Anthony Esolen on new, corrected translation. Some of the best comments I have seen.

On ZENIT there is an interesting interview with Anthony Esolen, about whom I have written before.  For example, Prof. Esolen has translated the whole of Dante’s Divine Comedy.  When it comes to translation, this guy’s got game.

My emphases.

The Mass in All Its Glory

Literature Professor Offers Insights Into the Poetry of the New Translation
By Kathleen Naab

PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island, SEPT. 29, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Literature professor and translator Anthony Esolen has written what could be called a doorway to the new translation of the Roman Missal.
A commentary by Esolen can be found in the Magnificat Roman Missal Companion, a 200-page booklet that costs less than $4, and that offers a profoundly insightful introduction to the prayers the faithful are about to have on our lips, and hopefully, in our hearts.
As the new translation is set for implementation in less than two months, ZENIT spoke with Esolen about his insights into the new translation and how we can better understand the reasons behind the changes.

ZENIT: To serve as introduction, why did Magnificat pick you to give a commentary on the new translation?

Esolen: That’s a good question. I said to them, “I’m not a professional theologian!” But they wanted instead someone whom they could trust to speak about the beauty and the subtlety of the sacred poetry that the prayers of the Mass are. I’ve spent my adult life, after all, reading and teaching poetry, from the ancient world through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to modern times. I’ve also worked a great deal as a translator myself, rendering poetry from Latin, Italian, and Anglo Saxon into English poetry. That work includes editions of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata, and the three volumes of Dante’s Divine Comedy. I’m also somewhat conversant in New Testament Greek and in Hebrew. So I suppose those considerations helped to determine the choice.

ZENIT: You suggest that a translator is hired to be humble, [Do I hear an “Amen!”?] regardless of what he’s translating. Explain this and how it applies to the liturgy.

Esolen: The translator, I believe, must adopt as his motto the words of St. John the Baptist, referring to Jesus: “He must increase, and I must decrease.” It wasn’t my job, when I was translating Dante, to intrude my personality into the poem. It was rather my job to bring out Dante’s personality, his concerns, his acerbic wit, his devotion, his passions.
Now if this is true of what Dante called his “sacred poem,” [then] it is all the more true of the liturgy. Here, we must consider the words of the Mass not simply as the work of excellent human poets, but as a gift of God, mediated through the Church, to his people. At all costs, then, the translator must wish to render the words of the Mass with precision and power, respecting the literal and figurative meaning, the poetic and rhetorical form, and the beauty of the original. For instance, it is not the job of the translator to omit words simply because they strike him as too redolent of the Church rather than of the street corner [Do I hear an “Amen!”?] — to translate words such as “sacratissimam” and “sancte” and “venerabiles” as simply nothing. [cf. Roman Canon.] It is a sin against the whole community, thus to impose one’s individual taste.

ZENIT
: People have complained that the sentences in the new translation are unwieldy, with many phrases strung together. You defend this practice. Why?

Esolen: I do not defend unwieldy sentences. This complaint has as its basis one sentence in the first Eucharistic Prayer, which is long and complex in the Latin, and now also in the English. What I defend are well-constructed sentences, as elements of oral poetry. All the old prayers are so constructed. [To translate for people in Fridley, “the old prayers are constructed like that.] When you break up those sentences into three or four separate sentences, [parataxis] the effect is to be disjointed; the essential relations between words and images and Scriptural allusions are lost. These phrases are not “strung together.” Anyone who makes that allegation has a wholly mistaken, and I may say a childish, [OOH-RAH!] understanding of the Latin.

For example, one of the prayers for the Feast of the Holy Family is built upon the image of the “domus,” the house or home. We consider first the home of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and we pray that we will imitate them in our own homes — in “domesticis virtutibus,” which the translators happily render as “the virtues of family life” [In a happier day we might have said “homely virtues”.] — so that we may enjoy the glories of the house of God. To translate that three-part prayer, which is one tightly constructed sentence, into a three-part prayer in one tight English sentence, is not to “string phrases together,” but to reflect artistic unity by artistic unity.

ZENIT: You also offer three defenses for preferring a literal translation of the Latin. One of those you describe as “unlocking the figurative meaning beneath.” Could you give an example?

Esolen: Every translator of poetry knows that the choice is not between the literal and the figurative, but between a loose or general rendering and one that is both literal and therefore sensitive to the figurative meaning also. It is a constant concern. Take the word occurrentes in the collect for the First Sunday of Advent. The loose paraphrase from 1973 merely grasps for the general idea behind the text, that Jesus will meet an “eager welcome” when he comes again. But the literal, concrete meaning of the word is rich in Scriptural allusion. The root of the word comes from the verb currere, to run. [cf. WDTPRS commentary.] If we keep the notion of running in mind, we recall — as the prayer intends us to recall — the parable of the five wise virgins, their lamps filled with oil, who ran forth to meet the bridegroom as he came. The translators have now rendered the line in such a way as to bring out both the literal and the figurative meaning, and thus also the Scriptural allusion: We pray to the Father for “the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ.” That’s what I call a translation. The other was a paraphrase.

ZENIT: You frequently note the vast difference that comes with a seemingly slight change in wording. For example, in the Creed, we will express faith in God, creator of all that is “visible and invisible,” which you say is quite different than “seen and unseen.” How so?

Esolen: The 1973 text was often deaf to the precise meanings of English words. [Because it was dumbed-down? Or was it intentional?] It wasn’t simply that the paraphrasers misconstrued the Latin. They misconstrued the English also, or they were not paying close attention to the English. The example above is a case in point. The Latin visibilium et invisibilium is not the same as visorum et insivorum. When we say “seen and unseen” in English, we mean those things we happen to see and those things we happen not to see. So, for instance, I have not seen a certain planet in the heavens, nor have I seen the mother of St. Peter, or the stone rolled before the tomb where Jesus was buried. But all those things are visible, provided there be someone at hand to see them. When we declare that the Father is the creator of all things visible and invisible, we are affirming the existence of things that no one can see with the eyes of the body, unless God chooses to make them manifest: angels, for instance; but also such immaterial objects as the moral law. [That is a great point.  I almost always limit myself to consider the angelic realm in invisibilia.]

ZENIT: How would you suggest using this commentary?

Esolen: The Mass must increase, and I must decrease! I’d read the commentary as a way of becoming familiar with the beauties and the subtleties of the text — as if walking through a doorway — and then I would put the commentary aside and meditate upon the prayers of the Mass themselves in all their glory.

WDTPRPS kudos both to ZENIT and to Dr. Esolen for this interview.

It sounds as if that commentary could be worth looking at.

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17 Responses to Anthony Esolen on new, corrected translation. Some of the best comments I have seen.

  1. David Mills says:

    If I may mention this, the estimable Dr. Esolen has a feature essay on the old and the new translations appearing in the November issue of First Things.

  2. benedetta says:

    That’s a very interesting interview! Heading over to put in an order at Magnificat right now. I very much appreciate Prof. Esolen’s reflections in Magnificat.

  3. pseudomodo says:

    An amusing tale regarding “seen and unseen”:

    National Catholic Register of 27 May 2001 had an interview with Father Peter Stravinskas about liturgical translations:

    “… I think that we can’t underestimate how much damage has been done at a practical level by having such translations.
    Cardinal Arinze and I were having a discussion about this a couple of years ago. And I said some of this stuff would be humorous if it wasn’t so sad. You take a simple line in the Creed like visibilium et invisibilium. A first year Latin student knows that that’s visible and invisible.
    What does ICEL say? “Seen and unseen.”
    Well there’s a world of difference between the two. I said to Cardinal Arinze, “let me give you an example. If I hid under the table I’m unseen, but I’m not invisible.”
    He howled with laughter. He has said since then that every time he says Mass in English he finds himself smirking at that point in the Mass.”

  4. smcollinsus says:

    I totally agree about the “seen and unseen” – I’ve been saying this for years! But I also have found it very interesting that our RC ICEL translation reads “… Creator of all things seen and unseen” while the Anglican Rite II reads ” … creator of all things , seen and unseen.” I believe that the presence of that comma makes a lot of difference – at least you are affirming Creator of all things. So, why did the Anglicans get a comma and we didn’t?

  5. AnAmericanMother says:

    The Anglicans probably threw that in in a nod to the “Oxford comma.”
    At the time, we were outraged at the translation, which was imposed about the same time as the old ICEL translation and is so similar that I suspect collusion. The real Anglican translation, of 1662 and in the U.S. 1928 (almost identical), is, while somewhat archaic, a model of faithful and graceful translation. It reads:

    “I believe in one God the Father Almighty,
    Maker of heaven and earth, And of all
    things visible and invisible.”

    In the 1970s the Episcopalians sold their birthright for a mess of pottage.

  6. Anne C. says:

    This sounds like a worthwhile book to have! Professor Esolen seems to be someone I’d love to have translating for me, if I didn’t have you, Fr. Z! I went back and read the link for the “WDTPRS Commentary,” and saw that one of the persons who commented at that time said that you should have been part of the ICEL team! (I agree!) You answered, “I wasn’t asked.” Hmmmm . . .

    But then, I can’t let one of your “comments” in red slip by without mentioning it . . . “FRIDLEY???!!!” Fridley is now the equivalent of, in your opinion, Rio Linda?! (You’re getting a little close to home here in Brooklyn Center, Father . . . I’m just sayin’ . . .) ; ) [I actually thought about Brooklyn Center when writing this, and Columbia Heights. Maybe next time?]

  7. Bender says:

    If I hide under the table I’m unseen, but I’m not invisible.

    I’ve NEVER understood that to be the meaning of “seen and unseen,” and I don’t know anyone who has, other than those who favor the change to “visible and invisible.”

    Maybe people have a little more linguistic sophistication than they are given credit for. If they were not sophisticated enough to understand that “unseen” includes those immaterial things that are unseeable, and not merely outside the range of our physical eyesight, how can we expect people to be sophisticated enough to understand that “under my roof” is not confined to their physical residential home?

  8. Jaceczko says:

    The versatile Professor Esolen has also written a fine translation of Lucretius. I had the pleasure of meeting him a few times, once after a talk he gave when I was in college. Not just a sharp mind but a good man. An uncommon academic. Esse quam videri.

    His article entitled “A Requiem for Friendship” is a great starter.

  9. Jaceczko says:

    Also there is a typo at “visorum et insivorum”. Please feel free to delete this comment.

  10. Jaceczko says:

    p.s. What a great thing to read on the feast of St Jerome, right after I just got back from teaching a Latin class. :)

  11. Martial Artist says:

    Father Z.,

    You wrote

    It sounds as if that commentary could be worth looking at.

    Having read a bit of Prof. Esolen’s prose as essays or explanatory books, when I saw he had authored it, and Magnificat had published it, I postponed reading this post until I had gone to their website and ordered our copy. His writing is, in my humble experience, always “worth looking at!”

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

  12. Prof. Lu says:

    Does anybody know of a good Latin / English pew missal with the new translation? (Something similar to a 1962 hand missal but with the Novus.)

  13. benedetta says:

    I thought this interesting:

    “Esolen: Every translator of poetry knows that the choice is not between the literal and the figurative, but between a loose or general rendering and one that is both literal and therefore sensitive to the figurative meaning also. It is a constant concern. Take the word occurrentes in the collect for the First Sunday of Advent. The loose paraphrase from 1973 merely grasps for the general idea behind the text, that Jesus will meet an “eager welcome” when he comes again. But the literal, concrete meaning of the word is rich in Scriptural allusion. The root of the word comes from the verb currere, to run. [cf. WDTPRS commentary.] If we keep the notion of running in mind, we recall — as the prayer intends us to recall — the parable of the five wise virgins, their lamps filled with oil, who ran forth to meet the bridegroom as he came. The translators have now rendered the line in such a way as to bring out both the literal and the figurative meaning, and thus also the Scriptural allusion: We pray to the Father for “the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ.” That’s what I call a translation. The other was a paraphrase.”

    Trusting in what is already vivid in the words the prayers become accessible to a wider number and variety of people, transcending culture and circumstance.

  14. Shamrock says:

    Seen…and un-seen? I agree with Bender, never had a problem with that whatsoever…understood it to be things visible to the human eye..and those things not. But then I am pre-Vatican II,
    before everything both seen and unseen became so “misunderstood”…when we all were properly catechized and still had a ounce of common sense. Even when all was mostly in Latin WE
    knew our Faith. …and could trust in what we were being taught was one, holy and apostolic. Praise be to God! Will certainly place an order with Magnificat for Dr Esolen’s commentary.

  15. Re: “seen and unseen”, those of us who understood it had the benefit of good catechesis. A lot of people don’t.

    For example, I learned today that at least one guy on the Internet thinks the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins is about ten brides waiting for their single bridegroom, and was using this as proof that Jesus was okay with polygamy. (Not a Mormon or pro-polygamy guy, btw.) It just goes to show that the Ethiopian eunuch guy was right when he asked, “How can I understand what I read without a teacher?”

  16. Robert_H says:

    If I may, Prof. Esolen also writes quite often for Touchstone Magazine.

  17. Fr. Z,

    The commentary is excellent, and my couples Bible study is using it this fall to get ready for the translation. It’s only four bucks and is small enough to fit in a purse or back pocket. Chances are your local Catholic book store has copies. (If they carry Magnificat, they almost certainly will have Esolen’s guide.)