Though I have, clearly to the consternation of some, declared a truce with the current translation of the Roman Missal, I have not lost an interest in translation issues. Someday, who knows when, another new translation will be produced. And I hope that it will not simply to correct glaring errors by which the current translation fails to live up to Liturgiam Authenticam (e.g. the ambiguity in the Advent post-communion prayer as to what it is that teaches us to love the things of heaven, or the material heresy regarding Our Lady’s preservation from original sin in the collect for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception), but will be one that also addresses what I consider the flaws in Liturgiam Authenticam itself — flaws that have been well documented by Peter Jeffrey in his book Translating Tradition.
One problem I see with the current translation is what appears to be an almost unthinking preference for using the nearest English cognate for Latin words. This is a problem not only with out-and-out “false friends” (which for the most part the new translation avoids) but also with the use of English terms that might be accurate in term of their denotation — i.e. their dictionary definition — but can have misleading connotations.
This was brought to my mind this morning as I was grading a student’s final exam in which he began a discussion of the first of Thomas’s Aquinas’s “Five Ways” by noting, “In Aquinas’ first argument, he states that God can be proven through the argument of motus, loosely translated as change or motion.”
When I read this I thought, “Well, ‘change’ might be a loose translation of motus, but ‘motion’ is quite literal.” But as I thought further about the student’s statement, and what I had tried to convey to them about Aquinas’s argument, it occurred to me that both “motion” and “change” could be described either as “loose” or as “literal.”
As those who have studied Aquinas know, his term motus includes, but has a wider meaning than, the movement of a body through space from point A to point B. It also includes things like wood burning, clay being formed into pottery, minds learning new facts, food being digested, children growing, muscles cramping, people falling in love, etc. In other words, as Aquinas actually uses the term it includes things that we, in English, would not normally describe as “motion” but rather would describe as “change.” In fact, if we were to restrict Aquinas’s argument for God’s existence to motion in the sense of movement through space, certain problems arise with it, so if one is using a translation of Aquinas that translates motus as “motion” . . . well, one has some explaining to do.
The translation of Aquinas’s Summa done (anonymously) by Laurence Shapcote in the 1920s, which is widely available on the internet, translates Aquinas’s certum est enim et sensu constat aliqua moveri in hoc mundo as “It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion.” The “Blackfriars” translation done by Timothy McDermott in the 1960s translates the same sentence as, “Some things in the world are certainly in process of change: this we plainly see.” Which of these is more “literal” and which is more “loose”?
In one sense, McDermott’s translation pays little attention to the Latin word order, to which Shapcote hews more closely, and in that sense might be described as loose. But in terms of the translation of motus, it seems to me that it is Shapcote who is being loose in translating it with the cognate “motion” and McDermott who is being literal in translating it as “change.” For while, as we use these term in contemporary English, all motion involves change, not all change involves motion, and Thomas Aquinas clearly intends something that we would call “change” rather than “motion.” So while the denotation of “motion” might be included in motus, the connotation of such a word choice can be misleading.
Which leads my wandering mind to think that all chalices are cups, but not all cups are chalices, and that all people are clearly many, but many people are not so clearly all.
So my student’s identification of both “motion” and “change” as loose translations of motus seems to me about right. All translations are to some extent loose — even, and perhaps especially, those that at first glance seem “literal.” The idea that the English word that looks the most like the Latin word is clearly the right choice seems clearly mistaken.