Monday, April 21, 2008

Tradutore, traditore!

I am a reluctant convert to the school of thought that supports a revision of the translation of the Roman Missal. The Ordinary of the Mass doesn't concern me much. What got me interested in this problem are the translations of the 'collects', which are the three prayers that the priest offers at the opening of Mass, over the gifts before the Eucharistic Prayer, and after Communion. The translations into English producewhat can only be described as a different texts. Such is the case today. If, at Mass, your priest opted not to celebrate the Feast of St. Anselm, then you heard this text prayed after the Penitential Rite:

"Father, help us to seek the values that will bring us eternal joy in this changing world. In our desire for what you promise make us one in mind and heart. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son..."

I haven't been impelled to check every one of these collects against the Latin originals, but this one, using the concept of 'values' (Alasdair MacIntyre would have a field day!), sounded fishy. So I checked.

Here is the Latin (I invite Dave B. to offer corrections to my translation):
Deus qui fidelium mentes unius efficis voluntatis,
da populis tuis
id amare quod praecipis,
id desidare quod promittis
ut, inter mundanas varietatis
ibi nostra fixa sint corda
ubi vera sunt gaudia...

I've written it with verse divisions because aside from its meaning, which is beautiful, it sounds quite nice read with with attention to these sense groups. I especially like the poetry in 'id amare quod praecipis, id desidare quod promittis'. Quite elegant.

Here is my translation:
God, who cause the minds of the faithful to be united in will, grant that your people love what you command and desire what you promise, so that, in the midst of the changing things of this world, our hearts may be fixed where true joy is to be found...

In my opinion, the sentiments are just as lyrical as the sound of the Latin words! But what relationship does this have to our present (and temporary) translation? Please take a moment and do the comparision; I will point out only a few things here, though I could easily write more.

1) "In our desire for what you promise" implies that we already are possessed of such desire, whereas I don't believe that the original makes any such implication. In fact, it would seem that we are asking precisely for this desire!

2) I alluded to A. MacIntyre in parentheses above. Part of his critique of modern moral philosophy (and by extension, theology) is its foundation in 'values' rather than in the 'virtues'. Virtues imply a perfecting of the human person and our conformity to God's intentions in creating us. Here, the Latin version asks God to perfect our hope (=desire for what God promises) and love, as well as perseverance and discernment about where our true joy is to be found. These technically speaking are virtues and not values. Values imply a sort of marketplace of ideas, in which human autonomy and efficiency are the goods 'valued' by a de facto utilitarian mind set. Neither 'virtue' or 'value' are explicitly mentioned in the Latin, so we'll assume that this was simply a poor choice of words by someone who wasn't aware of the distinction.

3) 'Eternal joy' is incorrect. The phrase 'vera gaudia' means 'true joy'. Again, the implication is that false joy is found in the changing worldly arena, and not merely passing joy. There would appear to be a deliberate change of meaning to suggest that this world isn't so bad after all. We can find joy in it, though it is difficult because things change. This isn't entirely theologically beyond the pale, but I certainly find the original to be more in keeping with the tradition.

4) It is a shame that the contrast between the varietates of the world and the 'fixed heart' is completely gone.

Having written all that, I will end by saying that I'm not particularly concerned to impugn the translators and assume malicious motives for them as is sometimes done. On the other hand, I have no doubt whatsoever that our present translation is a grave impoverishment that the English-speaking bishops should be commended for remedying.

Next time I write on this, we will look at whether one should be concerned about the use of the word 'vouchsafe'.


Scott said...

Very interesting post, Prior Peter.

I thought I'd contribute the translation from the Episcopal Church's Book of Common Prayer, whose collects I find quite good:

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found...
[Fifth Sunday in Lent]

Easter Joy said...

Why are the translations so different?

Prior Peter, OSB said...

Dear Easter Joy,
The first translation is the official version of the Catholic Church, and so I and other priests are bound to use it presently. The other translation is my own based on the Latin. The American bishops have been working together for several years now revising these translations because the problems with them are widely acknowledged.

When the new translation is put into effect, I am anticipating that for many Catholics it will be a bit of a shock. In part, I am posting these observations to help others understand the importance of the revised translation, as well as prepare myself for the transition.

Thank you for your question!

Dear Scott: I agree with you that te Book of Common Prayer has fine translations. It is something of a shame that we were not able to make more use of it when we switched to the vernacular, but we can trust that the Holy Spirit knows what He is doing.

Dave B looked over my Latin and gave me an A-, which was a better grade than two other translations he managed to find on line!

Peace to you all,
Fr. Peter

Easter Joy said...

Father Peter,

Have the American Bishops finished working on the new translations, and if so, when will these new translations be put into effect?

Also, are the translations from Latin into other languages such as Spanish and French as different from the Latin as the English translation seems to be?


Easter Joy

Prior Peter, OSB said...

Dear Easter Joy,
I like your screen name...
I don't keep track very closely of the time line for the completion of the new translation. The Adoremus website usually has information in that regard. The Ordinary texts are already completed, but the 'Proper' texts, those that change for different feasts and so on, will take a bit longer. I've heard optimistic estimates that put the publication of the new Sacramentary within a year or two, but if I were a betting man, I would guess it would be 2011 at the earliest that we will hear the new texts.

I am pretty familiar with the French translation and from what I can tell it is quite a bit closer than the English. My sense from discussions with my Mexican brothers is that this entire issue doesn't much exist in Spanish-speaking lands. Spanish and Latin are so close that discrepancies would be more difficult to hide. Also, translation is just that much easier. Interestingly, for this same reason, the transition from Latin into Spanish caused had almost no effect; the language hardly changed compared to what the Church experienced in English-speaking lands.

I hope that this answers your questions, which are good ones.
Peace to you in Christ!

Easter Joy said...

Father Peter,

Thank you for your answers.


Easter Joy


This blog is published with ecclesiastical approval.

If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
Locations of visitors to this page