of God’s transcendant kingship might serve as a needed corrective.

  6. It is my experience that honorifics are commonly used in the USA during formal occasions. In a court of law we still say, “your honor.” In the military we refer to “Honorable Mr. Dick Chaney” (Okay, I know I’m dating myself). On TV I’ve seen honorifics used on the House and Senate Floor (i.e., Madame Secretary). In the Church it is not uncommon to refer to “Monsignor,” “your Eminence,” “your Excellency,” and of course, “your Holiness.” Mind you, this is usually in a formal situation. But, isn’t the Sacred Liturgy a formal situation? And no matter what changes in our contemporary culture, aren’t we still addressing the Messiah-the King? So, why wouldn’t courtly address continue in the Church unabated?

  7. Is not Lord in the Old Testament an honorific, used as a substitute for the name of God which wasn’t to be pronounced? Perhaps not that different than Paul Inwood’s “Ma’am” for the queen (or “Mum” – that’s what we hear on Masterpiece Theater).

    To address God as “you” or “your” frankly seems too democratic – implies an equality of social relationship that doesn’t correspond to the reality.

    I agree with Karl that, if the honorifics are in the original, I don’t think we should conclude too easily that, “we don’t have royalty or nobility in the US, therefore this language doesn’t apply to us.”

    One of the critiques of the 1975 translation, as I recall, was that it occasionally inserted “Father” into collects and other prayers in which “Pater” or similar terms of address weren’t found. Perhaps these insertions of “Father” were an attempt to address the problem of social equality implied by “you”?

    1. These are fascinating posts and comments!

      It seems to me that rather than being too concerned with how courtly titles sound in our modern ear, we might think more simply about if and how we should use metonymy (specifically synecdoche) as a circumlocution when addressing God who cannot be comprehended in a name. In this case, isn’t some sort of “attribute name” really all we have? When I hear references like “Your Majesty”, or “the Glory of the Lord”, I’m thinking more about that than about whether the title was borrowed from a courtly view of society.

      I leave aside the discussion of the excessive pleonasms and the somewhat groveling tone of some of the prayers in the current translation.

  8. Another thought in regards to honorifics. I couldn’t help but think of how central the psalter is in the Liturgy, and how it teaches us to address Jesus in his divine and kingly status. Surely, this would give some weight to the use of honorifics in our orations. Not to mention, if we use honorifics for ecclesiastics, judges, politicians, and even the President. It wouldn’t make sense that we won’t use them for the King of kings, and Lord of lords, who is greater than all of them. Would it?

    1. Is this not this the tension between immanence and transcendence when contemplating God?
      It is brought out in many, many, hymns, e.g.:

      “Immortal, invisible, God only wise
      In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes”

      “Father of heaven, whose love profound….”

      “O worship the king, all glorious above
      [and through to the last verses:]
      “Our Maker, Defender, Redeemer and Friend.
      O measureless might, ineffable love . . ”

      “What a friend we have in Jesus”

      “Crown him with many crowns,
      The Lamb upon his throne . .
      Crown him the Virgin’s Son;
      The God incarnate born …
      Crown him the Lord of love . . .
      Crown him the Lord of peace . . .”

      and perhaps above all, from John Newton’s “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds”
      “Jesus! my Shepherd, Brother, Friend,
      my Prophet, Priest and King,
      my Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,
      Accept the praise I bring.”

      There are innumerable other examples.
      We cheerfully mix our modes of address to God in our hymns, often in the same hymn.
      I cannot see why also doing so in our liturgical prayers is a problem.

      1. God’s transcendence is something quite different than using the language of court etiquette. The way in which God is ‘distanced’ is quite different in these two cases. I’ve had virtually no direct experience with monarchs, but calling them “Your Majesty” and the like doesn’t highlight their transcendence since they’re fellow human beings (albeit on a higher social level) right in front of you.
        awr

  9. I think there’s ample Biblical precedence for using “maiestas” as an actual concept to consider. It shows up, for example, in Ps 145:5. “On the glorious splendor of Your majesty And on Your wonderful works, I will meditate.” I could easily give several more examples.

    Even “quaesumus” shows up in Jonah 1:14 as a prayer of Jonah: Then they called on the LORD and said, “We earnestly pray, O LORD, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life and do not put innocent blood on us; for You, O LORD, have done as You have pleased.”

    If these concepts are not a part of our lives, we should at least /consider/ the possibility that our lives might benefit from an intentional reorientation.

  10. Using the correct forms of address for God is one thing.
    Using obsequious adverbs is another. The language of the prayers would be improved by simply stripping out all the occurrences “graciously” and even worse “deign.” I British English “deign” in particular is hardly ever used except in a sarcastic manner “If you could deign to shut up and listen for a moment…….”
    And using our British royal family as a contemporary model of a royal court, I have to wonder when was the last time that Prince Charles asked his mother if she would graciously deign to pass the salt.

    1. Alan Johnson: The language of the prayers would be improved by simply stripping out all the occurrences “graciously” and even worse “deign.”

      Unless I’m mistaken, “deign” appears nowhere in the English translation of MR3. It seems odd to critique the translation for a word that doesn’t appear in it!

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