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.