Jesuits comment on the new translation, and get it right

A couple weeks ago in my column for The Wanderer I spoke of the work of Christine Mohrmann.  Also, I have on various occasions opined that sometimes it is okay for something you know to be a translation to actually sound like a translation.

This is from, Whosoever Desires, a group blog by young Jesuits.   They seem to be getting the right ideas!

In Praise of Clunky Translations

On November 17 the USCCB approved the final segments of a new English version of the Roman Missal.  A few have already criticized the Vox Clara translation as “slavishly literal” (here) [Imagine!  A "Slavishly literal" translation!  O the humanity!] and disrespectful of the “natural rhythm and cadences of the English language” (here).  On purely grammatical and stylistic grounds, I am actually inclined to agree with these criticisms.  However, a recent rereading of Liturgical Latin, Christine Mohrmann’s slim classic from 1957, has reminded me that slavish literalism and barbarous constructions have always been a hallmark of Christian liturgical language.

Mohrmann—at pains to show that early Christian Latin was hardly the Latin of the “common man”—notes that biblical Latin was marked by precisely those stylistic features most criticized in the new Roman Missal:

The earliest Christian Latin, like the Greek, bears a strong Biblical imprint.  The translating procedure, however, of the earliest translators, does not markedly differ from that employed by the translators of the Septuagint.  We find the same word-for-word method of translation which differed so radically from that recommended by Cicero.  The Latin translators of the Bible show the same reverence for the original text which had also been a guiding principle of the Septuagint translators.

Barbarisms, neologisms, and foreign idioms abounded in the first Latin translations of the Bible.  This translation philosophy naturally spilled over into Latin liturgical texts.  Besides Hebrew barbarisms such as “Amen” and “Alleluia,” Mohrmann singles out words that were plucked from their profane use and almost entirely retooled for Christian prayer, words such as confiteor, gloria, credo, and humlitas.

Mohrmann also observes that, even when Jerome re-translated the Bible, he was more concerned to account for the shifting sensus of Latin words than to update archaisms or recherché diction.  Jerome naturally saw that, in view of the effects of time on language,

some changes were obviously necessary to conserve the purity of meaning.  When the old words rendered the meaning accurately, these words were preserved. For instance, when there was a general movement to replace the old words magnificare, honorificare, and clarificare by the “European” term glorificare, Jerome will have nothing to do with it, because in his opinion the use of the words threatened with extinction does not endanger the original meaning… [consubtantial] We may say that Jerome, like Ambrose and Augustine, had a sincere appreciation of the biblical style, and he tries to leave it intact and maintain it as far as possible.

If Jerome were apply this translation philosophy to the English Missal, he might leave a rare or archaic word like “gibbet.”  [Of maybe even…. gulp… "ineffable"?] On the other hand, he would probably update Holy “Ghost” to Holy “Spirit,” since recent shifts in the English language freighted “ghost” with a cargo of eeriness and malevolence.

On Mohrmann’s view, the net effect of this conservative tendency was actually creative.  Christians slowly forged a sacred language, one perhaps less apt for instantaneous communication, but one more apt for corporate expression.  This second function of language was no less important:

Whereas … language used primarily as a means of communication normally strives toward a degree of efficiency … language as expression usually shows a tendency to become richer and more subtle.  It aims at becoming, by every possible means, more expressive and more picturesque, and it may try to attain this heightened power of expression both by the coining of new words and by the preservation of antiquated elements already abandoned by the language as communication.

In this connection, English speakers might call to mind the solemn “thy’s” of the Our Father and the stern “thou-shalt-not’s” of the Decalogue. [Gosh!  We did a poll about that here, didn’t we?] They might also contrast the expressiveness of a cup that “runneth over” to that of a cup that merely “overflows.”

In fact, compared to the slavish deference that the first Latin “missal” showed to the Hebrew Scriptures, the respect that the Vox Clara translation pays to its Latin forebear is actually very slight.  For this reason, the aura of the sacred will be faint.  The new translation does, however, begin to give due consideration to the expressive power of language.  To this extent, it joins the age-old mainstream of Christian liturgical piety.

Once again, our cup runneth over.

"Runneth" twice in one article?

Tooo haaard!

Good work men.  WDTPRS kudos.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. medievalist says:

    nota bene: “blog run by young Jesuits.”

  2. FrCharles says:

    Outstanding. I had my theological education (thus far) at one of the Jesuit theologates here in the States and I can confirm that there are many young members of the Society who are fervent and very encouraging. Thanks for the link to this blog too; the grandfather of one of the authors serves daily Mass here at our parish!

  3. RichR says:

    When I read this article, I thought to myself, “This is something Brian Reedy would write.” I was right.

    One of the authors, Brian Reedy, SJ, is a close friend of mine. We met at Texas A&M University, went to Europe on a pilgrimage with one other buddy, and we were all discerning the Jesuits together. Our buddy went in first, then left. Brian went in, and stayed, and I got married. In fact, Brian was supposed to be in my wedding, but he was out of the country.

    Brian has Southern Baptist roots, but made his way through Episcopalianism before he converted to Catholicism. He is also very highly educated, so I can understand his love for Latin translations being a little clunky and not so casual. He is extremely aware of things liturgical, so I expect this to be one of many works that contribute to the New Liturgical Movement and restoration of things traditional.

    Watch for this name to pop up a lot in the future.

  4. worm says:

    I really enjoyed the article. I also found this one on the priesthood there:

  5. maskaggs says:

    Really encouraging to see such excellent and honest work from young Jesuits. But I’ll still call up +Trautman to help me out whenever I come across a word more than 5 letters long.

  6. Joannes says:

    Quite a good post. I agree with them, except for the point where they agree that the new translation is “disrespectful of the ‘natural rhythm and cadences of the English language'”. That’s just not true from a linguistic standpoint. While the new translation may not be written in a register of English which most of its speakers would feel comfortable using, it is perfectly grammatical and stylistically beautiful English. If the “lame duck” translation does conform to these peoples’ idea of the natural rhythm and cadences of the English language, well then that’s something we ought to avoid.

  7. mpm says:

    Yes, it is encouraging to see Jesuits (of any age frankly) who are not into the “dissent thing”. As a long ago graduate of Georgetown University, now a wholly-owned subsidiary of the culture of death, I know they have their work cut out for them, and I wish them all the best!

  8. mattwcu says:

    For the record, the word “Consubstantial” appears in this morning’s readings from the Liturgy of the Hours…which is intended for the laity as well as the clergy.

  9. irishgirl says:

    What an interesting article-and from ‘Young Jesuits’!

    Very cool!

  10. Peggy R says:

    Hold it! Hold it!

    Do you mean to say that, in the dark ages–1950s–the mysogynistic, male hierarchy of the evil sexist discriminatory Catholic Church, somehow allowed a female–a mere female–to write a book on Liturgical Latin? How could this have been allowed to happen? She must be a role model for the modern women religious, right?


  11. TNCath says:

    So refreshing to read.

  12. I contend that English as expressed on the street — with its many “uhs”, “ums”, “likes”, and “you knows” — is more disrespectful of the natural cadences of the English language than the new translation (and frankly, the one soon to pass also).

    As a product of Jesuit secondary education, I read this piece with gratitude.

    Now, the more important question: will they learn to chant this new translation? ;¬)

  13. Gail F says:

    I had completely forgotten this, but when I studied medieval Latin in college my professor said that Jerome included a lot of words from the Greek that would not normally be used in Latin. Now I am going to show my ignorance (sorry) of grammatical terms — these were words like “of” and “from” that would normally be covered by the verb declensions and noun cases, but were separate words in Greek (according to him — I don’t have any Greek). I suppose that would be considered “slavishly literal” translation, and perhaps one that did not “respect the natural rhythm and cadences of the Latin language” by adding all those redundant words.

  14. Bthompson says:

    This is a great article! It is an angle I had not yet considered, and is a very good angle to boot!

  15. Henry Edwards says:

    The issues touched upon in this post are explored more deeply in the following article in the current Adoremus bulletin:

    Translating the Liturgy: Finding Words to Express the Ineffable
    by Susan Benofy

    There are numerous additional quotes from Prof. Mohrmann’s book regarding the different objectives of “language as communication” – as in everyday speech, generally the language of lameduck ICEL – and of the “language as expression” that is needed for liturgy.

  16. mdillon says:

    I don’t think it was Brian Reedy who wrote the article. Rather, it appears that Aaron Pidel, S.J., wrote it. Pidel is a graduate from Steubenville (2000) and joined the New Orleans Jesuits right after. I know Aaron fairly well. The young men at Jesuit High School in New Orleans loved him when he was in his regency. He is a beacon of holiness, prudence and wisdom. I am sure there will be a few vocations because of his witness. Please pray for his continued vocation, he will be ordained next year (2011). The New Orleans Jesuits have some great guys in their ranks. If you remember Fr. David Brown, S.J., (editor of New Jesuit Review, from last week’s posts) is also in the New Orleans Jesuits.

  17. Flambeaux says:

    As an alumnus of Jesuit High School in New Orleans I am filled with joy to hear that worthy ecclesiastics continue to tread those halls forming young men.

    If any of you are now doing so, or have done so, and are reading this, thank you.

    And now to go write some of the fine Jesuits I know and wish them a blessed and joyful new year.

  18. JJMSJ says:

    As a middle aged Jesuit who thinks the same way these younger Jesuits do, I am grateful for their work and the credit they bring to our least Society. It does one good to read complimentary comments about Jesuits rather than the seemingly ubiquitous bashing that is the usual fare. God is good.

  19. Bryan says:

    As one who frequently casts a jaundiced eye at the Company (Fr JJMSJ…please forgive me), this is quite refreshing, and gives one hope for the future of the order.

    Looks like they’re taking their roles as the ‘storm troopers of the Faith’ seriously.

    Good for them.

  20. wmeyer says:

    Of course, if your reading runs to things older than Tom Clancy or Anne Rice, the word gibbet may not seem all that arcane. Just another ineffable issue for the Spirit of V-II crowd.

  21. PDJennings says:

    “On the other hand, he would probably update Holy “Ghost” to Holy “Spirit,” since recent shifts in the English language freighted “ghost” with a cargo of eeriness and malevolence.”

    On the contrary, thanks to the “Spirit” of Vatican II, we have a recent shift in the language that freighted “spirit” with a cargo of goofiness and uncertainty.

    My dad always comments about how the “spirit” of Vatican II can’t be distinguished from the Spirit of ’76, or spirits of ether, or any other old spirits you may find. He always uses “Holy Ghost” when he is talking about the third Person of the Blessed Trinity, on purpose and for that specific reason. Then again, he was certainly brought up to that usage, which I was not.

  22. rinkevichjm says:

    Translating spiritus as spirit seems very slavishly literal (look! it’s derived from the Latin).

  23. Thanks to all who have looked us up at Whosoever Desires. We are Jesuits who have taken vows but are not yet ordained priests who have decided that we can offer something to the church by reflecting on what it means (or should mean) to be young Jesuits in the modern world. There is much misunderstanding about the Jesuits these days. Please visit us regularly and let us know what you think!

    The most mentioned here was written by Aaron Pidel, not Brian Reedy. Both are great Jesuits.

    I now teach as a Scholastic at Jesuit High New Orleans. It is a great school! Thanks for the encouragement. God bless,

    Nathan Halloran, SJ

  24. Rev. Philip-Michael says:

    This is an interesting essay but could have used an even cursory proof-read which would have recognized that the early Christians did not pluck out of the profane use the word “humlitas”! (cf. last word of fourth paragraph)

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