Recently I raised an issue for future liturgical translation, namely, how territorial bishops conferences might identify and correct English translations of the present Roman Missal that are inaccurate. In this post I would like to address another issue: How should changed cultural conditions modify how ancient prayer texts are translated? Again I’d like to offer two examples.
The venerable Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I) draws a central image from the culture in which it was created to speak of the relationship of God to the members of the church and to the rest of humanity. A careful reading of the text will disclose that two words are used to depict two fundamental categories of human beings. “Famulus” in its various formulations is used to indicate human beings who members of the Church, while “servus” in its various formulations is used to indicate human beings who are not members of the Church. The closest cultural translation of “famulus” would be “house-slave,” e.g., a paedagogos who, although (generally a Greek) slave, was charged with the education of a household’s (male) children. In contrast the closest cultural translation of “servus,” would be “field-slave,” one of lower rank and inferior living conditions. (Admittedly forms and conditions of slavery changed over the course of Roman history, but this distinction is enshrined in the language of the Roman Canon.) God is thus presented as a sovereign slave-owner; all human beings serve him by right, but some he has called as “family servants” (“household slaves”) while others are outside the family (“field slaves”).
The difficulty in translating segments of the prayer for contemporary English usage should be clear. The United States fought a civil war, at least partially over eradicating slavery in United States territories. The image of God as slave-holder with two classes of “house”-slaves and “field”-slaves is abhorrent. (One need only substitute the “n word” for “slaves” in the preceding sentence to see how problematic such a translation would be.) And yet the official Latin text maintains this usage in phrases like “una cum famulo tuo Papa nostro N.” (Te igitur); “Memento, Domine, famulorum famularumque…” (Commemoration of the Living); “Memento etiam, Domine famuloryum famularumque tuarum…” (Commemoration of the Dead); “Nobis tuis peccatoribus famulis tuis,…” (Invocation of the Saints). (Notice the phrase “nos servi tui , sed et plebs tua sancta” [Unde et memores], where a distinction is drawn between “we your slaves” and “your holy people.” I wonder if this is equivalent to the distinction between “servus” and “famulus”; if so, it raises some questions about those outside the church’s communion having a place in the Eucharistic prayer. I think it is more likely, however, that here “nos servi tui” refers to ordained bishops and priests in contrast to “plebs tua sancta” as the baptized laity.) In the present Roman Missal translation these class distinctions disappear: “together with your servant N. our Pope”; “Remember, Lord, your servants N. and N.” (without any differentiation of gender); “Remember also, Lord, your servants N. and N.” (again without any differentiation of gender); “To us, also, your servants, who, though sinners.” Earlier English translations designated male “famuli” as “your servants” with the female “famulae” being “your handmaids,” but this usage strikes me as somewhat precious as though the male and female “famuli / famulae” served from the basement of Downton Abbey. The most important issue remains whether or not it is proper in contemporary liturgical prayer to conceptualize God the Sovereign as slave-holder, no matter how venerable the language and how appropriate it might be to the culture that generated the Latin text.
A second example appears in Opening Collect of the First Sunday of Advent. The Latin text reads: “Da, quaesumus, omnipotens Deus, hanc tuis fidelibus voluntatem, ut, Christo tuo venienti iustis operibus occurentes, eius dexterae sociati, regnum mereantur possidere caeleste. Per Dominum.”
This is rendered in the present English Missal translation as: “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. Through our Lord Jesus Christ….”
This is a perfectly acceptable translation of the Latin text, but a close reading of the Latin reveals some difficulties. First, by referring to “God’s faithful” as “them,” the priest praying this text effectively separates himself from the gathering of the faithful; he prays on behalf of them to God, not as one of their members. This is complicated by the “quaesumus”; until it becomes clear that the priest is praying to God on behalf of the faithful, one would think that “we pray” indicates the priest speaking in the name of God’s faithful. Considering the prayer as a whole, however, it seems that “we pray” is a plural of majesty referring to the individual priest praying. There is some question about the imagery of God’s faithful already having been gathered at the right hand of Christ (who is presumably at the right hand of the Father). Finally, translating “mereo/mereor” is almost always problematic in English translation since its semantic range of “to deserve, merit, be entitled to, be worthy of, earn, gain, get, obtain, acquire, get by purchase, buy, to serve as a solder for pay” does not easily express the grace freely lavished upon God’s beloved.
Clearly, these examples are NOT mistranslations. Instead, they represent an attempt to render (or obscure) in the English used in the 21st-century images and concepts that arose in a different cultural context. I have great reverence for the heritage of liturgical prayer that has come to us down the centuries, but I wonder how authentically we can pray texts whose cultural assumptions may be so far from our own (or even, possibly, from the Gospel’s).