Sunday, December 23, 2007

Best Books of 2007 - Music/Liturgy

I have known about Peter Jeffery since I began studying Gregorian chant in earnest some eight years ago. While he is possibly the foremost American scholar of chant, I've known about him mostly by word of mouth. He has yet to write a great magnum opus of chant scholarship, such as David Hiley's Western Plainchant: A Handbook, Kenneth Levy's Gregorian Chant and the Carolingians, or James McKinnen's The Advent Project. He has, however, graced the pages of numerous scholarly journals with erudite articles, including reviews of the latter two above-mentioned books (he effectively refutes their main theses).

While looking about to find copies of these reviews, I happened to discover his web page. On it, I discovered a remarkably perceptive article on the musical reform following Vatican II. So impressed was I, that I not only sent off copies of it to my various friends in liturgical music, but I decided to buy one of Jeffrey's short books: Translating Tradition.
I must confess that I had not read Liturgiam Authenticam in any detail, and so I had merely assumed that it contained more or less obvious statements about accuracy in translating liturgical texts. In hindsight, given my usual suspicion of translators, this demonstrates remarkable naivete on my part. While I am not a big supporter of 'dynamic equivalence', though I am sympathetic to its practitioners' aims, I also delight in the serendipity (acts of Providence?) of poorly done early Latin translations that become part of the Western Catholic heritage. I similarly enjoy interesting tidbits of the Syriac theological tradition that ultimately stem from the problematic Diatessaron of Tatian. I am a believer in the 'sensus plenior', the 'fuller sense' of Scripture, even or especially when it comes about from what moderns would consider faulty translation techniques. Consider today's famous Introit: "Rorate caeli desuper et nubes pluant iustum;" from Isaiah 45: 8. In the original Hebrew, the word translated here as 'iustum' is tzedek, unambiguously meaning 'justice' (this meaning is followed by the Greek translation called the Septuagint, from which the Latin is undoubtedly taken). The problem is that the Latin 'iustum' is an adjective. Used as a substantive, it now means, 'a person or thing that is just;' traditionally, we Catholics see this as a foreshadowing of the Incarnation: let the clouds rain down the Just One. So, did the Latin translators mess with the Hebrew/Greek text? Well, maybe; or maybe they altered it slightly to bring out a meaning that was already usable and current in Christian circles in the second century.

Jeffery uses other examples of a much richer sort to make his point: the principles used by the Congregation for Divine Worship in Liturgiam Authenticam (LT), while purporting to keep translations closer to the Tradition, in fact have never been used in the Tradition itself. At this juncture of this post, I feel it important to note a couple of things. First of all, Jeffery identifies himself as a conservative traditional Catholic. So his concerns about this particular teaching from the curia is not one in service of any 'liberal agenda'. In fact, his concern is for preserving precisely the Tradition in its fullness. Secondly, this book is not for everyone, since it raises genuine questions about the precise nature of such teaching documents as LT. If you do not like hearing criticism of Vatican officials, this is not your book, though I think that his criticism is well-founded and generally proffered in charity (even out of the Canonical duty of the laity who have expertise in certain areas to assist those who govern the Church in making sound decisions).

Pope Benedict XVI threw a wrench into the mechanism of LT with the new broad permission for use of the 1962 Missal. In a way, this decision of the pope's part is in harmony with Jeffery's thinking: that the liturgy has always flourished best when there is to be found diversi sed non adversi, diversity of expression without adversity of doctrine. In any case, the 1962 Missal is loaded with all kinds of traditional phrases that LT, seven years before Benedict's Motu Proprio, purportedly outlawed. In other words, this is still very clearly a debatable issue.

Jeffery is a delightful stylist as well as a formidable scholar. For these reasons alone I would recommend this book to anyone with interest in liturgy or issues of translation. Most readers, myself included, will profit from simply becoming aware of the great complexity of these problems and the danger of too-facile solutions, of the sort that certain of the fearful faithful hope for from God's rottweiler.

I would take issue with two small points in the book. The first is related to the general caution with which Jeffery approaches scholarly work. This caution is generally exemplary, and his criticism of LT is similar to the criticism he made of Levy's and McKinnon's books, that not enough research has been done to support the principles prematurely offered in these texts. While I do not doubt that he is mainly in the right here, we should be wary of two potential problems perhaps associated with too much caution. First of all, Church documents are 'too important to be left to scholars'. While scholarship is of central importance in the question of translation, there are also issues of pastoral responsibility and prudence for which Vatican officials will be called to account at the Judgment. So while we may wish and even insist that they take more account of available scholarship, or wait for such scholarship to ripen, we can't expect that their decisions will simply mirror those preferred by the best scholars in the field. From another angle, we should be wary, when articulating Church teaching, of efforts to look at things with 'scholarly objectivity' and let the chips fall where they will, a suspicion justly aimed at academia from time to time. The Tradition is still developing and as such requires our leaders to weigh the issues and make guiding decisions. This could mean a change in philosophy, as certainly has been the case (I think for profit) in the world of Biblical studies. So articulating principles of translation that have not been used before is not out of the question, though I agree with Jeffery that the authors of LT actually errantly believe that they are articulating traditional principles when they are not. But they do have a right and duty to weigh in. This isn't their most shining moment perhaps, but somehow or other the Holy Spirit will sort this out.

On a related note, one can become so cautious as never to offer a thesis. So while I agree with Jeffery's deconstruction of LT, Levy and McKinnon, I also think that advancing a thesis, even in error, helps to advance the argument, if only by forcing scholars such as Jeffery to respond. No proposals will result in no constructive work, and this has to be done at some point.

Secondly, I think that Jeffery overstates the problem when responding to LT's suggestion that we search the 'classics' of vernacular literature for standards by which to set the tone for liturgical translations. Jeffery spends a good deal of time on this point, which I think is a relatively minor one in LT (to quote the passage in question: "Academic style manuals or similar works, since they sometimes give way to such tendencies [i.e. following political of ideological fads], are not to be considered standards for liturgical translation. On the other hand, works that are commonly considered "classics" in a given vernacular language may prove useful in providing a suitable standard for its vocabulary and usage [LT 32--my emphasis]."

Jeffery exerts a good deal of effort trying to show that the influence of liturgical Latin on English literature is ambiguous at best. His writing in this particular section is most entertaining, but seems, in my opinion, to miss the point. In the paragraph in question, LT seems to be referring to the quite defensible notion that the classics of the English language, those acknowledged to be the best examples of poetry and prose, are preferable guides to liturgical style rather than academic fashions. Jeffery spends a good deal of time looking at how Latin liturgical language influenced English: very interesting, but in the end, I suspect that little more is meant here than to say that translating with a bow toward Shakespeare and Spenser, Wordsworth and Dickens, would generate the appropriate level of 'stratification' for proper use in worship.

These are relatively small points, however, and so I enthusiastically recommend this short book, and probably will return with more to say on Peter Jeffery in the future.


Philip said...

I am commenting on this particular blog and I may be missing much of the point, but here is what I have to say.

I think we need to be careful about scholar critisicms of Church documents sometimes, as they take us down paths that while they are interesting, they also lead to "unnecessary chatter" when the important issue at stake could be obedience to what the Holy Spirit through the Church is calling us to.

As a Liturgical musician who has seen abuses after abuses, I welcome what the Holy See is doing with the Liturgy. They have been sharply criticising ICEL for gross versions of PC language, and they are calling all of us to a more dignified celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It shows that they like I have been deeply concerned that what we celebrate in our Liturgies is what we believe as Catholics, anc what we celebrate and believe as Catholics is more than how we worship and pray, it's how we live the message of the Gospel. Many scholarly criticisms often fail to make that connection. And a little Christian Charity towards the Holy See and the Holy Spirit Who calls us to obedience to the Church reminds us to be careful about publically expressing what we think are the Holy See's brighter moments and what we don't think is. Many liberal scholarly critics make that mistake as do more conservative critics.

A simple reminder this time of year to follow the example of Mary and St. Joseph, who upon hearing all that God calls them to, yields their wills to the will of God and as a result they receive blessings from the Lord (Psalm 24).


Mr. Potato said...

I should like to suggest two excellent articles – First,"The Languages of Biblical Translation", by Father Paul Mankowski, SJ (Adoremus Online Edition - June 2007, Vol. XIII, No. 4).

Second, the introductory essay entitled “The Heresy of Explanation” to Robert Alter’s “The Five Books of Moses”. His translation of the Pentateuch is fascinating. He takes a literal approach saying that really important clues within the text are lost when a translation is less literal. For example, when God asks Abraham to take his son, God says, "Your son, your only son, the one you love." [I am recalling this from memory so if it is not exact, forgive me.]

Finally, I heard a great BBC or CBC Radio program on translators of books. There too is a big debate as to whether or not a strictly literal translation was really desirable. In the case of certain Russian authors, for example, style is more important than exact word-to-word translations.

Over the years I've prayed the psalms and their meaning becomes clearer the purer my heart becomes. This is really important. Get pride out of the way and listen.

When I would question a phrase like "His mercy endures forever" vs. "His love endures forever" and did research I found that the Hebrew word really means "steadfast love or mercy".

One quibble, I don't know how anyone can make a broad statement like "Never in the Church's history did X happen."

Prior Peter, OSB said...

Yes, 'never' was not the best choice of words there. Also, to be fair, it is not Jeffery's term, but my own. I think better accuracy would have been served had I written something like, "the techniques of translation urged by LA are not typical of previous philosophies," or something like that.

I am a fan of Robert Alter's, and his translations are really a great help to me, especially his notes.

Thank you both for the good comments.


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