The Challenge of Translation

The Challenge of Translation
by Pádraig McCarthy

Fr. Pádraig McCarthy is a retired priest of the archdiocese of Dublin. This article appears in the current issue of The Furrow and reprinted here by permission of the author.

40 comments

  1. Apart from the power plays in high and low places, I don’t think most laity and certainly a goodly number of priests care too much about this or at least know how it also occurs on the parish level too, but enough said.
    Where I disagree with Fr. McCarthy is the need for street English for the Mass and the other sacraments if we are to be faithful to the Incarnation. In terms of Incarnation and its specifics in Jesus’ life, I do understand and agree with that for everyday life. Certainly popular piety and devotions , charismatic prayer, home blessings, conversational prayer in private or with others should indeed incorporate a more folksy, everyday casualness. But I would beg to disagree with the feel and sound of the Mass, the other sacraments and the Divine Office.
    I think what we saw following Vatican II is the total dismantling of popular piety and devotions and heaped every popular thing once isolated to devotions upon the Mass both in language and some elements of inculturation and piety.
    I think there needs to be a teasing out once again of high, temple worship inherited from our Jewish brothers and sisters in the synagogue/temple and even from our pagan relatives in term of the ceremony of the court that the Church baptized and made her own and a more mundane form of formal worship. We can certainly baptize and make our own popular piety of day and of various cultures but not necessarily with the Mass and formal worship of the church.
    In terms of time lines, I think Fr. McCarthy is right. We will have this translation for about 20 years or more. The next major shift should take into account the concerns already printed on this blog but hopefully an elevated more sacred sounding English will not be dumped in favor of more of the same that we’ve had for the last 40 years or so.

    1. “…hopefully an elevated more sacred-sounding English will not be dumped…”

      Last evening, I and a few others from my parish listened to a DVD of Msgr. Moroney extolling the beauty and fidelity of the new Missal translation for an audience of priests. As part of his presentation, segments of uplifting speeches from Abraham Lincoln (Second Inaugural), JFK (Inaugural), and Reagan (upon the Shuttle Challenger accident) were read. I think these excerpts were intended to suggest that the new translation represents similarly elevated prose.

      Although the quotes he selected represented “elevated” rhetoric and rather lengthy sentences, in no case were subject and verb separated by more than a few words, and in no case was there a subordinate clause in the midst of a thought. In short, the quotes selected were outstanding examples of prose composed with oral delivery in mind–in stark contrast with the examples of the new translation he cited and read elsewhere in his presentation (words were provided on the screen so we could follow along).

      One view of the new translation I’ve developed is that it tries to be “sacred-sounding” by means of convolution, which can “sound lofty” but is really just confusing. I think what elevates English beyond the level of everyday speech is the skilled and poetic use of imagery and careful attention to the cadence of the language. Use of imagery, poetry, and cadence are techniques which elevate and clarify, and in no way obscure, the sense of what is being communicated. These techniques can make for sacred English, not merely “sacred-sounding” English.

      1. Jay, I appreciate your valid insights. I think we should distinguish between the people’s parts and what the priest will be praying. For the most part, the revision of the people’s parts are good and most will get adjusted to it rather quickly. I don’t see these parts changing even in 20 years. The priest’s parts are another story. In 20 years who knows what the politics of the Church will be or if the Second Coming has already occurred. I don’t think we’ll be going back to what we are leaving, but we more than likely will improve on what we are getting. But a new generation, the younger people today, are the ones who will be doing it but I suspect there will still be power plays come what may.

      2. One view of the new translation I’ve developed is that it tries to be “sacred-sounding” by means of convolution, which can “sound lofty” but is really just confusing. I think what elevates English beyond the level of everyday speech is the skilled and poetic use of imagery and careful attention to the cadence of the language.

        Yes!

  2. This is a subject that is a sore point with me. I am not a linguist by any means but I am somewhat familiar with the basics of Latin, German and even Farsi, besides English.

    Why is it that so many words, and I will use the Bible for my examples translated so poorly, often for politically correct reasons.

    1. “Slave” is translated as “servant.”

    2. Personal pronouns, particularly in the second person singular, “You, Peter” and plural “You” [disciples], are not distinguishable in English translation.

    3. Why can the French use “pour nous” in the Pater Noster, and English speakers must use “for us men?”

    3. In “upon this rock” the German uses “Fels”, their word for cliff, implying a large size, while “rock” in English can mean anything from “stone” to an outcropping or bedrock.

    4. Perhaps the most incomprehensible example that I have found in the Bible is John 21: 15-17, the famous “Do you love me” conversation between the Lord and Peter.

    The problem is that I found that different words are being used in the Latin and Greek translations.

    A literal translation, edited for size, would be something along the line of:

    Do you esteem me, Peter? Yes Lord, you know I love you.
    Do you esteem me, Peter? Yes Lord, you know I love you.
    Do you love me Peter? Yes Lord, you know I love you.

    The lord is using the Latin “diligis me” and Peter is using “amo te.” In Greek, “agape” and “fils”

    To me, that adds a great deal of meaning to the exchange.

    If I, a rank amateur, can find examples of poor translations, how many more must there be in the Bible and new the Old Sacramentary/Lectionary and the new Roman Missal.

    English grammer is a living language, and many of its complexities have been discontinued. That makes it much more difficutl to translative from other languages that have not discontinued them.

    1. I’d dispute your charge of political correctness. Bible translators are making sincere efforts to bring us accurate translations of scripture. Some of what may disturb you may come down to a matter of translation theory–do you translate so as to give the thought of the original or the structure of the original? You have to choose and something will get lost in translation no matter which way you choose.

      1. For the servant-slave issue you mention, I’d probably favor more direct translations. On the other hand, an American who hears the word “slave” is more likely to think of the slaves in Southern plantations in the 1800s than the more ambiguous status slaves could have in ancient societies. Depending on the circumstances of the verse in question, the word “slave” might well lead to a misinterpretation on the part of modern readers. Or in a given instance, it might be ambiguous whether a servant is also a slave.

      2. Modern English generally doesn’t make a distinction between the 2nd person singular and the 2nd person plural, except for some constructions such as “you all.”

      3. I’m not familiar with either your French or your German examples.

      4. There’s a good discussion of this in the translation notes of the Anchor Bible volume that covers this. Basically, you have more modern commentators who say that there must be a difference in meaning between the terms because the Greek uses different words. On the other hand, older commentators say there is no meaningful difference. Also, Aramaic would have only used one general word for “love” and the Syriac translation does only use one word in all three instances here. So the Anchor Bible translation (and most others) opts for “love” in all instances instead of finding terms to distinguish the two different Greek words used here.

  3. RM #7 & SH #8 Also “principle” is used when the context suggests “principal” is intended.

    It is just this sort of care-taking which has obviously not been done with VC2010. Not only was this camel designed by committee, it is a secret committee whose employer is going to force all the local ranchers to use them and call them horses.

    I guess it can be made to work, but this is what one gets
    when even the greatest theories are not peer reviewed.

  4. AJM #4 “I think what we saw following Vatican II is the total [?] dismantling of popular piety and devotions and heaped every popular thing once isolated to devotions upon the Mass both in language and some elements of inculturation and piety.”

    With this I can agree.

    OTOH, I think there is no place in Christianity for the temple worship pattern, nor any longer for the royal court pattern, no matter how well some modern people can accept and adjust themselves to it.

    The temple is gone except as in we, the Christian people, are the temple and individual temples of God.

    The theocratic/hierarchic/sacerdotal priesthood is gone. Instead we have overseers of elders, all of whom are called to lead the people of God in prayer and to minister to the needs of the people.

    That being said, there is no single right way to do liturgy for all times and places and congregations. The few at a retreat house need an intimate and personal celebration more like Thanksgiving [Eucharistia] dinner, but the thousands at the basilica of St. Peter for Midnight Mass need something much more dramatic, formal, and elaborate.

    The mistake is to try to force one approach on all people in their individual congregations and their different cultures.

    It is my opinion, that it would not hurt to have the new translation as an option for the minority who might appreciate its particular values. I would hope that even for that it would be withheld for a while to repair the relatively few problems widely pointed out. However, this translation is an aural disaster for most US parishes and will be a source of even more criticism of the poor presiding skills for many priests. More criticism is not what any layer of the RCC needs right now.

    I think it is possible to complain loud and long and professionally [especially given a theater and public speaking background or for masters of English or Latin] and to continue pointing out problems but still obediently use what is…

    1. Um, where did the sacerdotal priesthood run off to? I missed that one in Vatican II…even a broad reading of Presbyterorum Ordinis would not justify that conclusion.

      1. St Paul told us that we have only one high priest who offered one sacrifice for all time.

        No one other than Jesus and the Levites are called priests in the new testament.

        The early church had overseers and elders, episcopoi and presbyters, not hieros. It is the job of these to preach and lead the community in prayer. Just because the image of
        sacrificial priests and the status they had in the pagan communities was taken by presbyters does not mean that was their role. The role is ministry to the congregation, preaching, leadership in prayer. Lead, preside, preach, serve, minister to the needs of the assembly of which every member is at prayer.

      2. I take this as an interpretation of LG 10, the “sacerdotal priesthood” is the priesthood that belongs to every Christian by baptism, and the “hierarchical priesthood” refers to a different participation in the one priesthood of Christ that belongs to ministers (hierarchy) who serve to enable the baptized to exercise their priesthood. Because this two differ “in essence”, projecting the trappings of the sacerdos and temple onto the hierarchical minister is a distortion. (I am not saying this is right, just that it might be a reasonable interpretation of LG 10 and might be what Tom means)

        Though they differ from one another in essence and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are nonetheless interrelated: each of them in its own special way is a participation in the one priesthood of Christ.(2*) The ministerial priest, by the sacred power he enjoys, teaches and rules the priestly people; acting in the person of Christ, he makes present the Eucharistic sacrifice, and offers it to God in the name of all the people. But the faithful, in virtue of their royal priesthood, join in the offering of the Eucharist. LG 10

  5. prescribed.

    The counter lies to us.
    It said I had thirteen spaces left.

    “Prescribed.” is eleven characters, so I will edit in the future to quit when there are 25 spaces reportedly available.

  6. In a world largely devoid of monarchies, we seem to forget that the Church is hierarchical. The Sunday before the new translation takes effect will be celebrated as Christ the King, not Christ the Duly Elected with a Limited Mandate. Within a hierarchy there is a time for open discussion and debate, but once a decision has been made that must cease. For us to do otherwise is to threaten the fabric of the Church itself.

    My own Bishop, his doctorate in Canon Law and with 7 years of Latin, acknowledges that he wouldn’t be able to pass the required four-question test to say the Extraordinary Form Mass here. If a learned man can’t be sure of the 914 words of a Mass, he surely can’t be a judge of translations of the entire Missal. And the “average Joe” on the street probably less so. So with whom should we consult? How long? Do we really expect all billion Catholics to agree?

    This doesn’t mean mindless acceptance of things that are wrong. It means identifying those things in need of subsequent correction — if critical, preparing insertions into the new books. But it requires even moreso that we teach and prepare our congregations for the event.

    Long sentences shouldn’t be a hindrance. The US Constitution and Declaration of Independence open with 52 and 71 words respectively. What people can’t understand on the first go they can learn if we educate them. This is work for the pulpit and the classroom. In its own way any confusion is a blessing that gives us fodder for the next sermon!

    Surely the Holy Spirit has had a hand in the rewrite process — and will continue to do so. If not, then the whole exercise is futile anyway.

    1. As Thomas was wont to say, distinguo.

      The Church is hierarchial, but that’s not necessariily the same as monarchical. And one manner for how the (now-monarchical) hierarchy operates is not the same as all the other manners which are possible, within the divine constitution of the Church.

      Christ is not elected or appointed to his mission by us: because he’s the divine Son of God and second person of the Blessed Trinity. No member of the Catholic hierarchy – I intend no disrespect – is this.

      Long sentences aren’t necessarily a problem. Unidiomatic English syntax within those sentences is – especially when subjects and verbs are too far apart, or pronouns and antecedents.

      Of course we can’t ask or consult all billion Catholics and get them all to agree. But the hierarchy can exercise its very important and legitimate ministry by bringing out the best gifts of the most talented members of the Church, male and female, ordained and lay, to produce a high-quality product which enjoys widespread respect. This didn’t happen. The product is mediocre because the process was bad because the hierarchy failed in its mission.

      Surely the Holy Spirit has had a hand in the rewrite process”? I think of the words of then Cardinal Ratzinger, shortly before his election as pope, when asked whether the Holy Spirit ‘selects’ the pope in the conclave. He said that, given how bad some of the selections have been, he would hardly claim that. He said with a smile, the most we can claim is that the Holy Spirit prevents us from completely messing things up. I think something very similar could be said of the botched missal translation.

      “This doesn’t mean mindless acceptance of things that are wrong,” you write. But everything else you write suggests exactly that.

      awr

      1. Unidiomatic English syntax within those sentences is – especially when subjects and verbs are too far apart, or pronouns and antecedents.

        What does “idiomatic” mean here?

      2. An unidiomatic expression refers to a locution (statement or utterance) that native speakers of the language do not say in any dialect of the language. Unidiomatic expressions are one of the most common weaknesses we find in the prose of unpracticed writers.
        Definition from communications professor Gary McCarron of Simon Fraser University, http://www.sfu.ca/~gmccarro/Grammar/Expressions.html

      3. “in any dialect of the language” – i.e., not even in liturgical or formal ‘dialect.’ That’s a good definition and it fits here. The coming translation isn’t idiomatic to anything past or present, in any register or level of good English.
        awr

  7. Tom: “The theocratic/hierarchic/sacerdotal priesthood is gone. Instead we have overseers of elders, all of whom are called to lead the people of God in prayer and to minister to the needs of the people.”

    This highly controversial comment seems out-of-compliance with both Trent and Vatican II. I’m surprised that no one else noticed this.

    “… there is no single right way to do liturgy for all times and places and congregations.” That is why we have different liturgical rites, but within our Roman rite we have an Apostolic See which regulates it (see V2’s SC) and we have a tradition protected by rubrics.

    “The few at a retreat house need an intimate and personal celebration more like Thanksgiving [Eucharistia] dinner, but the thousands at the basilica of St. Peter for Midnight Mass need something much more dramatic, formal, and elaborate.”

    Solemn Mass vs. a read Mass. The rubrics already envision these differences as they’ve done for centuries. What does this have to do with translation? Don’t presume that retreat house guests prefer a fluffy or touchy-feely liturgical experience. How many of us have suffered through these events with stoicism? These experience practically chase many out of the church/retreat house.

    “The mistake is to try to force one approach on all people in their individual congregations and their different cultures.”
    That betrays the concept of liturgical rite turning the parish into a self-selecting community and the liturgical assembly into a closed circle.

  8. We don’t read the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution every Sunday. As Graham says well above – this whole translation project misses the elephant in the living room which is the inability of “most” priests to “pray”/”proclaim” intelligently with marked cadence, rythmn, and expression. Seminaries have failed at teaching liturgy; ars celebrandi; etc. in order to get candidates to ordination. Public speaking is an essential part of the liturgical presider role – and is almost never taught in four years of theologate. Add in the increasing use of foreign priests who have trouble speaking english so churches can understand. In many ways, the “sacred oxes” of preserving celibacy; ontological priesthood; “sacral” latin; and the clerical caste trump the church’s right to lex orandi; lex credendi.

  9. “Once a decision has been made, debate and discussion must cease.”

    Is that so? So there is no possibility of reviewing a decision once it has been arrived at? Hierarchical doesn’t mean higherarchical. Democratic accountability is one of the signs of the times. We have yet to recognise that in the church. The Gospels specifically disown worldly models of kingship and leadership, where people lord it over others. Christ the king reigns from a cross.

    In Ireland the church’s model of government at diocesan level was severely criticised by the civil authorities. The Ferns Report into the sexual abuse of children concluded that monarchical government within a diocese was inadequate and unsuited to the complexities of the twenty-first century. The report pointed out that no single person could be expected to possess all of the competencies required for leadership today. The implication is that if leadership had been exercised on a conciliar basis where the voices of women were heard as much as those of men were, the catastrophy would never have happened, or, at least, it would not have happened to anything like the same extent.

    In Ireland we are witnessing the phenomenon of significant, even unprecedented, numbers of faithful, both lay and clerical transferring to the Church of Ireland, probably because, among a number of reasons, the synodical structure of that church at parochical, diocesan and national levels has much to recommend it. The curia controlled gatherings of the Synod of Bishops are a far cry from genuine democratic government and accountability.

    The church has not been very democratic throughout its history. But who says it shouldn’t be from now on.

    1. Democracy is a distracting will o’ the wisp. Collegiality and solidarity are more concretely Christian concepts and realities.

      1. First, proof-texting Scripture is not a very Catholic way to go about the discussion. There is Tradition to consider.

        Democracy means sovereignty of the people. It’s a secular political concept. For Christians, God is sovereign. The “People of God” are not sovereign in the same sense.

        Collegiality is the more customary way of describing the idea that each member of the Body of Christ has a role to play, under the headship of Christ. So there is an ordered sense to this collegiality, but we make a mistake if we analogize from the earthly models of autocracy towards the divine monarchy.

        Solidarity is the word I would use to describe the other dimension to this: that all the members depend on each other, rejoicing in the joys of others, having compassion for the sorrows of others, et cet. (The more customary word would be communio, but like love it’s a word that can be equivocal in its meaning and understanding, so I am aiming for a specific dimension of communio).

        Anyway, I believe it’s an unreasonable reading of LG or PO to say that the Catholic Church has somehow gone the way of Zwingli and gotten rid of a sacerdotal understanding of ordained priesthood (unless you mean sacerdotal in some arcane, academic and uselessly equivocal way). At least if we are talking in the indicative, rather than subjunctive, mood. (If the Catholic Church had done such a thing, we can be sure the Eastern and Oriental Churches would cease to consider us serious ecumenical brothers and sisters.)

  10. ‘Unidiomatic syntax,’ when the syntactical structure of one language, for example, Latin, is imported into another language, for example, English, occurs.

  11. JK #15 “In a world largely devoid of monarchies, we seem to forget that the Church is hierarchical. ”

    The Church was not always hierarchical. Look at the relationships of James and Peter and the assembly at Jerusalem. Look at Paul and Peter.

    The institution which is meant to support the People of God, who are the church in a very literally demos-cratic sense, has taken on the forms of the civil governments around it over time, the Byzantine Court, the Feudal kingdoms, but that is not part of the nature of Christianity.

    Just because King is one image for God, for Jesus, does not mean that the institution has to run like a royal house. It does not have to run like coop because of the image of hen gathering chicks. It does not have to run like a vineyard or a pasture for sheep, either. Individual images do not limit how we humans organize the our relationships within the communities of Christian. Unity does not require uniformity nor a pyramidal power structure.

    What do you not get about long sentences and multiple subordinate clauses and strange vocabulary being able to work in personal reading and not working at all well in oral prayer?

  12. DM #21 ” “The mistake is to try to force one approach on all people in their individual congregations and their different cultures.”
    That betrays the concept of liturgical rite turning the parish into a self-selecting community and the liturgical assembly into a closed circle.”

    I’m not following this. Could you spell it out a bit more?

  13. DM #21 “Tom: “The theocratic/hierarchic/sacerdotal priesthood is gone. Instead we have overseers of elders, all of whom are called to lead the people of God in prayer and to minister to the needs of the people.”

    This highly controversial comment seems out-of-compliance with both Trent and Vatican II. I’m surprised that no one else noticed this.”

    They probably noticed that it is in compliance with Scripture. See my context in #13.

  14. JK #16 “Within a hierarchy there is a time for open discussion and debate, but once a decision has been made that must cease. ”

    Why has this not been the attitude of the traditionalists for the past forty years? Why is this being brought up now when the decision is incomplete, the text in flux, and implementation months away?

  15. Has anybody published work on improving the VC2010 Roman Canon with minimal changes, trying to stay with the basic VC2010 work but improving the sentence structure and suggesting vocabulary changes only where most awkward presently?

  16. TP #30 “Why has this not been the attitude of the traditionalists for the past forty years?”

    Valid question to which I have no answer. I’m not in that ‘camp’ if you will. I enjoy singing Chant and the Mozart Requiem, and each Saturday I happily cantor Haugen and Haas.

    This discussion, I believe, is more about the next forty.

  17. TP #27 “It does not have to run like a vineyard or a pasture for sheep, either”

    Agreed. Although I suspect that we all feel like that sometimes!

    In fairness you’re right that long sentences are difficult to proclaim. If I ran the circus I’d do some things differently. But they would likely be different from others and that would only perpetuate the confusion.

    What I would like to see happen to help through the challenges is willingness among priests to help congregations understand. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a sermon mention the day’s prayers. Now there is justification to do so.

  18. The day’s prayers are a mess both in the 1973 translations and in those of 2008 and 2010. Had the Vatican implemented those of 1998 we might have been able to pray them and even to preach on them. The Vatican have failed to provide spiritual sustenance for the People of God.

  19. I totally agree with Fr McCarthy’s article. Thanks for sharing this.

    It’s sad that bishops conferences are set to implement this new translation come Advent 2011 (Here in England and Wales, the people’s responses would be introduced in September) as though everything will be fine. I wrote to our bishop complaining against the implementation. He replied telling me that there will be catechesis on this. I don’t know how catechizing people would really help when there are a number of flaws in the new translation.

  20. Surely the introduction of the new translation should not go ahead when so very many people have expressed concerns about it. Almost 22000 people signed the petition “What if we just said wait” asking for a year’s trial in selected parishes and then assessment before introduction- but it was ignored. Some of the bishops must be worried, can they ask for a postponement so that concerns can be discussed?

    1. “Should not” does not easily translate into “will not.” The Vatican is manned by old men rotten with pride. The bishops are conditioned to spinelessness. The whole mess is distinctly revelatory of dysfunctional church structures. What bishop will dare to be the first to ask for postponement? Look how Trautman was treated. Bishops do not like to lose brownie points with the Curia, and they also know how totally frustrating it is to deal with that “bureaucracy of nothing”.

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