An ineffable anecdote

During the preparation of the new translation, some defenders of the old way of doing things, the so-called “dynamic equivalence” method of translation, carped about the new goal of greater accuracy would be tooo haard for people in the pews.  Basically, they thought you were too dumb to understand the prayers and so they wanted them to remain dumbed-down.  A liberal cause célèbre was the word “ineffable”.  Surely none of could understand “ineffable”.  You might leave the Church if our translation used “ineffable”.

This is from a reader:

I teach Latin at a Catholic high school. We are reading Book IV of the Aeneid, and we just came across the verb “effor, effari, effatus sum” highlighted in the vocabulary entry. After the vocabulary quiz on this word and several others, I was pointing out some derivatives, and for this one I asked both classes of juniors what “ineffable” means. In each class a few hands shot up immediately: they had “ineffable” in their vocabulary books for their English course just a week earlier, and they made the connection to the Latin. I guess the dynamic equivalence folks underestimate how well high school English has prepared some for the new translations in November.

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  1. vellemere says:

    I suppose they thought it would kill us to crack open a dictionary.

    Let’s not mention “gibbet.”

  2. Pachomius says:

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with dynamic equivalence as such, but could you really call what ICEL did in the 70’s dynamic equivalence? I would have thought “watered-down drivel” would be a better term for their translations. Quite how “God of fluffy joyfulness” is equivalent – dynamically or formally – to “da nobis, quaesumus, Domine”, I don’t know. There should be a middle road between, say, Pope’s Iliad and uncritical metaphrase. Given the choice, though, I’m happier with a formally equivalent but clunking translation than with a dreary reinterpretation.

    On “ineffable”… were another word suitable in the context, I think I’d go for the other word on instinct.

    Query for those who know: What is the quality of translation in, for example, the Old English editions of parts of the Bible, such as the Old English Hexateuch?

  3. doodler says:

    @Pachomius: I think we ought to credit Homer with the Iliad (written in Greek)!

  4. SonofMonica says:

    It’s time for the pseudo-intelligentsia in Catholic academia to realize that they don’t have a monopoly on smarts. Hell, Protestants have the word “ineffable” in their pop songs. Check out “There You Go” by Caedmon’s Call, on the album 40 Acres. It’s actually an incredible and inspiring album, sonically and lyrically, if you like Toad the Wet Sprocket/Indigo Girls type music and can get past the Reformed theology. For a Protestant pop band to make references to Sisyphus, Uri Geller and Gnosticism is pretty impressive, even by Catholic academic standards. All that to say, even those in the Reformed camp, who try to reduce our understanding of the fallen nature of man to something as simple as “complete depravity” are capable of understanding the word, “ineffable.” I would think that our great religion, who produced Thomas Aquinas and Kempis, would be able to produce enough pew-sitters who would be capable of grasping something like, “ineffable.”

  5. EWTN Rocks says:

    Very cute and clever post! I wish I had a lot of time to post a clever response but timing is not always great. I think “ineffable” or “ineffablis” is a fine word, but almost too great a word to be expressed, i.e. inexpressible. Another way to look at it is beyond words. Finally, it could be construed as impossible. Synonyms I especially like include celestial, heavenly, and holy.

    By the way, I would rather have someone hang me (which would be much deserved) from a yardarm than gibbet.

  6. EWTN Rocks says:

    BTW, according to Wikipedia, Old English Hexateuch or old English Hexateuch “refers to a richly illuminated manuscript in London – British Library, Cotton MS Claudius B.iv. It contains an Old English translation of the Hexateuch, which is the earliest vernacular translation of the first six books of the Old Testament, i.e. the five books of the Torah — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy — and Joshua. Another copy of the text, without lavish illustrations but including a translation of the Book of Judges (hence also called the Old English Heptateuch), is found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud Misc. 509.”

  7. EWTN Rocks says:

    One more thing: When posting responses, I should be better prepared and have references easily accessible. I think with some organization, I can quickly access information and use it appropriately when needed.

  8. Sam Urfer says:

    I, for one, find it amusing that how understandable “ineffable” is, is under question in the first place.

  9. priests wife says:

    We Byzantine types have been using the word & understand it— and we aren’t that smart ;)

  10. wanda says:

    Hoorah for this teacher and his students! It gives us hope for the future! There are such low expectations from the young people these days, meaning that we think we have to dumb things down for them. Good on you kids and your teacher!

  11. Henry Edwards says:

    A liberal cause célèbre was the word “ineffable”.

    By my count, the word ineffabile (in some form) appears 36 times in the Latin Missale Romanum 2002:

    -in 14 collects
    -in 3 super oblata
    -in 4 postcommunion prayers
    -in 11 prefaces
    -in 4 blessings, etc.

    Ineffably, the word “ineffable” appears only 2 times in the 2010 corrected English translation–in the collects for December 20 (in Advent) and July 1 (Blessed Junipero Serra). In some cases where the intended meaning in the Latin really is “indescribable” or “incapable of being expressed” (standard dictionary meanings of “ineffable”), an altogether unsuitable substitution like the word “amazing” is used instead. Such obfuscation is more than merely ineffable–it is amazing.

    It’s unfortunate that–in these and other instances–unwarranted capitulations to whining liberals resulted in a corrected English translation that, while a wonderful improvement over what we’ve been subjected for almost 40 years, could and should have been still better.

    [Great comment!]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  12. mike cliffson says:

    I’m with Pachomius on dynamic equivalence.
    Defence of ICEL on most linguistic grounds is like praise of Ford cars when the problem is drunk driving.
    Some of the stucturalist defences of ICEL are less defensible, insofar as aspects, if not all structuralism, can be taken inherently heretically, but even then, there are things structualism alone could not produce.

  13. EWTN Rocks says:

    O.k., I’ll bite…the liberal point of view may consider ICEL changes made in the 70s as beneficial as they provided opportunity for laity to be more involved in the Mass, as witnessed by EMHCs. Other important changes include the priest facing the laity, use of female altar servers, and communion in the hand vs. tongue.

    From the traditionalist standpoint, ICEL changes made in the 70’s are ineffable. These changes separated Catholics from the rich traditions of the Church, and reflected less reverence for our Lord Jesus Christ.

    The Tridentine Mass is the form of the Roman Rite Mass was the most widely celebrated Mass liturgy in the world until the introduction of the Mass of Paul VI in December 1969.

    The term “Tridentine” is derived from the Latin word Tridentinus, which means “related to the city of Tridentum (modern day Trent, Italy).” It was in response to a decision of the Council of Trent that Pope Pius V promulgated the 1570 Roman Missal, making it mandatory throughout the Western Church, excepting those regions and religious orders whose existing missals dated from before 1370.

    During Tridentine Mass, the priest faced the altar in an eastward direction reflecting that point of the compass so rich in symbolism all through the sacred Scriptures both the Old and the New Testaments. Both the altar and Mass faced east. The significance of the east was well known to the early Christians. Like the rising sun, Christ (the Sun of Justice and Light of the world) rose in the early morning on the first Easter Sunday. In addition, Masses were said in Latin, used universally before the 1962-1965 Vatican Council introduced Masses in local languages.

    In response to growing sentiment criticizing the lack EF Masses available for faithful Catholics missing the rich tradition of their faith, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI issued his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum in 2007, accompanied by a letter to the world’s bishops. The Pope stated that the 1962 edition of the Roman Missal is to be considered as an “extraordinary form” (forma extraordinaria) of the Roman Rite, of which the Missal as revised by Pope Paul VI in 1970 is the ordinary, normal or standard form. As a result, some refer to the 1962 Tridentine Mass as the Extraordinary Form (EF) of the Mass. The 1962 Tridentine Mass is also sometimes referred to as the “usus antiquior” (older use) or “antiquior forma” (older form), to differentiate it from the newer form of the Roman Rite in use since 1970, referred to the Ordinary Form (OF) Mass.

    I could and would like to include the most recent clarification but in the interest of time, will end my post here. If nothing else, posting this long response (sorry about that Fr. Z) was a good learning experience…

  14. Philangelus says:

    The word “ineffable” appears in the musical Cats. I’m sure people didn’t wander out of the theater thinking, “That would have been a great play, if only we’d understood what was going on.”

  15. EWTN Rocks says:

    This is a great topic Fr. Z., and I apologize for the long post (probably not helpful and too wordy). I would love to follow this topic but have to run for a garage sale that was supposed to take place in my garage a 1/2 hour ago (I have to dispose of half my stuff to accommodate my brother, but that’s a long story). I’ll check back periodically throughout the day to look for new posts of interest.

  16. Love me some o them gibbets–with gravy–IN-EFFIN-EFFABLE!

  17. NoraLee9 says:

    Just briefly: I studied the Aelfric translations of the Bible while at Fordham University in the 1980’s. I was given to believe that the translations were accurate. I believe that the translator(s) did take pains to use phrases and words familiar to the pew-sitters of the time. What has stayed with me all these years is the one time use of the word neorexewenge. I will look it up for the proper spelling when I get home later (I am in Starbucks now). The word, used once in Genesis, is the word for paradise, or the garden of Eden.

  18. Fr. Basil says:

    When I was a little boy, in Baptist children’s choir, we sang a song called “The Ineffable Beauty.” The choir director explained it meant, “You can’t say fully in words,” and we accepted it.

    Are John and Mary Catholic less intelligent than Baptist children?

    There are a lot of things about the Holy Liturgy you don’t get the first time, and some things you don’t get for years, if at all. I still don’t quite understand what “A mercy of peace” means.

  19. Centristian says:

    “Basically, they thought you were too dumb to understand the prayers and so they wanted them to remain dumbed-down.”

    I work in a diocesan environment and I recently had occasion to have a conversation with the priest who serves as the diocesan Director of Worship. He is spearheading the coordination of the implementation of the new edition of the Roman Missal in our diocese. I have the task of placing the orders for the Roman Missal from the various publishers for the various parishes, and the Director of Worship asked me if I had gotten any feedback so far.

    I was only too happy to share glimpses of that feedback with him, at one point telling him that I was disheartened to discover that some priests of this diocese seem to be under the impression that we, “the people,” are complete ignoramuses, incapable of understanding big words or of coping with change.

    I told this priest that I found it very insulting to listen to some clergy insist that we, “the people”, “aren’t going to understaaaand” the new translation. “Do some of your colleagues,” I asked him, “imagine that we’re all 17th century French peasants without access to insititutions of higher learning? Many of “the people” are better educated, I would imagine, than some of these priests who are ever so concerned about the liturgy introducing big, scary English words into our vocabularies.”

    The priest was a bit stunned by my response, I could tell; perhaps it had never occured to him, either, that “the laity” might be composed of intelligent, college-educated people. At any rate, after the initial deer-in-the-headlights look he gave me, he smiled and looked away, then turning back to me he said, “you’re right…and I’m going to say that to the next group of pastors I meet with. That’s something that they need to hear. That’s actually something I needed to hear.”

  20. JKnott says:

    After just reading a large number of good comments by homeschooling parents who were responding to a recent OSV article critical of homeschooling, it is not difficult to see why the left believes that many Catholics wouldn’t understand the word “ineffable”, bccause it is precisely their agenda and influence which is largely responsible for gutting most religious ed in Catholic schools, CCD and RCIA, and these young parents know it!!! Their families are larger, and their number is growing. I think this is a point of hope for the future of the EF and…. whatever…. for the OF.

  21. CarpeNoctem says:

    “effor, effari, effatus sum” means, generically, “to speak”, from which we get the English word “effable”, which I think of as being “conversational” or, slightly less complementary “glib”, when speaking of a personal quality.

    To describe something/someone as being ‘ineffable’ is to say that it does not belong in the commonplace, glib, insincere, kitsch, or otherwise in the realm of small-talk. Yes, the word ‘unspeakable’ works, but there’s a insincerity or even dishonesty implied by someone being described as ‘effable’, which is directly contradicted by the negative term, ‘ineffable’…. a shading of language which is simply not present when we say the less-descriptive word “unspeakable”.

    No, it’s not a simple defect in speech that causes the mystery of God to catch our tongue… it is something much more captivating and engaging and transformative to the one who ‘sees’ in faith… its what one sees at the mountain-top, it is the speechlessness that one encounters when one beholds the supernatural. It is when the dishonesty and disappointment and struggles and failures of this world are laid aside and we come to God in his holiness and truth, with no further comment or explanation needed or possible.

    I think this is EXACTLY what the critics of this ‘elevated language’ are whining about.

  22. Martial Artist says:

    To your reader who wrote:

    I guess the dynamic equivalence folks underestimate how well high school English has prepared some for the new translations in November.”

    I would reply that, to the contrary, I think it is more likely the case that those folks egregiously overestimate their own intelligence, relative to their parishioners. I also surmise that such may be part and parcel of what it means to consider oneself a progressive. But, then, I suppose I could be wrong—it could simply be a straightforward indicator that, at some level below the fully conscious, they are aware of how poorly they have catechized their flocks.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

  23. Archromanist says:

    @Doodler: Pope is famous for his translation of the Iliad, and it is quite common to refer to famous translations by their translators, e.g., “Dryden’s Aeneid,” “Lattimore’s Odyssey,” etc. Compare Keats’s famous poem “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer.”

  24. PhilipNeri says:

    I’ve been busy introducing the corrected translation to the folks of St Joseph’s parish here in Ponchatoula, LA. Took me about two minutes to explain “consubstanital” to them. Fewer than two minutes to explain “ineffable.” No gasps of horror at the audacity of the Church for forcing them to learn news words. No drool staining the pews. No mumblings about “turning back the clock on Vatican Two.” Just gratitude for giving us the chance to celebrate a more reverent Mass.

    Fr. Philip Neri, OP

  25. EWTN Rocks says:


    “Took me about two minutes to explain ‘consubstanital’ to them.” Quite impressive. I just listened to an hour long radio broadcast on the same topic, which was quite good. While it is efficient to provide brief explanations, many new to or re-entering the Catholic Church benefit from extended discussion and opportunity to ask questions. May I suggest that in your hurry to explain “consubstantial” and “ineffable”, you may have been oblivious to your audience’s level of understanding following your explanation, of course I’m not discounting the value of “no drool staining the pews.”

  26. Rachel says:

    When I was a child I loved singing this hymn in my (Protestant) church:

    Crown Him the lord of years
    The potentate of time
    Creator of the rolling spheres
    Ineffably sublime!

    I’m 32, so it wasn’t all that long ago.

  27. PhilipNeri says:

    EWTN, whole libraries have been written on the subject, but there’s nothing all that difficult about the concept. Father and Son are two divine persons in One Godhead, “same substance.” If anyone in the parish wanted a more detailed discussion of the term, they could have joined our classes on the creed; or they could join us this Monday night for a discussion of the corrected translation.

    Fr. Philip Neri, OP

  28. Stvsmith2009 says:

    As for myself, I would rather listen to a two minute explanation than one that took an hour. Some “theologians” explanations of an hour or longer can result in more unanswered questions and confusion than a simple explanation of a few minutes. To paraphrase Saint Teresa of Avila, Lord, save me from theologians.

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