The tongue of the angels

We are deep into autumn. Cars have a frosty, sparkly sheen when I take my late-night walks. The cold seems a fitting omen for the new Mass translations, arriving November 27, the First Sunday of Advent.

I wrote a post about a year ago, critiquing the revised Missal for hewing so closely to literal Latin sense and grammar that it sounded not so much like fingernails on a chalkboard, but like boots thrown at a chalkboard. I had skimmed the Order of Mass for obvious translation fails. Lately, however, I’m reading critics more thorough than I, who dig up examples that aren’t just awkward, but opaque.

Rita Ferrone, in a July gem from Commonweal entitled “It Doesn’t Sing”, presents part of the slicked-up Preface VIII for Sundays in Ordinary Time:

For when your children were scattered afar by sin, / through the Blood of your Son and the power of the Spirit, / you gathered them again to yourself, / that a people, formed as one by the unity of the Trinity, / made the Body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit, / might, to the praise of your manifold wisdom, / be manifest as the Church.

“What is the main point?” Ferrone asks of this sixty-four-word, run-on sentence. “It is hard to tell.” Even worse: “If the speaker is not careful to separate the first line from the second and join the second with the third, separating them from the first, he ends up suggesting that the Blood of Christ and the power of the Spirit are instrumental in scattering God’s children.”

I take the new Missal personally. Between high school and college, I studied five years of Latin. And if I had used the Vatican approach, my teachers would have killed me.

Freshman year of high school, we had a beginner’s textbook with appropriate baby sentences. The first week, Mr. Keating asked me to translate Puella est magna. Puella is “girl,” and the book gave magnus, -a, -um as “great” or “large.” I proclaimed that “the girl is large.”

Mr. Keating looked amused. “Well, Justin, I think that sounds a little rude: ‘the girl is large.’ You wouldn’t say that in real life.” Better to say “she’s a big girl.” I got the point.

Mr. Keating, a devout Irish Catholic with deep respect for “the tongue of the angels,” taught us many Latin prayers. He made us approach them with “the art of translation.” We dissected the second stanza of Veni, Veni Emmanuel (“O Come, O Come Emmanuel”): Veni, O Sapientia / Quae hic disponis omnia / Veni, viam prudentiae / Ut doceas et gloriae.

After cases, verbs, and Latin’s free-to-the-point-of-promiscuous word order were hashed out, this more or less became: “Come, O Wisdom, who arranges all these things. Come that you may teach us the road of foresight and glory.”

Then Mr. Keating gave us a more familiar version for comparison: “O come Thou Wisdom from on high, / Who ord’ rest all things mightily. / To us the path of knowledge show, / And teach us in her ways to go.” Again, I got the point: a seamless fusion of two elements, Gregorian chant and English poetry, producing a third substance.

Senior year with Mr. Mural, we studied Virgil’s Aeneid in both its original text and Robert Fitzgerald’s English translation. I’ve always been struck by the first one-and-a-half lines of Book I and how Fitzgerald dealt with them: Arma virumque cano Troiae qui primus ab oris / Italiam fato profugus…

About the best our class could do was: “I sing about weapons and a man, who first fled from the shores of Troy to Italy by fate.” Now Fitzgerald: “I sing of warfare and a man at war. / From the sea-coast of Troy in early days / He came to Italy by destiny…”

Fitzgerald knew how Latin meter sounded to the Romans. He knew how English speakers expect to hear poetry. He took into account the overall thrust, knowing that weapons and men foretold warfare and men at war. He had a feel for punctuation, which Latin generally lacks. The result is magisterial yet unpretentious. An Amazon.com review calls it “beautiful, accessible American English.”

The great translators are master conjurers. They help one world give birth to itself inside another. They do not simply preserve text, as if they were embalmers. Like the great poets and prose artists they study, they can throw down a phrase like a sledgehammer. They make this look easy.

Unintelligible run-on sentences, “suggesting that the Blood of Christ and the power of the Spirit are instrumental in scattering God’s children,” are not sledgehammers. They have no ease and they give birth to nothing. They are not beautiful, accessible English. They, and the Missal they come with, are embalmed.

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3 thoughts on “The tongue of the angels

  1. I’ve very much appreciated your commentaries on the new text for the missal, and the editor in me gets a chuckle over how easy it is to misread the passage you quoted. But the Catholic/Christian inside me shudders at how dense, inaccessible, and meaningless it all is. Admittedly, I’ve sort of been “in denial” about this translation since I first heard about it years ago … soon I’ll no longer have that option as I’ll be confronted with it every weekend. That is, if I can still bear to attend Catholic services.

    • Yeah…the 1973 ICEL translation isn’t perfect (one argument I’ve heard is that while the Eucharistic prayers are generally elegant, the opening prayers and other presidential prayers can be a little flat). But it does lend itself to settings where you need plain-speaking liturgies that don’t put on too many airs. I’ve found the current Mass to be ideal when I’ve attended high school and college overnight retreats, getaway weekends for intentional communities, or justice events like the School of the Americas protest. That’s the lens I look at this through, and I can’t see the upcoming Missal translation readily lending itself to times like those, when the breaking of the bread needs to be simple, immediate, and intimate. If I were a conspiracy theorist–I didn’t say I was, I said if I were–I would wonder if that might be part of the point.

  2. “They help one world give birth to itself inside another.”
    Beautifully put. I think really, all language does this–the question is, what world are the new translations going to birth us into?

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