Critical Mass: Lost (and Found) in Translation
(WARNING: A serious instance of ecclesiastical minutiae is to follow. While of potential benefit to its intended general audience, the reader is advised to proceed with caution, as occasional glazing over of the eyes may result.)
Most Catholics who attend Mass regularly on Sunday would be surprised to learn that its original language is (still) Latin. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, there followed more than simply translating the Latin of the Mass into the vernacular. The Mass was revised in response to the Council*, and the "Novus Ordo Missae" was released in its current form by Pope Paul VI in 1970.
In recent years, serious concern has been expressed over the official English translation of the original Latin text. What has been touted as "dynamic equivalency," that is, taking into account the broader view of the text and the sensibilities of the audience, has been cited as an excuse for literary banality, a diminishing of the sacred, and in some cases, a lack of theological precision.
After years of resistance from participating bishops' conferences in the English-speaking world, and from the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), the official body through which these conferences participate in the translation and publication of official texts, Rome has intervened.
For years, when the priest said: "The Lord be with you," the assembly would respond: "And also with you." In the years to come, they will instead respond thus: "And with your spirit." This is a more literal and faithful rendering of the Latin "Et cum spiritu tuo." It also acknowledges the sacred. You know, that thing about "your spirit" and all.
A couple of years ago, an Australian news site managed to get a hold of a proposed text of the Mass for general consumption. This was later pulled, and Church officials have since taken steps to guard their information more carefully. However, a few people other than bishops and the press have gotten hold of a second proposed text -- known as "the green book." One of them is Rocco of Whispers in the Loggia. This past week, he has released the following excerpts:
The "Confiteor," or Confession of Sin
Note how the practice of the three-fold beating of the breast while saying "through my fault, through my fault, through my most grevious fault" is returned, as it never left the Latin original.
The "Gloria," or Glory to God
The biggest concern here (and Rocco makes reference to it in his headline) is the ability to compose suitable music for this non-metrical edition. We may have to resort to such non-metrical forms as -- oh, I dunno, plainchant???
The Nicene Creed
Now, here's the case in point regarding precision in the meaning of the text. Before, the phrase "visibilium et invisibilium" has been translated as "seen and unseen," as opposed to the more literal "visible and invisible." What's the big deal here? Well, if I appear in a room in front of someone, I may be seen. But if I step behind a curtain or a door, I may be unseen -- BUT, I'm not necessarily invisible. How big a deal is that? Well, big enough to convene the ecumenical council in the fourth century which composed the Creed in the first place. And they were known to make more out of even less. Father Peter Stravinskas has spoken eloquently on the difference a word can make: "[W]ords are important for they bear meaning. Think, for instance, of this situation: You are living in a house. Does it matter whether you are the tenant or the owner? I don’t know anyone who would respond in the negative. And if that little example from daily life holds true, how much more so in philosophy and theology. After all, the Nicene Creed we pray at every Sunday Mass was the direct result of an apparently 'petty squabble' over not a word but a letter – homoousios versus homoioousios. The little letter 'iota,' hence, our common expression, 'It doesn’t make an iota of a difference.' Except that it did in 325 AD. And words continue to make a difference seventeen centuries later."
And speaking of the difference a word can make:
The "pro multis" question.
As the priest consecrates the Precious Blood, he says the words "for you and for all." But the Latin "pro multis" literally means "for many." Some traditionalists claim this renders the text imprecise, or even invalid.
They are all wrong.
What is at issue is what Christ said, and he didn't say it in Latin, but in Aramaic (or more likely, in Hebrew, as these were formal prayers not meant for the vulgar tongue). And in that language, the word used for "many" is not a finite term. It refers to an infinite number; in other words, to a "many" without end. This is consistent with other references in Scripture, where Christ is said to have shed his blood for all -- our willingness to take Him up on it notwithstanding.
Besides, Rome has authoritatively defended the practice, so I'm afraid the maxim "Roma locuta, causa finita" applies across the board.
An excerpt from the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I)
Notice how much longer the proposed text is than the current one being used. Such lack of eloquence for the sake of brevity is said by many to be characteristic of the current text.
"Ecce Agnus Dei," or the introduction to "Lord I am not worthy"
"...only say the word, and my soul shall be healed." Again, references to the sacred, such as acknowledging the presence of "my soul" are revived. This too is one of the major issues in the debate over translations.
There are those who say we should be able to pray in our ordinary manner of speech. These same people think nothing of the use of more formal language for any other setting -- a courtroom, a formal dinner, a college commencement. That's because they are not ordinary. They are set apart. In this case, we are not just speaking to the man on the street. We are speaking to God, and to each other in the house of God. We elevate the usage of language to fit the occasion.
Then maybe people will get the idea that the idea that this occasion requires more suitable attire than Bermuda shorts and a tee-shirt.
Or maybe they'll just stand in the back more often. Who knows?
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*FOOTNOTE: Whether the current reform of the Mass was what the Council Fathers had in mind, has been the subject of considerable controversy in the past decade. The conversation has taken on new life as one of its primary voices, the former Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, is now Pope Benedict XVI. This is a separate matter, to be taken up in a future post. Stay tuned...