Sunday, October 16, 2011

The "New Translation" of the Mass I--some initial comments

An illustration from the
Central Middle Ages,
c. 10th century, of the
Roman Mass. 
I went to Mass this morning in a parish in New Jersey and the priest was explaining a bit about the new translation of the Mass that will be introduced on November 27th.  There is a lot of interest on this matter—I have been asked to speak about it perhaps five times in the last three months.  Of course, I approach it from a historical point of view but I am qualified to make some comments on the translation itself.  Let me just give you some background.             
     I am old enough to remember—and remember well—the “old mass” we had before the council.  I labored to memorize the nonsense syllables  Suscipiat Dominus sacrificium de manibus tuis, ad laudem et gloriam nominis sui, ad utilitatem quoque nostram, totiusque Ecclesiae suae sanctae.  Later on I would go on to study Latin (for six years), teach Latin, and now use Latin regularly in my historical research and writing.  But at the time—for a ten year old altar boy—they were nonsense syllables and only one of many such paragraphs of nonsense syllables we had to learn to serve at the altar.  I, for one, was delighted when somewhere about my junior year of high school, English slowly began to work its way into the liturgy.  The initial translations were awkward at times, actually somewhat makeshift, but at least they rendered the mass intelligible to a kid who—at that time—was in third year Latin in a Jesuit Prep School (and who had scored a 99 on the New York State Regents Exam in Latin) but still found the prayers of the Mass a stretch. 
     In 1970—when I was in college—Paul VI issued a radically revised Ordo Missae (Order of Mass for those whose Latin may not have scored a 99 on the Regents Exam).  It was a radical revision of the Mass.  At the time they told us it was the “same mass, different words.”  Baloney!!!  I have always maintained that the only people who understand the “New Mass” (the Ordo of Paul VI)  are those who are opposed to it.   There is a radically different theology of the Mass in the revisions of the 1970 Missal.  Personally, I think it is a healthy revision as it has helped return the Mass to the Patristic Theology of the Eucharist by purifying it (and I use that term deliberately) of the late medieval accretions which gave us a very faulty theology, particularly a highly flawed and only marginally orthodox theology of Sacrifice which implied, at least in the popular imagination, that Christ was sacrificed again and again each time the priest “offered” Mass.  This is contrary to both Scripture and Tradition—Tradition being the deposit of faith that has been held from the beginning and articulated in the teaching of the Fathers of the Church.  Anyway, not to get sidetracked, under the guidance of the remarkable and earthily holy Archbishop Denis Hurley, a committee known as ICEL (International Committee for English in the Liturgy) prepared a standard translation of the Latin Text of Paul VI’s missal into English. It was, arguably, a bland—even pedestrian—translation and needed an update particularly in the presidential prayers which the priest recites.  It was not a bad translation, just a bland one.  But then, when one considers the importance of the Liturgy as our primary experience as a Church of the Grace of God, a bland translation is a bad one.  
     The principle on which the original translation was based is called “dynamic equivalency.”  In dynamic equivalency the translator takes the key thought from the passage in the original language and asks himself or herself “how is this best expressed in the ‘target language’.”  In other words, how would an English speaker say  Suscipiat Dominus sacrificium de manibus tuis, ad laudem et gloriam nominis sui, ad utilitatem quoque nostram, totiusque Ecclesiae suae sanctae.     This is a challenge for several reasons.  First of all Americans, English, New Zealanders, Scots, Australians, South Africans, Indians, Canadians, and the Irish all speak the somewhat same language very differently.  While we usually understand each other, there are crucial differences in vocabulary and even grammar.   But there is an even bigger problem and that is that the host language, Latin, is structured very differently than is English.  The “syntax” of Latin—that is the grammatical structure (which is far more than grammar) is radically different.  English prefers short sentences—subject, predicate, object.  We will tolerate a single subordinate clause.  Not Latin!  Latin builds a sentence like a shipyard builds a warship: clause upon clause, subordinate ideas towering high over the main thought, not only expressing an idea but ladling it with nuances.  Latin being an inflected language does not depend for clarity on structure in the way that does English (or the modern Romance languages.)  Good Latin translation requires that you disassemble the sentence and rebuild it into a paragraph, or at least several sentences.  It can be done and done well.  During the Anglican Reformation, the architect of the Book of Common Prayer, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, did a magnificent job of translating many of the collects from the old Sarum and York Rites into beautiful English Prayers.  Over the centuries successive editions of the Prayer book have been able to update these translations while retaining their elegant style.  Unfortunately the ICEL work was more of a “dog’s dinner” to use an Irish aphorism.  The translations worked but they have not inspired.  There has been a need from the beginning for new and better translations.  
     In 2000 Pope John Paul issued a new Latin edition of the Roman Missal.  He did not substantially alter the Rite of Paul VI.  The Rite is left unchanged and the Latin phrasing is still intact.  However, he mandated a new translation, not only for English but for many languages.  We will talk about the reasons for this new translation in a future post.  Did he get the new and better translation?  Well, new yes.  Better? In some ways, yes.  The scriptural allusions of the original Latin text come out more markedly in the new translation.  Overall, however, it is neither what we needed—a translation into an elegant but usable English—nor is it even a more faithful translation.  More on that next time. 

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