Monday, 17 January 2011

Principles of Translation...

In his essay On Translating Beowulf, J.R.R Tolkien said:

''If you wish to translate, not re-write, Beowulf, your language must be literary and traditional: not because it is now a long while since the poem was made, or because it speaks of things that have since become ancient; but because the diction of Beowulf was poetic, archaic, artificial (if you will), in the day that the poem was made. Many words used by the ancient English poets had, even in the eighth century, already passed out of colloquial use for anything from a lifetime to hundreds of years...''ergo...''you will misrepresent the first and most salient characteristic of the style and flavour of the author, if in translating Beowulf, you deliberately eschew the traditional literary and poetic diction which we now possess in favour of the current and trivial.'' (J.R.R Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays, pp.54-55).

Tolkien's principles of translating Beowulf could be aptly applied to the principles of translating liturgical texts. The Latin of the Roman Rite was never a barbarous tongue understanded of the people in the Protestant sense, making use of everyday colloquialisms, with an air of familiar informality. Rather the Latin was of a more archaic, courteous style, and richer in beautiful words (comparable with, say, Túrin Turambar's first meeting with the outlaws after his flight from Doriath. The outlaws thought him an Elf because of his manner of speech and bearing), as befits the Sacred Liturgy. Evidence enough for this is the style of the Roman Canon and the Collects, neither a purely classical Latin, nor an expression of vulgarism; such words as quaesumus (''we beseech''), used in most Collects, were considered obsolete even by Cicero. Their inclusion in the language of Liturgy, which is the principle means by which we know God, is noteworthy, and dashes the Modernist belief that Liturgy in the early Church pertained to the nature of Pentecostalist tongue-wagging, or holding hands around a bowl of water filled with tea lights; incense sticks and whale music. No, the ancestral language of Liturgy in the West was lofty and non-vernacular.

Therefore, following Tolkien's principle, the English translation of the Latin original should reflect and contain the style and sentiment of the Latin, but in a way which is equally expressive of the loftiness of ''liturgical language.'' It should be utterly faithful to the sense, spirit and cadence of the Scriptural and Patristic texts of the Liturgy, but not so literal as to render these texts bald and artificial. How can you faithfully convey the sense of Liturgy, after a manner consonant with the original composers of the texts, such as St Leo the Great (whose demonstrable mastery of the Latin language was astonishing), intelligibly in English if you have so distanced yourself from its inherent loftiness of expression? The new ICEL translation of the Roman Canon, at least the draft version (the only one I have seen I'm afraid - you can view the text on this man's blog), is at best a verbose, overly literal rendering of the original; at worst clearly betrays the very principles of translation (in such a way as to make Old ICEL seem desirable! At least old ICEL is succinct - like Latin!). Is this incidental or endemic of the general incompetence of modern Rome in absolutely everything? In the last five years we have seen efforts on the part of Rome to cultivate the Sacred Liturgy, but what do we get? First, to cover up a demonstrable liturgical abuse, the Pope says that using six candles and a crucifix (itself very modern, and traceable to the bad taste of Baroque liturgy!) makes this void. Effectively he has conjured out of thin air a pseudo-theology of liturgical orientation at stark contrast with the ancestral attitude of Christian liturgical prayer, which is compass Eastward. Next we have Summorum Pontificum, which I have discussed before. And now this long-awaited translation! I have no doubts at all that Pope Benedict's desire is for the good of the Church, but either he is badly advised or he needs to stop imposing his own theologies of Liturgy on the Church. This new translation is going to make something very beautiful in the liturgical patrimony of the Roman Church a hideous travesty, in a way which candles and crucifixes won't.

King David composes the Psalms, from an Old English Psalter, circa A.D 750.

Which sounds fairer?

The heavens declare the glory of God: and the firmament proclaimeth the works of his hands. Day unto day uttereth speech: and night unto night sheweth knowledge. (Ps 18:1-2, Douay-Rheims version).


The heavens declare the glory of God, the vault of heaven proclaims his handiwork, day discourses of it to day, night to night hands on the knowledge. (Ps 19:1-2, New Jerusalem version)

This is nothing to do with Old or New ICEL, but is simply to demonstrate the very different sense that these two translations of the same Psalm verse convey. On the one hand you have a Psalm-verse worthy of liturgical expression, and the other a rather boring modern version which is unedifying. God help Catholic school children provided with such a translation, to the ruin of their taste and impetus to improve their limited vocabularies!

If Old ICEL made the modern Roman liturgy seem less sacred and more ''familiar'' than the legitimate desire to translate the ancient Roman Liturgy into Cranmerian English would have done, then New ICEL, verbose and literal, is an assault on the Roman Liturgy in a more serious way. Yes the literal sense of the text is conveyed, but has Rome not rather traded a faithful translation for a literal one, and at great cost?


  1. A good and interesting post but your comment regarding Pope Benedict does prompt the Fr Corapi question:
    "Are you telling me you know better than the Pope?"

  2. Would I have preferred an Elizabethan-style translation? Yes. But I can't make the perfect the enemy of the good.

    There is no possible defense of the current ICEL translation. It is inaccurate. It is a banal paraphrase, not a translation. It is dreadful (and, in the USA, we are further hampered at Mass by the lectionary from the wretched New American Bible).

    At least the new translation will convey the meaning of the Latin text better. English ain't Latin, and if you want to get the cadence of Latin, it is a simple matter of just using Latin.

    Or joining the new Ordinariate.

  3. It's quite likely that Patricius very well may. At the end of the day, while I think Benedict is a brilliant theologian, he is only a human being. (Keep mind that I'm Orthodox, so I don't think he's infallible under any circumstances)

    Imagine if I disagreed with a university professor about something, and I was told, "Are you telling me you know better than Dr. X?" Well if I can articulately and cogently put together why I think Dr. X is wrong, then I have a right to my opinion.

  4. The old ICEL translation was a betrayal in more ways than one. That unhappy, hideous English translation, like many, if not most, of the official post-conciliar vernacular translations, was intentionally produced in order to secularise, protestantise, decatholicise, desacralise, deadjectivise, despiritualise, and dummify the Catholic religion, which is lived, celebrated, experienced and handed down foreall in the holy Liturgy. Bugnini conforted his heretical friends in the Consilium, that what they could not obtain from the Pope in the new Latin text, they would be sure to get their own way in the vernacular translations. In my opinion, anything at all, even the imperfect new english translation, will be a much long-awaited improvement. But the core problem reamins the original Novus Ordo texts: they need to be scrapped, if they cannot be ''re-catholicised''. The pre-conciliar translations made for the people's missals were usually of high quality, orthodox, and in sacral language. I see that on several important points the new English translation (the first of many vernacular re-translations) does return to make use of those pre-conciliar peoples-missal translations.

  5. I'm glad to hear that somebody else shares my utter lack of enthusiasm for the new translation. The desire for a strictly 'accurate' translation means that there is none of the poetry and style which is utterly inherent in the original (and in all good liturgical compositions).

    The triumph of leaden legalism will do little to help the sacred liturgy.

  6. We live in a brutally ugly, iconoclastic era. Look at our modern architecture and music.

    Unfortunately, in this milieu, beauty and elegance are not possible. Perhaps in a future generation, when appreciation for beauty returns, we will get a better English translation.

    But today, with a choice between a stuffy but accurate translation and a banal and inaccurate one, I'll take the former.

  7. Thank you all for your comments.

    James C, are you saying that the ends justify the means? Beauty should be the primary ''means'' of Liturgy so that it can properly perform its function. We must remember that Liturgy is conduct of the highest order.

    Clearly the Roman Church has fallen low. I just cannot understand why the upclimbing (if it can be so called, I doubt it's even that to be quite honest) is so difficult, and slow.

  8. Neither you nor I are in charge of translations. We can make our objections known, but at some point we have to just get on with the life of Christian discipleship, for our own mental and spiritual health. Our current states in the Church do not afford us the opportunity to do much more than work to assist our pastors in celebrating a liturgy more reverent and fitting for God wherever we are. It is good that you are doing this with your service to Blackfen; you've earn the right to complain a bit. :)

    Now, if God calls one of us to the priesthood, we could really make things happen with the restoration of the liturgy.

    The new translations are not perfect, but they are definitely better than what we currently have, both in accuracy and in elegance. They are better than we could have expected 10 or 20 years ago---even now they are being instituted over the vigorous protests of many people, among them a good number of bishops. These people seem to think that the new translations are too HAAAAARRRRD for people to understand. Simply by being a literal translation of the Latin, they are not in a colloquial everyday language. For that we can be thankful.

    Could they be better? Of course. But consider where the Roman Church was 20 years ago. Restoration may not come as fast as we like, but that is the way of things. It is much easier to destroy than to build back up.

    And, as Father Zed likes to say, if you don't like the translation, there is always Latin!

  9. Richard C,

    The fatuous "Fr. Corapi question", is beneath adult attention. As most serious people are aware, in the past sixty years Popes have delivered all sorts of pronouncements and prognostications relating to liturgical reform which subsequent events have demonstrated repeatedly to have been ill-founded and mistaken. That the critics, bullied and derided in their time in similarly asinine terms, have turned out nevertheless to "know better than the Pope" more often than not is a matter of historical record, simply. Please drop this idiotic and disreputable device. The Church is not a kind of "supernatural" North Korea.

  10. Patrick, the answer to your perplexity is elementary: it is much easier to destroy, than to build, a thing of beauty and worth. Hence the difficult and slow upclimbing. Good will lacks as well, to be sure.