Monday, January 29, 2007

Icelandic, anyone?

Looking over my back issues of Antiphon (the publication of the Society for Catholic Liturgy) a few days ago, I re-read an essay by the English monsignor Bruce Harbert (a member of ICEL) titled, "The Roman Rite and the English Language" (vol. 9, no. 1 [2005]). He writes:

Translations from Latin can easily be tempted to translate with a preponderance of Latinate words, which can give the resulting text a cold and remote tone. This is because so much of our abstract vocabulary is composed of recognisably Latinate words. The Douai Bible is the classic instance of this procedure. There is another way, which is to exploit the native resources of our vocabulary. In his fine essay "Politics and the English Language" George Orwell recommended this as one of the best ways of ensuring that you write vividly and vigorously. Many modern writers have experimented with this technique, privileging the native above the imported in their choice of words. The first of Ezra Pound's Cantos is a remodeling of a book of Homer in an insistently English idiom. Tony Harrison followed him with a muscular translation of Aeschylus' Oresteia that uses the alliterative patterns of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Seamus Heaney in his recent translation of Beowulf plundered the English word-hoard that his original offered him, incorporating also words from the languages, both English and Gaelic, of his native Ireland. But to my mind the best example of all, and highly appropriate as a model for translators from Latin, is Ted Hughes' version of Ovid's Metamorphoses, an astonishing tour de force that uses native resources to match the power and dexterity of his original.
Since Monsignor Harbert's knowledge of Literature vastly exceeds my own, I am in no position to comment on (much less dispute) what he says about these works. But I would like to share a few thoughts about his remarks specifically as they relate to the task of liturgical translation.

First, Latin is part of English. The languages of the peoples of England were overlaid with Saxon, Danish, Latin, and (after 1066) French. Latin, thanks largely to Christianity's spread over the island, became part of English well over a millennium ago. So, if one truly wants to separate "native" from "imported" and to summon up the original speech of the English people, one would have to learn Icelandic, which, I am told, is the modern European language closest to Anglo-Saxon. (Indeed, we are not now what we once were.)

Second, I am concerned about setting Latin aside in favor of some kind of (supposedly) more supple and natural English because Latinate English has "a cold and remote tone." This remoteness is not the case when and where people have had adequate exposure to the true richness of English. (Is "paternity" really colder than "fatherhood"?) The problem is not with the tone but with the hearers, who have underdeveloped ears and limited understanding.

Third, it seems to me that we should celebrate the richness of English, since we have a language that is eager to add words to the word-hoard. Compare English to German, which typically makes new words by building on old ones (with the result being polysyllabic monsters), or to French, which has refused to add words from other languages to its lexicon. Why not use all the words?

Finally, the Monsignor is speaking of a difference of kind and not merely of degree. He cites various secular texts as examples of translations that he favors, and, as I said, I do not presume to quibble with his opinions of them. However, he is ultimately speaking of translating sacred texts (by which I mean Sacred Scripture and liturgical texts). The secular texts he cites and the sacred texts of Christian Tradition are two very different things. While the translators of the King James Version of the Bible may have made many errors in translation, they at least understood (in contrast to many modern translators, it would seem) that they had to do honor and justice to the revealed Word itself. It is simply a matter of ensuring that the level of diction corresponds to the seriousness of the subject.

I welcome input from those better schooled than I in linguistics and literature.

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