H.L. Mencken in 1923 about translation of sacred texts, liturgy. Hilarious, prophetic, applicable now.

One of you readers here sent this.  It is by H.L Mencken, an influential American columnist in the 20th c.  He was prodigiously clever, but clever enough to avoid being a fan of Nietzche and an enemy of religion.  He was universally read, but he wasn’t universally liked.  More on him HERE.  In 1931 the Arkansas legislature passed a motion to pray for Mencken’s soul after he had called the state the “apex of moronia.”  That from what some people would call a “Baltimoron”.  Yes, he was from that city.

In any event, a new round of liturgy wars that is probably going to erupt, now that we have Magnum principium and some a about it from Pope Francis that was as clear as mud about the principles of translation laid down in Liturgiam authenticam.   (Hint: Liturgiam authenticam is still in force, but Pope Francis suggested that some of it might not be.  But we don’t have any document explaining which parts and how, etc.)

So, about that whole “liturgy has to be understandable” thing that libs relentless push: It has to change all the Time!  It mustn’t be tooo haaaard for the simply people in the pew … blah blah blah.  Because that’s what liturgy is for, right?  “No mystery here, folks!  Keep moving.”  It’s enough to make you … I dunno… do what you do when you are exasperated by stupid.

The stupid!  IT BURNS!

Let’s see what religion hater Mencken wrote about translation.  Make popcorn and get a beverage in your Fr. Z swag mug. My usual treatment.

Holy Writ

by H. L. Mencken (from the Smart Set, October 1923)

Whoever it was who translated the Bible into excellent French prose is chiefly responsible for the collapse of Christianity in France. Contrariwise, the men who put the Bible into archaic, sonorous and often unintelligible English gave Christianity a new lease of life wherever English is spoken. They did their work at a time of great theological blather and turmoil, when men of all sorts, even the least intelligent, were beginning to take a vast and unhealthy interest in exegetics and apologetics. [In a way, this was a draw back of the Liturgical Movement, which put helpful explanations and texts into people’s hands: some people got the idea that they were now experts on liturgy. Even today there are those in the traditional camp who focus on how the book was moved to their liking or if the bell was rung properly, or if Father wiggled his left finger at the third comma in their old St. Joseph Missal… thus missing the point of why they are there in the first place.  These folks are few, but they can be vocal and unhelpful.  But I digress.] They were far too shrewd to feed this disconcerting thirst for ideas with a Bible in plain English; the language they used was deliberately artificial even when it was new. [REMEMBER: When the Roman liturgy shifted from Greek to Latin, the Latin used was NOT the Latin spoken in the streets, the “vernacular”.  It was highly stylized, drawing on old Roman prayer and concepts from philosophy, etc.] They thus dispersed the mob by appealing to its emotions, as a mother quiets a baby by crooning to it. [Keep in mind that Mencken hates religion.] The Bible that they produced was so beautiful that the great majority of men, in the face of it, could not fix their minds upon the ideas in it. To this day it has enchanted the English-speaking peoples so effectively that, in the main, they remain Christians, at least sentimentally. Paine has assaulted them, Darwin and Huxley have assaulted them, and a multitude of other merchants of facts have assaulted them, but they still remember the twenty-third Psalm when the doctor begins to shake his head, they are still moved beyond compare (though not, alas, to acts!) by the Sermon on the Mount, and they still turn once a year from their sordid and degrading labors to immerse themselves unashamed in the story of the manger. It is not much, but it is something. [It’s quite a lot, actually.  Those are moments of grace and opportunity to which not a few respond.] I do not admire the general run of American Bible-searchers — Methodists, United Brethren, Baptists, and such vermin. But try to imagine what the average low-browed Methodist would be if he were not a Methodist but an atheist!

The Latin Church, which I constantly find myself admiring, despite its frequent astounding imbecilities, [LOL! Not to mention imbeciles!] has always kept clearly before it the fact that religion is not a syllogism, but a poem. [Edging closer to the concept of MYSTERY… mysterium tremendum et fascinans.] It is accused by Protestant dervishes of withholding the Bible from the people. To some extent this is true; to the same extent the church is wise; again to the same extent it is prosperous. Its toying with ideas, in the main, have been confined to its clergy, and they have commonly reduced the business to a harmless play of technicalities—the awful concepts of Heaven and Hell brought down to the level of a dispute of doctors in long gowns, eager only to dazzle other doctors. Its greatest theologians remain unknown to 99% of its adherents. [And then came Twitter.] Rome, indeed, has not only preserved the original poetry in Christianity; it has also made capital additions to that poetry—for example, the poetry of the saints, of Mary, and of the liturgy itself. A solemn high mass must be a thousand times as impressive, to a man with any genuine religious sense in him, as the most powerful sermon ever roared under the big-top by a Presbyterian auctioneer of God. In the face of such overwhelming beauty it is not necessary to belabor the faithful with logic; they are better convinced by letting them alone[A famous English convert – Chesteron? – remarked that one of the reasons he converted is that when he went into Catholic churches, the people left him alone.  They weren’t slobbering over him in faux welcoming and glad-handing.]

Preaching is not an essential part of the Latin ceremonial. [Because we have more than just “words”.] It was very little employed in the early church, [Ummm… wrong.  Sorry, H.L.] and I am convinced that good effects would flow from abandoning it today, or, at all events, reducing it to a few sentences, more or less formal. [And can we stipulate that perhaps fewer priests and permanent deacons should have faculties to preach?] In the United States the Latin brethren have been seduced by the example of the Protestants, [HOW TIMELY!] who commonly transform an act of worship into a puerile intellectual exercise; instead of approaching God in fear and wonder these Protestants settle back in their pews, cross their legs, and listen to an ignoramus try to prove that he is a better theologian than the Pope. This folly the Romans now slide into. Their [lib] clergy begin to grow argumentative, doctrinaire, ridiculous. It is a pity. A bishop in his robes, playing his part in the solemn ceremonial of the mass, is a dignified spectacle, even though he may sweat freely; the same bishop, bawling against Darwin half an hour later, [These days, in favor of things that Darwin would have known eliminated certain lines from the gene pool… if you get my drift.] is seen to be simply an elderly Irishman with a bald head, the son of a respectable saloon-keeper in South Bend, Ind. [Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses.]Let the reverend fathers go back to Bach. If they keep on spoiling poetry and spouting ideas, the day will come when some extra-bombastic deacon will astound humanity and insult God by proposing to translate the liturgy into American, that all the faithful may be convinced by it.


And I had just read… I mean minutes before… this stupendously daft bit by the Wile E. Coyote of the catholic Left at Fishwrap and cadres of the New catholic Red Guards, Michael Sean Winters.   He is lamenting the agenda of the upcoming US bishops meeting:

The day Magnum Principium was issued, I remarked to a friend: “This directive from the Holy See presumes that the bishops’ conferences are even capable of having the kinds of discussions needed to bring about an effective translation, and I am not at all sure our bishops’ conference still has that capacity.” I remember the days when Archbishops Daniel Pilarczyk, Oscar Lipscomb, Rembert Weakland and Bishop Donald Trautman would discuss these issues posed by liturgical translations, drawing on years of scholarship and learning.

Oh dear.  I remember those days, too.

Mencken would have had a lot to say about them.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. un-ionized says:

    How I loved his multi volume work The American Language.

  2. Mike says:

    Mencken was not beneath bellyaching about priests. (The example saloonkeeper metaphor cited was not unique.) He was also frequently disedifying in general. But he never, as far as I can tell, heaped the scorn on the Catholic faith that he (largely) justly did on the rest of Christianity. If there has ever been an unlikely, unsung deathbed conversion to Catholicism, I hope one of them was his.

  3. Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda says:

    Thank you, Father.

    I needed that read.

  4. tho says:

    Father, the articles that you bring to our attention are gems. The beauty of the TLM is what brought many thoughtful people to Catholicism. Sadly the mass in the vernacular has lost us countless souls, and it pains me to say, some in my own family. The conversion of the actor Alec Guiness was brought about by the reverent way children in France addressed their priests. I remember not long after Vatican II, a very successful business man telling me, that he didn’t leave the church, the church left him.
    On cold winter nights our parish church, in the 1940s would be open 24 hours, and the last two pews were filled by sleeping vagrants, even during early Sunday mass, and they were not disturbed. Yet nothing was ever taken

  5. TonyO says:

    I remember the days when Archbishops Daniel Pilarczyk, Oscar Lipscomb, Rembert Weakland and Bishop Donald Trautman would discuss these issues posed by liturgical translations, drawing on years of scholarship and learning.

    The Coyote makes me ill. After all Rembert Weakland, especially, did to wreck his diocese, to speak of his musings and conjectures as “years of scholarship and learning”, and to pretend that those years were somehow more than the scholarship of men who could argue rings around the guy in their sleep, just turns the stomach. I mean, it’s one thing to claim scholarship equal those in the traditional camp, but Weakland? What next – extolling Charlie Brown as a great NFL field-goal kicker? And Lucy van Pelt as one of the great psychiatrists of the 60’s?

  6. HealingRose says:

    Excellent! I will have to mark this down to read again. The TLM High Mass is what brought me back to the Church. Despite being raised Catholic, I don’t know if I was ever truly in communion with the Church until after attending TLM. I often wonder at how I can view the TLM in such a different way now than my parents who grew up with the TLM. Mencken seems to “get it”, and he wasn’t even Catholic!

  7. JabbaPapa says:

    hmmmm, an interesting read, but I’m afraid I partly disagree with the following : [Then you have put your foot wrong.]

    [REMEMBER: When the Roman liturgy shifted from Greek to Latin, the Latin used was NOT the Latin spoken in the streets, the “vernacular”. It was highly stylized, drawing on old Roman prayer and concepts from philosophy, etc.]

    First, the idea of the Roman liturgy shifting from Greek to Latin is quite contentious — that there was a Greek community in 1st Century Rome is well known, but so is the fact that translations into the Latin started very early indeed.

    Second, as to style, the earliest Latin of the Liturgy may not have been “vernacular” per se (here I agree), and primarily in the same literate Late Latin of the Vulgate, but some of the earliest Latin hymns are delightful in their simplicity and were written clearly with the purpose of being easily understood by the ordinary worshippers. [So?]

    And the state of the language of both the original Koine and the earliest Latin of the Liturgy was very much how the languages were spoken daily, [No.] and it is only linguistic shift in the West away from the Latin and towards the proto-Romance and the Romance languages that a posteriori has provided that Latin with an “archaic, sonorous and often unintelligible” air, a sense of “mysterium tremendum et fascinans”, that I think belonged rather to the awesomeness of the Liturgy itself, but not intentionally to the languages of its original creation, and have only become attached to the Latin itself as we have progressed in History from speaking it on a daily basis to our only contact with it being in the Holy Mass, IF we’re lucky enough in our parishes. [Wrong.]

    Of course, with the development of the Latin Liturgy through the Centuries, the Church has accumulated a precious treasure of Latin hymns and Prayers written for multiple purposes and from multiple states of the language — from the most prosaic to the highest poetry, the simplest to the most refined, from the 1st Century to the 16th-19th — and our Latin Rite is a manifestation of that treasure, an answer that we offer to that greatest of Treasures, the Holy Eucharist of our Lord.

    The Liturgy in translation can only scorn these beauties when men have started to consider that ideological and political reasons could overcome our Prayer and our Worship and the Majesty of Christ Himself. When the language of the Liturgy becomes an end in itself, then we can see that men have turned themselves away from the Holy Liturgy, the Holy Church, and Christ.

    A good understanding of Latin is of excellent use to the Faithful, precisely for our understanding of the Mass and for its purpose of Worship and Love for God.

    [No. See C. Morhmann. She’ll get you back on track.]

  8. GrumpyYoungMan says:

    “Its greatest theologians remain unknown to 99% of its adherents. [And then came Twitter.]”

    I’ll bet that 99% of the faithful *still* aren’t aware of the greatest theologians. What typically passes for theology on Twitter isn’t exactly great.

  9. Imrahil says:

    Well, as they say, he’s got a point.


    Well, I’m in the awkward position of one who suggests that old Bible-style must partially be kept (which, in English, i.m.h.o. means to consistently keep up the “thou – ye” distinction otherwise lost from the language; in German, it means to keep the dative marker -e at the very least in all rhythmical texts, and in most other places, for instance), but, whenever we do have translations, to aim at a somewhat artificial Bible language is not the way to go either. Golden middle, and all that sort of thing. I don’t like to throw my vote (unimportant as it is) in for a golden middle, because a golden middle is so difficult, and if there were any clear-cut rules to follow strictly it would be so much the easier; but there it is, I see no other sensible possibility.

    Noble prose, and in texts meant to be rhythmical (which includes the speeches in the Book of Job), rhythmical texts, keeping up some features of the thing known as Bible-language and certainly keeping all the speech patterns that actually have become idioms (hence, “what is Caesar’s”, not “what belongs to Caesar”; “light under a bushel”, not “light under some vessel”), but still not trimmed artificially to “sound old” – that, inconsistent as it may sound, is the way to go.

    After all, if their aim is to handle sacred things in an appropriate sacred language, we’ve got the real thing: we use Latin. It is surprising how many who are even critical of or inimical to religion, when they come from Catholic backgrounds and have some education, keep up the habit of quoting the Bible in Latin.

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  11. Clinton says:

    Regarding Mr. Winter’s question about the likelihood of our bishops’ conference
    having the aptitude for a productive discussion regarding liturgical translations,
    might I offer a possible solution to the perceived lack of competence?

    It seems to me that the demographics of a diocese might provide an insight into
    the relative merits of its Bishop. How many converts has he each year? How many
    vocations to the priesthood per capita? How is Mass attendance, as a percentage
    of overall Catholic population? Demographic data like this provide a fairly objective
    insight into the health of a diocese and the competence of its Bishop.

    Perhaps the overall health of the Church in this country, and the capacity of our
    bishop’s conference to have the truly productive sort of conversations Mr. Winters
    so ardently desires would be assured if positions of leadership within the conference
    –and the ability to vote on matters of Church policy before the conference– were
    confined to bishops who demonstrated the demographic health of their respective
    dioceses. Bishops who preside over the implosion of Catholic life within their own
    diocese could attend the conference as observers, to see how their more competent
    brothers get things done.

    Why should bishops who have demonstrated their grasp of how to foster the growth
    of Catholic life within their own diocese with an increase in Mass attendance, vocations,
    conversions, etc. (Lincoln, Nebraska and Madison, Wisconsin– I’m looking at you)
    be voices in the wilderness in the USCCB, when bishops who preside over the cratering
    of Catholic demographics in their own diocese wield authority on the national level?

  12. iamlucky13 says:

    Absent the added commentary, I’m sure I’d have found Mr. Mencken’s piece presumptuous and offensive, but there really are some significant grains of truth in it.

    Interesting that Mr. Winters chose former Archbishop Weakland to praise. I was not familiar with him, but at the dismay of another commenter, I looked him up.

  13. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Rembert Weakland was not just an incompetent and actively harmful bishop, and a ridiculous excuse for a scholar. He was also someone who notoriously preyed upon young men, including minors. So yes, it is particularly disgusting to try and whitewash his reputation this week, when we are wagging our fingers at Hollywood’s disgusting sexual criminality.

    As for Archbishop Pilarczyk, he wasn’t as bad as Cardinal Bernardin, but he didn’t guard his flock from priests who were wolves. He put ridiculous burdens on faithful priests. He explicitly promulgated the use of crystal chalices, which is just dumb. Finally, as a Latin scholar who was head of the archdiocesan seminary and then as the bishop running it, he virtually dismantled Latin learning there. The better his learning, the worse it condemns him. (Bene calleant, my butt.)

  14. Gilbert Fritz says:

    Everyone should read Ronald Knox’s wonderful little pamphlet, Englishing the Bible. And his translation is certainly worth a try . . .

    I don’t think the sacred authors intentionally tried to make their language senseless. And I think the language in the Douay has been corrupted in some cases; and even worse, in some of these cases the original vulgate latin seems to have been corrupted.

    For instance, in the Douay Rheims, psalm 21: O God my God, look upon me: why hast thou forsaken me? Far from my salvation are the words of my sins. [3] O my God, I shall cry by day, and thou wilt not hear: and by night, and it shall not be reputed as folly in me.

    Words of my sins? (and Christ was sinless) Why will God hear better in the night?

    Ronald Knox version:
    My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Loudly I call, but my prayer cannot reach thee.
    3 Thou dost not answer, my God, when I cry out to thee day and night, thou dost not heed.?

    This makes sense.

    Here is the Revised Standard version

    My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
    2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
    and by night, but find no rest.

    This also makes sense. I think it is important for the Bible to make sense . . . Some meanings are obscure, but that is no excuse for the grammar and sentence structure to be obscure.

    And, to the larger point, I’d say that what we need is a well informed, articulate laity. How else will we evangelize? And much of our current trouble is the result of the “Father says so, shut up” mentality, first in defense of the traditional order in the 40s, then in defense of the liberal order of the 60s. Remember that the 60s upheaval was at least partially imposed from the top, and if the laity had been articulate and informed, this might have never happened.

  15. JabbaPapa says:

    Well, dear Father — I did say I disagreed : God Bless you, and may He provide your Ministry with the Graces of His Will.

  16. iamlucky13 says:

    @ Suburbanbanshee – again, I’m not closely familiar with his past, but while what I’m seeing on Archbishop Weakland includes apparent suppression of reporting other priests who abused minors, and a relationship of his own with an adult diocesan employee, there seems to be nothing on his own part with minors. Perhaps I missed some proven or admitted crimes in my quick search, but otherwise let’s be careful not to pass along gossip.

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