Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Fr. Uwe Michael Lang on Vernacular Translations

I have been intending to post this for a couple of days now. From Sandro Magister: Mass in the Vernacular, Yes. But at Least It Should Be Translated Well.

After his own preface, he reprints the following article by Fr. Uwe Michael Lang, as originally published in L'Osservatore Romano:


by Uwe Michael Lang

The history of biblical translation begins with the version of the Septuagint, which made the Hebrew Scriptures accessible in the Greek language and to the Hellenist world. It is impossible to overstate the religious and cultural importance of this translation project, which has no equal in the ancient world.

As the new Christian faith was spreading even to the most remote corners of the known world, the question of translation was becoming more urgent. In this process, a preference emerged for literal translation, "word for word," for which the following theological reasoning was given: a "meaning for meaning" translation presupposes that the translator is able to understand the full meaning of the original text, and this would be in contradiction with the infinite richness of Scripture.

Saint Jerome, having received the mandate from Pope Damasus to produce a new Latin version of the Bible later known as the Vulgate, also expressed this idea, when he wrote that in Sacred Scripture, "even the sequence of the words is a mystery" (Letter 57, 5).

Nonetheless, literal translation, in the passage from the language of departure to the language of arrival, is often unable to communicate the message of the text, above all when it comes to ancient texts like those of the Bible or the liturgy, in the contemporary languages.

Every translation certainly seeks to transmit the spiritual and doctrinal content in a way that does justice to the rules and conventions of the language of arrival.

Some hermeneutics of translation go much farther, in the sense that they no longer aim at a translation that would reproduce as much as possible the formal structure of the original. The aim is instead that of identifying the message contained in the original text and abstracting it from its linguistic form. In translating, a new form must be created that possesses equivalent qualities capable of expressing more adequately the original content. By means of this new form, the translation is intended to have in the language of arrival the same informative and emotional effect that the text has in its language of origin.

Without a doubt, this raises methodological questions, above all that of how to determine the meaning of a text while abstracting it from its form.

In 1966, an English translation of the New Testament was published with the title "Good News for Modern Man." With the completion of the Old Testament in 1976, the Good News Bible (GNB) was published, with the deuterocanonical books released in 1979. The problems of this version leap out in comparison with the Revised Standard Version (RSV), which takes its place in the grand tradition of Bibles in the English language, in updated form and up to date with the historical sciences.

To give a few examples: where the RSV speaks of being redeemed with "the precious blood of Christ," the GNB reads "the costly sacrifice of Christ" (1 Pet 1:19). This is a paraphrase rather than a translation, which discards the immediacy of the biblical expression and its resonances in the tradition of Scripture.

The word of Christ that "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth" is rendered in the GNB as "God is Spirit, and only by the power of his Spirit can people worship him as he really is" (John 4:24). In this central passage, the meaning of the sentence is transformed from the precept to worship God "in spirit and truth" to a generic declaration of being capable of worshiping God "as he is." Trinitarian and Christological nuances are also lost (cf. John 6:63 and 14:4).

The methodological decision to abstract the essential message in order to communicate it in the modern language therefore does not involve only questions of style and literary expression, but also raises problems of a doctrinal nature.

One of the best known cases is Luke's account of the Annunciation, where the GNB renders the Greek "parthènos" (Luke 1:26) as "young woman" instead of "virgin," thus obfuscating an essential affirmation of the Gospel.

Nonetheless, such theories have influenced the translation of the new liturgical books into the vernacular languages, and were applied in the most consistent way in the English version of the "Missale Romanum" of Paul VI, published in 1974.

Although a detailed picture cannot be presented here, it may be helpful to point out in broad terms some of the tendencies that are evident above all in the variable prayers of the Mass. Very often the English version restructures the original prayer, with little regard to the sequence of theological ideas and to their rhetorical expression, which are characteristic of classical Roman eucology.

Those in whose name the prayer is made are not infrequently reduced to an indeterminate "we," presumably to be identified with the particular assembly. This limits the universal scope of many prayers, which includes the whole Christian body or even all humanity.

Typical phrases like "praesta, ut" or "concedere, ut," which express supplication to God, are usually translated with a variation of "help us." In this way, a weak notion of divine causality is introduced, and the mysterious operation of divine grace in the human heart is reduced, with a semi-Pelagian subtext.

In the collect for the twenty-first Sunday of ordinary time, the general tendency to render the original in paraphrase has gone so far that the concrete biblical conception of loving the divine law ("id amare quod praecipis") is transformed into "values." This cannot help but be described as a step toward auto-secularization and perhaps also toward moral relativism (in that the concept of "values" is commonly used as a substitute for the discussion of an objective moral order). If it is asked what these "values" are, the English version gives the answer: those "that will bring us lasting joy in this changing world." When the ancient Roman collect speaks of "inter mundanas varietates," one also hears the negative connotations that are instead lost in the phrase about the changing world.

Even more important: the original text does not ask for lasting joy in the midst of the uncertainties of this world, but rather prays that our hearts may be anchored in that place where true joy is found: the transcendent reality of heaven: "ibi nostra fixa sint corda, ubi vera sunt gaudia." In the English version, there is no longer the echo of Luke 12:34, "where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

The awareness that this translation had wandered too far from the "lex orandi" of the Roman rite led to the great project of revision begun with the instruction of the Holy See "Liturgiam Authenticam" of 2001.

Afterward, a new translation of the "Roman Missal" was prepared, which was introduced in a definitive way in many English-speaking countries on the first Sunday of Advent last year.

Even if a translation can only approximate the elegance and conciseness of the ancient Latin prayers with their prose rhythms and their rhetorical figures, the new "Roman Missal," unlike its predecessor, opens the treasury of the Latin liturgical tradition, faithfully and in full, to the Church in the English-speaking world.

Moreover, it contributes significantly to the formation of "a sacral vernacular," as stipulated by "Liturgiam Authenticam" (no. 47): a language of worship that distinguishes itself from everyday language and is perceived as the voice of the Church in prayer.

"Through these sacred texts and the actions that accompany them, Christ will be made present and active in the midst of his people. The voice that helped bring these words to birth will have completed its task" (Benedict XVI, address to members of the committee "Vox Clara," April 28, 2010).

For pastors, to whom is entrusted the task of introducing the new translation into their communities, this is also a unique opportunity to teach the "lex credendi" that finds a beautiful and profound expression in these prayers, an opportunity that "will need to be firmly grasped" (Benedict XVI, ibid.).

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As a personal aside, whenever I think of graceful and sacral translations of liturgical texts into the English language, my mind first and foremost turns to this splendid book:

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