Today being the feast of St. Romuald, I found myself comparing translations of the collect for the day. Here’s the Latin:
Deus, qui per Romualdum in Ecclesia tue eremiticam vitam renovasti, concede, ut, nosmetipsos abnegantes et Christum sequentes, feliciter ad caelestia regna mereamur ascendere. Per Dominum. . .
Here is the current translation:
O God. who through Saint Romuald renewed the manner of life of hermits in your Church, grant that, denying ourselves and following Christ, we may merit to reach heavenly realms on high. Through our Lord. . .
And here is the previous translation:
Father, through St. Romuald you renewed the life of solitude and prayer in your Church. By our self-denial as we follow Christ bring us the joy of heaven, We ask this. . .
We can, I suppose, debate the relative merits of the two translations as English prose, and I would say that the old translation is simply a better piece of writing — not perfect, but the new alternative doesn’t set the bar for “better” all that high. But de gustibus and all that.
What really interests me are the differing decisions as to how to translate eremiticam vitam in the two translations. In the Latin, eremiticam is an adjective, so the “literal” translation (I use scare-quotes because I am dubious that there really is such a thing, but let’s entertain it as something that might obtain in some possible world) would be “the eremitic life.”
Neither of the two translations, however, is literal in the sense either of following the grammar of the Latin or of having a word-to-word correspondence of vocabulary.
The current translation transforms the adjective eremitica into a genitive (“of hermits”), and glosses the noun vita as “the manner of life.” Since probably fewer than 1% of Catholics would have any idea what “the eremitic life” is, such glossing and grammatical reshuffling seems justified by the linguistic good of comprehensibility. But does the choice of the word “hermit” as a translation of eremitica achieve that good? Would a modern person think, upon hearing the word “hermit,” of a monk who has vowed himself to a life of solitude, or would they think of the creepy old guy down the street with all those semi-feral cats hanging around in his yard, who glares at people through his curtains but never comes out of his house? Even though our modern word “hermit” is etymologically related to eremitica, might this be shading into the area of those “false friends” that, while resembling the word we want to translate, have significantly different connotations?
The older translation renders eremiticam vitam as “the life of solitude and prayer.” Here again we have glossing and grammatical reshuffling. In fact, the grammatical reshuffling is the same as it the newer prayer: substituting a genitive for an adjective. The glossing, however, is of the adjective eremitica (“of solitude and prayer”) rather than the noun vita. Arguably, it is the adjective and not the noun that needs glossing, since we still have a better idea of a religious “state of life” (as when we speak of someone entering “religious life”) than we do of the “eremitic life.” The phrase “of solitude and prayer” seems to me to be a pretty accurate rendering of eremitica. And it is a rendering that, for modern hearers, raises the right sort of questions: not why we would celebrate the life of someone who is like the creepy old guy down the street, but why it is that the Church values the life of solitude and prayer.
As is often the case with the new translation, the question is not one of whether to gloss words and reshuffle grammar. Both of these translations do that. The question is one of what sort of glossing and reshuffling will best serve the good of linguistic comprehension. In this case, aside from any stylistic considerations and specifically on the issue of translating eremiticam vitam, I would say that the older translation got it right.