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The Trouble with Translations

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 21, 2005

It is said that the English translation of the latest edition of the Roman Missal (2002) is still years away. Not only must the translation work its way through two ecclesiastical committees, but both groups are still learning to work within the new guidelines for translation set forth in Liturgiam Authenticam in 2001. It is too soon to tell whether all this will result in better translations, but it may at least slow the rate of linguistic change.

The Language Wars

For the past generation, conflicts over translations of the Liturgy, the Bible and even ordinary prayers have been frequent and lengthy. Conservative Catholics have long criticized the International Committee on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) for its systematic elimination of a sense of the sacred in liturgical texts, and more recently the Vox Clara commission charged with overseeing and improving ICEL’s work has been sharply criticized by liberals. It is no wonder that passions run high. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but a bad description of a rose is an impediment to understanding for those who have never seen one—and, mutatis mutandis, a bad translation of Scripture or liturgical prayer is an impediment to Faith.

Nonetheless, it is not my purpose to take positions on particular quarrels. Assuming good original composition of liturgical texts, and being assured of the very best writing in Scripture itself, it is easy to see the importance of sound translation. Yet even the best translation is trumped by something more critical still: the need to leave things alone.

A Fractured Christian Memory

Familiarity with the texts of salvation is a vital element of the Christian life. Oft-heard passages come easily to the tongue and resonate in both mind and heart. It is a wonderful thing when these passages are well-written and well-translated, but it is more wonderful still when they are well-remembered. Frequent change in translations does substantial harm to spirituality by fracturing the faculty of Christian memory, through which the Holy Spirit frequently speaks when the time is ripe. As far as linguistics goes, constant tinkering is a cardinal sin.

Perhaps the most famous example of tinkering is the translation of the angel Gabriel’s salutation to the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation. Jerome’s “Ave, gratia plena” had been enshrined for centuries not only in the Church’s official Latin Biblical text but in innumerable prayers and hymns based on it. As a boy, I found that my Douay-Rheims New Testament made no difficulty about using the obvious and standard English translation “Hail, full of grace”. As I entered my teens, however, the ground began to shift beneath my feet. Soon we had “Rejoice O Highly Favored Daughter” (NAB), “Greetings, most favoured one” (NEB), and “Rejoice, you who enjoy God’s favor” (NJB), to cite only the more prominent Catholic Bibles.

All of these translations were made in the name of improvement and each can make an argument based on one or another of the early texts. And so can that prestigious Protestant translation, the Revised Standard Version, to which many Catholics have fled in the form of the RSV Catholic Edition, most recently published by Ignatius Press. The New Testament portion of the RSV-CE was first copyrighted in 1946, nearly twenty years before the Age of Tinkering but not so early as to pre-date modern scholarship. Interestingly, the rendering is “Hail, full of grace.”

Liturgical Prayer

Similar examples abound in liturgical prayer. “I believe” was changed to “We believe” (and is reportedly to change back in the next release). Verbum Domini was first “This is the Word of the Lord”, but later changed to “The Word of the Lord” (which is more accurate). At the Consecration, we have seen “for many” changed to “for all men” and then shortened to “for all” so as to avoid sexism. The entire set of Eucharistic Prayers has been adjusted in a variety of ways, and there are even special children’s versions of just about everything, lest any text be allowed to reverberate no matter how good the acoustics.

Scripture translations also affect the Liturgy. The self-same readings have constantly changed (not just the cycles). Often the books in the pews have renderings different from the lectionary at the pulpit. Similarly, the “Our Father” has been changed in some translations almost beyond recognition as the same prayer we say at every Mass and frequently on our own. Priests routinely refer to passages differently in their homilies from the way they have just read them in the Gospel. Every Catholic will have his favorite example. No sooner do we settle down and become comfortable with the new words in which this or that parable is expressed than the words are changed. Too bad, by the way, about the poor woman who lost that “dime”.

The Virtue of Stability

Back in the day, physical stability was regarded as a prime virtue of monks, who were enjoined to take root in a single house rather than to run hither and yon wherever their moods took them. Wandering monks were much frowned upon because physical stability is a mirror of the stability of the interior life, which should not be ever casting about after novelties, but must remain firmly rooted in God.

Language too is a mirror of the spirit, far more so than mere location. Constant linguistic novelty obscures permanence, which is one of the essential attributes of God. Indeed, God’s permanence profoundly governs the way we changelings must interact with Him, so much so that confusion on this point is fatal to the spiritual life. This is why I say that the need to leave things alone trumps the need for constant improvement, even if improvement were guaranteed, which it is not. Changes in translations should not only be carefully considered; they should be rare. Note that I say it again in the same words: They should be rare.

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