Ed. note: Gabe Huck continues his four-part series discussing the translation. The column below was published in the November issue of Celebration magazine (www.celebrationpublications.org), and we thank them for the permission to reprint it here. Part I is available here, and Part II is available here.
These reflections are in continuity with the considerations about translation in [my previous two articles]. Through various experiences and examples I have tried to open the complexities of worthy translation and of translation for use in ritual. Even with the best of intentions, which certainly the new “missal” lacks, we have seen that translation is not an easy nor a once-and-for-all matter. We’ve seen that the receiving language is never neutral, indifferent, or perfect. The receiving language – its vocabulary, its order, its strengths and its weaknesses – are to be treated with respect and with love if the translator’s craft is to produce excellent results. Not only that, but the translator must attend to special circumstances. Texts that are to be spoken aloud by individuals or by an assembly bring their own demands.
We can safely say that these matters of common sense were deliberately ignored in the new texts for the missal. Liturgiam Authenticam (LA) replaced any concern for the receiver language and with those who speak that language with a command to do something as easy as it is disastrous: Let the Latin original control everything. Imagine reading Dostoyevsky or Gabriel García Márquez in a translation done in accord with LA. The texts we will read in this coming missal are simply the word-for-word rendering that might be given to a writer who does not know Latin but who knows what makes for good English. These are no more than a tool to begin the task, and even at that we would question the quality of this tool.
But why would anyone publish the tool, the starting point? What might have been that word-for-word starter tool is now what parishes in the US are being told to use. (Important book to know: Translating Tradition: A Chant Historian Reads Liturgiam Authenticam. Peter Jeffery. Liturgical Press. His writing should have brought, from all involved with LA, a very simple: “We’re sorry. We take it all back and will do penance.”)
Here is a prayer you might be hearing as Advent begins at the end of this November:
Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God,
the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ
with righteous deeds at his coming,
so that, gathered at his right hand,
they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom.
This is a fair example, neither the best nor the worst text in the book. Look at it, read it aloud. Better: read it aloud one time to some children, some teens, some adults, some old folks. Then ask: What did I just pray for? To whom did I pray? What result am I hoping for? What phrase caught your imagination? What would you be saying Amen to?
Someone might argue: So what? Was the Latin original written to answer questions like that? I would respond: Perhaps it was not written with such intent. Perhaps it was composed simply to sound wonderful and to sing well. In fact, most of the time this Latin text has been prayed with assemblies that have no idea what it means. But that is not our problem. In Latin, it probably does one thing important for ritual: It can be chanted and the sound itself will do good work. Fine.
Now look at the title of Rita Ferrone’s article in the July 15 issue of Commonweal: “It Doesn’t Sing: The Trouble with the New Roman Missal.” Probably her use of “sing” is meant to describe the overall dullness of this English missal, the difficulty in proclaiming it and the near impossibility of being caught up in it. But let’s take that “singing” title literally: This trouble making the English understood would only be compounded by chanting it. It simply doesn’t sing unless you pretend you understand English as little as you understand Latin.
Read or chanted, who will remember who “they” may be when we hear “they” in the last line? One further observation: Why “they” at all? If the Latin felt adequate with “your faithful” in the first line, was it necessary to use the third person rather than the first person plural in the fifth line? At least “we” would be understood whether, by that point in the sentence, you remembered “your faithful” or not. But the Latin is what it is, and the translator is not free to think it through, so “they” is what we get. Did you think of that when you read it through? Probably not. It was just awkward in general. And besides, the logical reference of “they” in normal English is going to be “righteous deeds,” the noun closer by far to “they” than “your faithful.”
So the translator, here and throughout, could not be both faithful to LA and of service to us. The translator could not offer us anything worth an honest Amen.
Have we challenged the wisdom of LA? Have we seen this abuse of English (and any other receiver language) as the canonization of Latin text? On what grounds is this being done? After all, these Latin texts should never be treated as is they had any such authority even for Latin-speaking assembly, if any such assemblies exist. They are the striving after worthy voicing of ritual texts in a certain language, a language that was spoken by some Western Christians for a certain period of time, and then forgotten. They have no more authority than any other collection of prayers used in the rituals of the various churches. Let them be judged on their merits and, for the better ones, let them be translated by wordsmiths who know the ways that the English language does its work, and let those wordsmiths be well instructed in what exactly is the work of ritual speech.
This whole project went off the track and everyone is pretending the train is still moving. We’re asked to be Alice in Wonderland, and many go along.
We are being told something by this new missal and we had better understand: “Your language doesn’t matter. Nobody’s living language matters. Latin matters. The words you English speakers will speak and hear in your English language do not matter.” This is not just a view of language though, it is a misunderstanding of ritual. And what matters, according to those who have given us this book, is not our being at home in doing the rituals that should be sustaining our lives. We cannot have those rituals without the basic tools of a language that will be both beautiful and filled with meaning. The only task of the English language in this ill-conceived adventure could be called suicidal: to betray its very own genius in slavish service to the master language, Latin. Another way of making the metaphor for what is happening here would use gender images all too familiar to those in charge of this work. The “male” language must be in charge and the receiver (“female”) language just does the grateful reception and let’s keep it that way.
A few months ago I was spending a two hours every week studying English poetry with two of our Iraqi students in Damascus. For me this brought such joy in revisiting the poets I have loved and in sharing their work, and such regret in realizing how I never found much time to know later poets than those I loved 50 years ago. We looked at a few of the poems by W.B. Yeats, among them “Adam’s Curse.” This poem in its first verse has something to say about this business of the language worthy of our prayers in the assembly.
We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, “A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.
We will be living and dying probably with the results of these non-translations. But think what could be if we who need texts in our rites made demands on our writers and translators like those Yeats describes: this stitching and unstitching and stitching again on and on until good writing has been done. This, Yeats says, is harder work by far than scrubbing a kitchen pavement on hands and knees or breaking stones in the depths of winter or the heat of summer. And in the end, the successful line must “seem a moment’s thought” precisely because it is not a moment’s thought but is as simple and real as that kitchen pavement or those broken stones. (I am trying not to dwell on the very interesting trinity that Yeats mocks in the second-last line.)
Is it a leap too far to think this should be said also of those who seek to translate the texts to be spoken in our rites? LA hardly deserves to be taken seriously on so many grounds, but maybe this is the most important because it is most destructive of our common prayer. The depth and the beauty of a text may well depend on the meeting of meaning and sound, but LA subordinates everything to replicating the Latin and poses no test whatsoever for the Latin! Why ask for poets and others who know the ways of words when all that LA is asking would be satisfied with translation software for the Vatican computer?
Remember Monsignor Ronald Knox? In a book called Englishing the Bible in the UK and Trials of a Translator (in the US), Knox wrote: “You can have a literal translation or you can have a literary translation: you cannot have both … Words are not inanimate things, like coins, that have an exact counterpart in a different currency. They are living things … And the translator must never be afraid of the accusation of having paraphrased. Paraphrase is the bogey-man of the half-educated….”
To some extent then, this whole effort gave up, meant to give up, the vision taking shape in ICEL’s earlier work: English texts that are not dependent on translating Latin texts but instead, taking what inspiration they can from the Latin, flow not only from the poetic genius of the modern language but from the world in which (gasp!) we are living, speaking and listening now. ICEL made a beginning of something that might have been achieved with the work of poets and theologians, pastoral ministers and musicians. But the head office closed it down. Nevertheless, we can’t forget that the work now is not simply to use or not use this awful book. The work is to take ourselves out of this sad and ridiculous situation.
Let’s believe that the good that can come of the “new missal” is our greater awareness that the words of ritual matter and that our English language is more than up to the task.