Tuesday, 25 August 2009

First thoughts on the new translation

On the last post, my good friend William had this to say:

OK, so it's more accurate.
That's all to the good. But I have honestly to say that a fair bit of it sounds (to me) like a translation by a GCSE candidate, reasonably able but lacking in confidence, who is desperate to impress upon the examiners that he really does understand the Latin. (My eye lit a moment ago upon the new version of Quod ore sumpsimus …, which strikes me as a case in point.)
It isn't always appreciated just how hard it is to make a liturgical translation which is (a) accurate, (b) idiomatic and (c) in an appropriate register. (I've recently had occasion to translate several dozen of the Super oblata for a project of my own, and even when the Latin is crystal-clear there's still a lot of work in producing a usable version – and I'm still far from happy with some of them.) Getting the balance right between those three factors is always going to be highly subjective. The translators seem to have interpreted Liturgiam authenticam as mandating literal accuracy above all other considerations.
What I find most disappointing, as an opportunity missed (perhaps for reasons of church politics), is that the translators seem to have been instructed to avoid borrowing from the Book of Common Prayer. Say what you like about Cranmer, but he was one heck of a liturgical translator, and the most minimal of tweaks would have been enough, in many cases, to produce superior versions of the many texts that the BCP and the Missal have in common. But no doubt that's just me being an incorrigible Anglican.

I have to say that I can't disagree with William, for most of that. In fairness, Cranmer's translations are generally reckoned to be superb (setting aside the alterations made for doctrinal reasons). Part of this may be simply because, as in the case of Shakespeare, Cranmer was largely responsible for creating literary English: generations of schoolchildren learnt the collects by heart (I even know one or two myself) and most English people for several hundred years heard Cranmer's prose as the only stylistically serious language of their week. It may be (to a certain extent) a question of chicken and egg.

Be that as it may, I think we can safely say that a Cranmer (even a Catholic Cranmer) did not produce these new translations. The French, the Italians, the Spanish, the Germans, all managed to have a more idiomatic translation that was certainly a great deal closer to the original Latin than our older ICEL version, but is still distinctive. Though I suggest that the French version is hardly Raçine! Just as well, in some ways.

We have a problem because of being English speakers. The trouble is that English is actually the new Latin–I mean that it is the lingua franca for a great part of the human race. I suspect that a number of the translations of the Missal into other languages are not being made from the Latin, but from the English. Imagine it: minority languages in Africa all producing variations on 'and also with you'. And so Rome (or the wider Church) decided that we Anglophones must have a very very literal translation.

I regret that there were not two versions; an idiomatic version for our own use, plus a literal English for translation (but this would have conceded that Latin has now given way to English). That is not going to happen. There are interested parties anxious to ensure that Italian be the lingua franca of the Church, to cite one reason only.

But overall, I will be much happier to use the new version when we are permitted. Two of my churches have the old Parish Mass Book in the pews, with the ICEL and the NLC translations side by side. With all its drawbacks, (telling God things about Himself all the time), the NLC shows time and again the crashing inferiority of our current ICEL translation. Just look at the collects for this week:


Deus, qui fidélium mentes uníus éfficis voluntátis, da pópulis tuis id amáre quod præcipis, id desideráre quod promíttis, ut, inter mundánas varietátes, ibi nostra fixa sint corda, ubi vera sunt gáudia. Per Dóminum.

O God, you unite all the hearts of your faithful. Teach us to love what you command, and to long for what you promise, that amid the delights of this life, we may keep our hearts set firmly on the true joys of heaven.

Father, help us to see the values that will bring us lasting joy in this changing world.
In our desire for what you promise make us one in mind and heart.

You could write reams about the bankrupt theology implicit in this simple collect translation, but I'll forbear. All right, one small protest: it changes the promise from joy in the hereafter to joy in this world. mmmf mmmf mmmf!!!!

So William, Cranmer or no Cranmer; bring on schoolboy Latin!

And, some have suggested, the Latin of the Vulgate is hardly Shakespeare, or even Cranmer. Let alone Cicero.


gemoftheocean said...

The word "consubstantial" is going to cause grief in the pews. Why do "they" do this?

Chris said...

And here's what Cranmer made of it:

O Almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men: Grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, there true joys are to be found; through.

William Young said...

"There are interested parties anxious to ensure that Italian be the lingua franca of the Church" - am I alone in thinking that Italian as the lingua franca of the Church would be a disaster? She changed from Greek, when Greek was still the language of Christian Rome, to Latin because Latin was the language needed for evangelisation. By all means use Italian to evangelise the Italians, but why should the world have to learn Italian to be evangelised? It already knows English.

Anonymous said...

There is one important factor you overlook. The English Cramner uses became a precedent that both expressed the Latin but also shaped English and culture. We look back and think of Cramner as normative. That is the effect the use of English in the worship and in particular the Mass has. They both express an ideology. Cramner edited and twisted much in his attempt to introduce a Protestant ideology just as the ICEL translators have used the use of the vernacular to introduce modernism and twist the faith of man and woman in the pew. The new translation is better than what we had. I do not however think the Novus Ordo should be translated or even kept in the Church as there is nothing organic in its growth. That is another thought.

Anonymous said...

I write with trepidation as an Anglican, Father, but I do remember wondering why Roman Catholics were so reluctant, when you began to worship in English, to use Cranmer's translations for such non-controversial parts of the liturgy as the Gloria, Credo, Sanctus/Benedictus and Agnus Dei. After all, the Plainsong and Mediaeval Music Society and the Anglican nuns at Wantage had provided plainsong settings in English.

Instead, you visited upon yourselves the horrors of the "folk mass", which bore no resemblance to any known form of folk music.

There may, of course, now be some ecumenical comeback for the abandonment of ecumenically agreed common texts. (The particular problems for those of us on this side of the Tiber who are "very 'igh" are a private grief with which I won't trouble your intended Roman Catholic audience.)

I seem to be compelled to comment as "anon", but I am in fact Alan Harrison, a layman of the diocese of Lichfield.

The Cardinal said...

The problems with the new translation are manfold, as priests will find out as they come to grips with the Collects, to name but one category of prayer in the new Missal. I predict that they simply won't want to pray them.

The galling thing is that there is already in existence a much better translation than the one we currently use. It is the revised ICEL translation that the English-speaking Bishops approved and sent to Rome in 1997. It remedied many of the failings of the current text, and at the same time provided language that had none of the deficiencies of the latest version. It would have been a pleasure to use.

However, some in Rome thought that ICEL was too political body and moved the goalposts. The 1997 text has been seen by only a few. If it were more generally available, it is beyond doubt that many would petition to use it instead of the mishmash of robotspeak that we now have coming our way, and which we should resist.