Lost in Translation

Editor’s note: For many years, Gabe Huck was the director of Liturgy Training Publications. Now living and working in Damascus, Syria, Gabe has shared his thoughts on the new missal translation in a series for Celebration Magazine. We are grateful to Celebration (www.celebrationpublications.org) for their gracious permission to reprint this series of articles.  This is the first article of the series, originally published in June. The next installment is coming soon.

End of February. That’s where I am as this is being written. The anger is increasing about the texts to be used beginning in the approaching Advent when the “new” sacramentary is introduced (now called the “missal” in one more attempt to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear). We read about this anger coming from South Africa, Australia, Ireland (where the priests’ councils have strongly requested that there be no implementation this coming Advent), and the US. Some, like Anthony Ruff, whose blog Pray Tell has been a fine place to read or take part in the unfolding of the story, have said they’ll no longer have anything to do with preparing parishes for this missal. Ruff’s letter to the bishops, asking urgent questions, appeared in America in the winter. On the blog he wrote about the sadness and frustration of people who have been trying to act enthused about the new texts, keeping their disappointment to themselves until they couldn’t any more. I’ve heard of diocesan gatherings where pastors and parishes are raising the question. The story is told everywhere of the German bishops refusing a similar botched job from the Vatican. The American bishops seem determined to do as they’re told and they expect the pastors and assemblies to do the same. Some American bishops, with astounding humility as they expose their own inability to tell the difference between the language of poetry and the language of users’ manuals, have written about the beauty they find in these soon-to-be-mandatory texts… I want to invite some reflection on this whole matter of translation by talking about an experience I had last week.

The Vatican’s drive for control (of liturgy and beyond: erasing Vatican II) has focused on enforcing a literal translation, especially into English, of the Latin texts of the sacramentary. Is that wise? ICEL began long ago, in the revised rites of initiation, for example, to seek translations that did their work in the receiving language. The Vatican’s post-1990 approach has been to insist that the original language is to control the receiving language. The contested texts of the new missal/sacramentary are the results of the Vatican’s approach. This doesn’t mean only word-for-word translating, it means trying to use English texts to please Latin ears. Problem is, even if any of us had Latin ears, we would probably be horrified that English-speakers don’t take pride in the workings and genius of their own language.

We work here in Damascus with Iraqi students (first language Arabic), preparing them to make strong college applications for undergraduate education in the US. We place great emphasis on writing skills. Nearly always this is the student’s first experience with writing essays, letters, stories, poetry in English. They have usually focused in their schools in on spoken English, learning vocabulary and studying English grammar. Watching movies and listening to music in English has made them even stronger in speaking and listening skills. Their studies have not required that they read contemporary English literature or English newspapers and magazines and they haven’t been asked to write English beyond single sentences. So as they begin their writing work in English with us, their models for writing English are taken from how Arabic writes a sentence, a paragraph, an essay.

It’s obvious: They can’t write good English with Arabic rules (nor can we write good Arabic with English rules). Good writing will depend on much reading and much practice in the prose and poetry of the English language. Example: Written Arabic can do an excellent paragraph where the only period comes at the end of the paragraph. When this is done in English, it seems to us one extraordinarily long sentence that turns out to be many “sentences” (by our definition) connected, one with another, by “and.” It works in Arabic. It’s good Arabic. It’s not good English.

The Latin texts, and not just their words but their good Latin constructions, have become so very important to the Vatican. I’m presuming here that they really do care, though of course this whole episode may be only about making clear who is in charge. But prayers and other texts that are good Latin are just good Latin. If we want something to do similar work in English, to have similar impact in English, the translator must know what is being communicated, content and context, in Latin, and must know how the receiving language works – and this is far more than vocabulary. Language is more than vocabulary. Any language will have its own quite unique way to make prose or poetry do their work. Whatever the failings of the ICEL work in the early 1960s, its failings are no excuse for abusing the English language by trying now to force on it imitation Latin constructions. Remember that 1950s song: “Throw Mama from the train a kiss”?

With all this we have to ask also: Just what is the translation to do when the Latin had poetry but very little meaning? Or when the Latin used repetition in a way that works in Latin but won’t work in English? On and on. What if the Latin was rhetorically strong but in English, without Latin’s rhetorical devices, there’s nothing to say?

Last week I was dealing with this whole question of original language/receiving language right here in Damascus. Working with all 11 of our Iraqi students, I asked them to look at something we had recently purchased, a painting by an Iraqi artist (Moutea Aljoumaily). It is a small abstract work with two short verses by a contemporary Arab poet (Nazar Al-Kabbani) rendered in calligraphy by the artist. I asked the students to take about ten minutes to translate these lines into an English that catches the sense of the poet’s work. They did this individually in their notebooks. Their work seems an excellent illustration of the tasks and problems of translation.

A good word-for-word into English of these lines might be:

I can’t write about Damascus
without the jasmine settling on my fingers.

And I can’t say her name
without my mouth being full
with the juice of the apricots, pomegranates,
mulberries and quinces.

It’s a lovely bit of poetry that rings true to resident and visitor in Damascus. But even here there are considerations that warn us: The translation that strives only for fidelity to the original’s surface will seldom do in the receiving language what the original does in its language. And that matters. So consider:

ONE. How in English do we make the negative do something strong in the first line of each verse? Is “not” the best English has? Perhaps:

Never can I write of Damascus…

Nor can I utter her name…

TWO. In translating the poem’s second line, each student used “without” and “jasmine” and all but one used “fingers,” but for the crucial word that carries the action? That’s the central piece to making the translation work as a poem. Consider the students’ attempts:

…without having the jasmine settled down proudly on my fingers.

…without the settling of the jasmine on my fingers.

…without feeling its jasmine’s gentle touch.

…without the jasmine crowning my fingers.

…without the jasmine throne on my fingers.

…without laying the jasmine on my fingers.

…without having jasmine all over my fingers.

…without the jasmine building its kingdom on my fingers.

Not bad! But we see the challenge of translation! That single Arabic word did some sort of work that these Arabic-speaking students want to capture in English. But can it be done? What we have is an Arabic word with several shades of meaning. How can English come close to what Arabic has opened up? Do we settle for “settle”? Or did the jasmine “settle down proudly”? Maybe, because there seems something of a crowning or an enthroning or even a kingdom involved in this word. Something royal perhaps. Or is it best to be less demanding of the English, as “without feeling its jasmine’s gentle touch”? So simple. But lose the throne? There’s also the possibility that the word for “fingers” was used rather than “hand” to accompany this “settling/throning” word to suggest the way the fingers are like the lattices that jasmine climbs all over this city.

In both tiny verses we need to be mindful that the poet uses a word for “write” with an image of hand or fingers, then uses a word for “speak” with an image of the mouth and tasting.

THREE. To begin the second verse, the literal “And I can’t say her name” was used by two students. Others suggested:

And I can’t pronounce her name, Damascus…

Neither am I able to pronounce: “Damascus” . . .

And I can’t pronounce its name…

And I cannot pronounce its name . . .

And I can’t articulate its name . . .

Nor can I speak her name . . .

I cannot pronounce its name . . .

I can’t call its name . . .

Neither can I pronounce its name . . .

Notice: 1) Using “nor” or “neither” is stronger than “not” and does away with the need for “and” because “nor” and “neither” are connectors. 2) Arabic can do only “her” or “his,” it can’t do “its.” English could use “its name,” but is it best to be gender-neutral in this sort of praise? And would “his” be too distracting? “That name” might be possible. 3) But is another choice to omit “name” altogether and repeat “Damascus”? “Damascus” is not in the Arabic after the first mention, but should it be repeated in an English translation of the second verse? 4) We have the choice between “can” and “able.” 5) But the main challenge is: What to do with the word that these students translated as “pronounce” or “speak” or “call” or “articulate”? Each has its strength, as does one that didn’t show up: “utter.”

So we have in this short first line many possible and at least adequate English translations. But do we settle for adequate when we need poetry?

FOUR. The final and hardest line. As in the first stanza, all agree that we need the word “without,” but then they diverge. Some name the four fruits last, some include them before the word “juice.” Some see “taste” as a way of saying “mouth filled with.” And there are many variations in how to order the words. Consider a few of the attempts at translation:

. . . without my mouth being filled with apricot juice, pomegranate, berry and quince.

. . . without having my mouth full of the juice of apricot and pomegranate and raspberry and quince.

. . . without filling my mouth with the juice of apricots, pomegranate, berries and quince.

. . . without tasting apricot, pomegranate, berry and quince juice.

. . . without filling my mouth with apricot and pomegranate juice, raspberry and quince.

. . . without the juice of apricots, pomegranates, raspberries and quince filling/bursting my mouth.

. . . without my mouth filling with apricot, pomegranate, berry and quince juice.

Again, the challenge is to let this line follow through on the previous one so that the mouth and what it does (speak, taste) leads to these lovely names for the fruits of Damascus.

So what does this tell us? We see the many questions that arise in trying to do more than go word-for-word from one language to another. We see that word-for-word is hard and only a beginning. We see the complexity of worthy translation. And we see that where poetic speech is involved (and where is it not involved in the texts of the liturgy?), anything other than high respect and poetic facility in the receiver language will dishonor both languages. Then, from what we have seen so far, we consider this new version of the sacramentary and we weep. Then we . . . Well, you finish the sentence.


  1. Why are we still writing long pieces about the aims, process and outcomes of translation? The translation that exists is what will be used. There is little hope of changing anyone’s mind at this point.

    Better to write about the administrative process that allowed the hijacking to happen. Few will be angered over how we talk about jasmine on our fingers and pomegranates in our mouths, but many more are likely to be angered by heavy-handed intervention and control of the process.

    Why do progressives always fight the wrong fight?

    1. I think everyone gets that the translation that exists is what will be used. But, if you don’t point out the shortcomings most will think that there is nothing wrong and that it is fine. And when the next administrative battle rises, and objections are made, it is important that there be some history of dissent or there will be no hope of fighting the ‘right’ fight and winning.

      Just a little aside about translations of Latin to English: I have a St. Joseph Daily Missal that I got for confirmation in 1960. It has the Latin (it’s what we used) but it also has an English translation side-by-side so you could know what the priest was mumbling if you wanted. It has an Imprimatur, and was as authoritative as you might find at the time given that no official English translation existed. ‘Consubstantialem Patri’ is ‘one in being with the Father’ back then. For example.

      1. One of things I love about the EF is that you can use almost any translation you wish – there’s a pretty decent variety. I imagine we would probably have an even wider variety had the Mass never been allowed in the vernacular (maybe a “gender inclusive” missal, for example). I have several old missals (I get them at Church festival rummage sales. Almost all of them are Father Stedman Missals – he must have been popular), as well as a couple new ones. A quick glance showed that:

        Baronius renders it as “consubstantial with the Father”
        Fr Stedman says both “consubstantial” and “of one being with the Father” depending on how old the Missal is (older ones favor consubstantial)
        St Joseph Continuous goes “of one substance with the Father”
        “My Catholic Devotions” prefers “of one substance” too

        I’ll have to look this upcoming Sunday to see what the ubiquitous red missals say. It’s also interesting to see how the different missals render the “et incarnatus est.” They seem evenly divided between “incarnate by the Holy Ghost” and “made flesh by the Holy Ghost.”

      2. I don’t understand your position that a history of dissent is required. Are you advocating building some semblance of an organized group to engage in dissent?

        As soon as it was relatively obvious the process had been hijacked, the argument should have turned to the recognitio process and those problems. Instead, we continued to compare the various praslations of the prayers from the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time and complain about how the sentences are clunky (Trinity heresy example notwithstanding). Very little pressure was brought to bear on the issue of the jurisdiction of the conferences of bishops and their relationship to Rome, or the validity of a recognitio on a text that had been substantially altered. We all just kept up our kveching and seemed to think intellectual arguments would carry the day. When has that ever worked?

        Creating a history of disagreement with the translation is a fine historical artifact and will make many people look good in fifty years when we do this all over again (“Roger De Bris presents history…”), but it does little to help the situation now. All it does is create consternation amongst the faithful, demoralizes ministers and gives us all a humble, if not privately smug, sense of intellectual and moral superiority.

        You may now all pile on me like I’m Rick Perry. It’s ok – I’m ready for it.

      3. I have a Father Lasance Missal edited 1952 with an imprimatur from Cardinal Spellman, archbishop of New York I received as a confirmation gift. The Douai/Rheims is used and I think also has “one in being with the Father”. In any case, it sure beats what we have now.

    2. Roger,
      Excuse Pray Tell for “going all intellectual” and ruining your day, if not your life. As you were: don’t use your computer for anything but solitaire, and you’ll be just fine. Honest.

    3. R,
      how could we sing a song of the LORD
      in a foreign land?
      …May my tongue stick to my palate
      if I do not remember you,
      If I do not exalt Jerusalem
      beyond all my delights.

      If the Psalmist could weep in Babylon, surely we can weep when we are asked to sing in words not quite our own, with phrasings from another’s tongue.

      1. Isn’t that lament about being exiled from Jerusalem, being aliens asked to sing a song of the Lord (and of Jerusalem) as a “favor” or “show” to one’s captors? They weren’t being asked to sing in a foreign language, or so I thought.

  2. Thanks, Gabe.

    I no longer purchase any materials from LTP either personally or for the parish since Gabe was unceremoniously dismissed.

    It seems that right around the time the new ordinary took the reins in Chicago the quality of LTP began to plummet.

    Fr. Jim

    1. At the risk of offending some liberal readers again, again I point to the difference between Cardinal George’s handling of Gabe Huck and Fr Michael Pfleger. I also remember when he demanded that the NRSV version of the Lectionary readings be removed from LTP’s Lector Workbook (NRSV for Canada / NAB for USA on facing pages), lest the superior NRSV be used in the USA. But then was happy to approve a special “Canadian edition” lest the $$$ be lost.

      Of some people’s actions, my father used to say: “That tells you all you need to know.”

  3. Fr. Blue – same with me altho I do use the lector workbooks (still one of the best on the market but agree that the quality has dropped dramatically).

    Thanks, Gabe. Your story and how it is written reads like poetry. Your insights may help us individually and hopefully those globally responsible in the church going forward – but how many DMs, pastors, and bishops will read these articles?

  4. Given all the publishers and composers who have decided to provide worship aids that are compatible with the latest version, and given just the handful of persons who have refused to push it actively, Gabe’s voice was needed and welcome. No one doubted where he would stand or how strongly he would stand by those principles by which he has always stood.

    Gail Ramshaw, who posted a comment here recently, had much of her work published at Liturgy Training Publications. The ICEL Psalter that LTP briefly published has been for me one useful starting point for my metric psalm work.

    We know that the institution’s leadership are promoting the latest version. What we don’t know is how fully and enthusiastically it will be received across the English-speaking countries. In my experience, when the institution holds fast to its inflexible vision and entrusts caretaking of its most sacred inheritance more and more to specialists, the people gravitate to areas in which we have greater say and control (devotions, paraliturgies, dramas, etc.). One way or the other we will have texts that speak to our hearts, though regrettably our primary public prayer will not contain them.

    1. One way or the other we will have texts that speak to our hearts, though regrettably our primary public prayer will not contain them.
      Eventually perhaps, unfortunately for some of us it may come only at the great liturgy celebrated in the halls of heaven.

  5. Roger, I am not arguing against the position that “the argument should have turned to the recognitio process and those problems.”

    But that ship has sailed, in my opinion, and at this point, while it is important to remember that argument in hopes that history will not repeat itself, it is also important to know that there are translation issues, and legitimate ones at that. It isn’t just a question of authority, but also a question of translation. I don’t think they are mutually exclusive points and I am grateful for the article.

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