The New Translation of the Catholic Mass doesn't exactly appear to be firing great enthusiasm around the world except from the predictable minority. In this three-part essay, Dr Anthony Lowes takes a more detailed look at some of the problems.
SERIES NAVIGATION: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
At a loss: the dumbing [up] of the new English liturgy...
In writing this essay, I have the discomfiting sense of one rashly engaged in micturition into a head wind. The wind in this case is the wind of official ecclesiastical spin, artfully manufactured (it seems to me) to provide a rationalisation, rather than a rationale, for the new liturgical English translation.
But as G. K. Chesterton once paradoxically said, 'A thing worth doing is worth doing . . . badly', or in this situation, he may well have said, 'futilely'.
While we have Chesterton in mind, in his book on Dickens he pointed up the distinction drawn by the literary aristocracy between the words 'sense' and 'sensibility'. Not simply a distinction, but also a clearly implied opposition. 'Sense', he claimed, was commonly associated with the word 'common', as in the phrase 'common sense'.
Such an association inferred that sense was the possession of the common man: a person of uneducated, unformed mind. Whereas sensibility was attributed to persons of refinement of thought, judgement and feeling. Chesterton's reasoning in Dickens' regard was that both his sense and his sensibility were at one: common in the best sense of the word: that is, broadly appealing. And this went very far to explain his popularity with a vast reading public in his own lifetime.
Something akin to this faux distinction and opposition has bedevilled the production of and debate about the new English liturgy.
"While that translation may not have been without flaw, it was a very serviceable translation. It was, it must be said, at least a translation; not a transliteration—which is what we have in the new English version."
Critics of the former English liturgy, especially key members of the committee responsible for oversight of the new version—a group calling itself Vox Clara (a heavy irony: doublespeak, I rather think, for Vox Obscura)—have referred to the former translation disparagingly as a 'dumbing down' of the revised Latin text of Paul VI's missal. They have heaped it with further opprobrium, labelling it language fit for a barbeque. While that translation may not have been without flaw (it was done with considerable urgency), it was a very serviceable translation. It was, it must be said, at least a translation; not a transliteration—which is what we have in the new English version.
If we are to attach the critical label 'dumbing up' to the new version (as I have done in the title of this critique), it would be first of all because what we have is not strictly speaking a translation in the technical sense of transferring units of meaning (glossemes) into equivalent phrase and idiom in the recipient language (which does not at all mean into colloquialism, as with barbeque-speak).
English with a Latin rhythm...
What we have instead in the new liturgical transliteration is English vocabulary distorted into the rhythms and structures of the original Latin. And even then, many of the words, if not the majority, while possessing recognizable English morphology, are Latin derivatives. What we have is a certain indirectness of expression, a preference for abstract and technical theological terms and the addition of gratuitous adjectives. (The last are included for [so-called] sacred emphasis.) Taken together, these features make of the new version a rather lumpish liturgical pudding.
In effect, the new translation is less impactful, is more difficult to comprehend, is even more problematic to pronounce and proclaim, as many a tortured priestly recital bears witness. Grammatical obfuscation would not be so prevalent if sentence structures were less periodic, were reconfigured to bring forward main clauses and contained fewer parenthetic subordinate clauses.
This is not a plea for a dumbing down, but a plea for a language structure which would enhance communicative immediacy.
Let's take one instance from the Collect of the Twenty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – not a random choice; it is from a recent Sunday's liturgy.
God our Father, you redeem us as your children in Christ. Look upon us, give us true freedom and bring us to the inheritance you promised.
New translation (How the adjective 'new' sticks in my craw when there is such a falling off in this return to the outworn, 'the halt and the lame'!):
O God, by whom we are redeemed and receive adoption, look graciously upon your sons and daughters, that those who believe in Christ may receive true freedom and everlasting inheritance.
The 'old' is direct, crisp, subtly implying gracious condescension without stating it (simply Look upon us) and tenderly familiar. The 'new' is clunky and periodic, is ponderous and overstated (...look graciously upon...) and that may be the reason it is beloved of pontificating pontiffs who prefer orating liturgy to praying it in a way that personally engages.
The 'old' in this instance is also theologically inclusive of various models of redemption; and this runs to an ontological sharing in the personal life of the Trinity. The 'new' narrows the concept of divine sharing to one model—the merely legal notion of adoption, which admittedly is one of the models employed in the NT. The 'old' longer version of the collect for the same Sunday is shot through with metaphysical poetry, inferring a trinitarian embrace as the means of redemption, and redemption not so much forgiveness for sin as a conferral of everlasting life: With unparalleled love you have saved us from death and drawn us into the circle of your life.
Unnaturally timeless, preternaturally dead...
Such grammatical archaisms as are found in the current version are at one remove from immediate participation of celebrant and lay person alike, as both strive to invest the eucharistic event with personal meaning. To rob liturgical language of its riches of theological nuance may appear to be a dumbing down. To unnecessarily overload it with obscurity and unnaturally timeless (dead?) diction is surely as equal a dumbing, but upwards rather than downwards. It approaches the fustian of a Falstaff or the magniloquence of a Micawber.
A case in point is the substitution of 'consubstantial' for the phrase 'of one being' in the Nicene Creed. Both have an equal theological pedigree; if anything 'of one being' is a more immediate translation of the original Greek term which resolved a century or more of debate about the nature of the Word, the second person of the Trinity incarnated in Christ. The term is homoousion, which means 'of identical or one being'. The term was close to but trumped its rival homoiousion, which means 'of like or similar being' and which consequently cast into doubt the Word's identity in divinity with the Father. 'Consubstantial' was, if anything, a Latin translation of homoousion and therefore something of a second order term in use in the Western church.
And while both terms refer to an obscure dogmatic and theological nicety, the English rendering 'of one being' is linguistically less opaque.
SERIES NAVIGATION: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
Dr Anthony (Tony) Lowes did a wide-ranging study on the Trinity and human communion, supervised by Denis Edwards and Duncan Reid at the Adelaide College of Divinity for his doctorate in 2003. Now retired in Adelaide, Tony spent nine years in the priesthood, beween 63 and 72, 30 years in education — 28 of them in in leadership positions in Catholic Education. He is married to Mary, has twin daughters who are married and four grandchildren.
©2012Dr Anthony Lowes
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