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found in translation: ICEL's buried treasure

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Jun 30, 2006

The other day I teased the NCR for its petulant and silly editorial on the language wars, which deplored the Vatican tactics used to torpedo the American translations -- tactics, we were told, that were "engineered by people incompetent in the discipline." We were further assured that these villains had been neglectful of the skill and scholarship that went into the progressive post-Conciliar efforts. The NCR is wrong, but it's worth examining the evidence and taking a closer look at the treasure of which the Holy See deprived us.

In 1994, ICEL completed its revised Proper of Seasons (those parts of the Missal particular to feasts and saints days, etc.). Its ideological loopiness was so thorough-going that the Holy See, as a defensive measure, began the formulation of norms that culminated in Liturgiam authenticam. [NB: my references to ICEL herein are directed at its earlier incarnation, before Cardinal George and Bruce Harbert were associated with it; they are not meant to apply to the current body.] I have already commented on the feminist plastic surgery by which, e.g., simple Domine was gelded and re-fashioned as "God of mercy and compassion." But there is scarcely a line in which some departure from the Latin is not evident. Below is a sampling of some few specimens among many hundreds:

Praeveniat nos, omnipotens Deus, tua gratia semper atque subsequatur

ICEL: Let your tireless grace accompany us, Lord God

COMMENT: Tireless grace? Presumably a nod at semper, but fatigue isn't part of the theological picture. The Latin uses the biblical image of God's help "going before us and after us" (see Isaiah 58:8) to express the notions of prevenient and sanctifying grace. ICEL reduces this to "accompany."

Deus, qui pro nobis Filium tuum crucis patibulum subire voluisti, ut inimici a nobis expelleres potestatem

ICEL: For our sake, O God, you willed that your Son should climb the scaffold of the cross to lift from our shoulders the dark yoke of Satan.

COMMENT: The language and imagery of the Latin are almost entirely replaced here. The Latin says, "O God, it was your will that your Son should sink under the timber of the cross [i.e., undergo crucifixion] for our sake, and so drive away from us the power of the Enemy." The picture is that of Christ going down (subire), not going up or mounting a scaffold; it is humiliation, abasement, con-descension, that is supposed to be before our minds in this oration. The Latin, moreover, has no hint of anything like "the dark yoke of Satan" offered us here. Apart from the preciousness of the phrase, were it to be read aloud in church, the same folks who got some cheap laffs out of "the dew of the Holy Spirit" might find they have dark yolk on their own face.

Omnipotens sempiterne Deus ...

ICEL: Almighty and everlasting God ...

COMMENT: God should not be qualified by the term "everlasting"-- as if He were a battery or a deodorant. It's kosher to say, e.g., "His mercy is everlasting," but to apply this adjective to God himself makes Him into a commodity.

Praesta, quaesumus, omnipotens et misericors Deus, ut Spiritus Sanctus adveniens templum nos gloriae suae dignanter inhabitando perficiat.

ICEL: Almighty and merciful God, send forth the Holy Spirit upon your Church to make of us the temple where your glory dwells.

COMMENT: The ablative inhabitando is instrumental here; the meaning is, "by His indwelling, may the Holy Spirit at his coming make us into the temple of His (not "your") glory. ICEL shudders at the thought of using "his" to refer to the Holy Spirit, so it interpolates the words "your Church" and shifts the glory to the Father. Sweet.

Da nobis, in confessione verae fidei ...

ICEL: Grant that we may proclaim the fullness of faith ...

COMMENT: ICEL doesn't like "the confession of the True Faith" either, whence it substitutes the hypo-allergenic "fullness of faith." No ecumenists were harmed in the making of this translation.

Omnipotens Deus

ICEL: Merciful and faithful God.

COMMENT: Not the same.

Proficiat nobis ad salutem corporis et animae, Dominus Deus noster, huius sacramenti susceptio, et sempiternae sanctae Trinitatis eiusdemque individuae unitatis confessio. Per Christum...

ICEL: Lord God, we worship you, a Trinity of persons, one eternal God. Grant that the sacrament we have received and the faith we profess may bring us wholeness of mind and body. We ask this through Christ our Lord.

COMMENT: This is one of the classic howlers from the 1973 translation that should have been caught and corrected instead of repeated. The Missal's Orations are addressed to God the Father, and it makes no sense to call the Father "a Trinity of persons" (the Latin says, "may the confession of our faith in the holy eternal Trinity profit us..."). Even on its own terms the wording is bizarre, as a Christian cannot make a prayer of address to the Trinity through Christ. Put mildly, the NCR's lamentations over the product of "more than three decades" of profound liturgical scholarship are misplaced.

Handily forgotten in much of the recent discussion is the fact that ICEL did not merely provide a translation of the Latin editio typica, but it also composed its own original alternative prayers and included them in its Sacramentary. Here, of course, there is no original Latin to compare with the ICEL oration. They're worth looking at all the same, though, because they help show the kind of liturgy ICEL believed the Church would have if she were in touch with her renewed Self.

ICEL: With tender comfort and transforming power you come into our midst, O God of mercy and might.

COMMENT: Get it? Each masculine "power" image is balanced with a feminine "tenderness" image. The alliteration is almost too cute to be true.

ICEL: God our Savior, you utter a word of promise and hope and hasten the day of justice and freedom, yet we live in a world forgetful of your word, our watchfulness dulled by the cares of life.

COMMENT: Though it's true in some times and places that Christian watchfulness is "dulled by the cares of life," in other times and places hardship or catastrophe have quickened the sense of expectancy. Martyrs hear Mass as well as aromatherapists. The languor of peacetime suburbia shouldn't become the implicit norm for the prayer of the Church.

ICEL: God of Glory and compassion, at your touch the wilderness blossoms, broken lives are made whole, and fearful hearts grow strong in faith.

COMMENT: What, no mention of Snoopy? This language has its roots in the sentimental piety of the 1970s and 1980s, not Scripture or the Church Fathers. It has a place on a wall-plaque or greeting-card, not at Mass.

Regrettably, there's lots more where that comes from. But the point is made: both in translation (if we may abuse that word) and in composition the ICEL texts read as if they were written for a junior college literary magazine. Here and there are moments of pleasing expression, occasionally they find something in the Latin worth communicating well, but by and large reading through their prose is like chewing on a bad tooth, and there are no two consecutive paragraphs without some instance of gratuitous pain. You notice, do you not, that neither the NCR nor old-ICEL's supporters are especially eager to provide examples from the texts of the purported beauties the Vatican has withheld from us. Very likely they're secretly pleased that ICEL's experiments got buried, since even apart from their many infelicities the translations have the half-life of Berkelium and already sound dated.

Let's give the last word to the NCR:

But the recitation of the history is significant in demonstrating that at the highest levels of the community there were those who had little regard for precedent, competence, the work of others and established process.

Amen to that.

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