Melville, Hemingway, and new Mass translations

Last month the Holy See gave final approval to a revised English translation of the Roman Missal, a long process not without its share of comedy, tragedy, and controversy.  I, for one, am enthusiastic about the change, even while recognizing that change often takes a bit of effort to get used to.

The new translations have come in for a bit of criticism on the web and elsewhere, including a rather odd online petition drive.  The criticism mostly stems from the fact that the new translations, which hew more closely to the Latin original than the translations now in use, employ a vocabulary and syntax that is likely to sound a bit foreign to most contemporary English-speakers.

The desire for the words used at Mass to be comprehensible to most people is straightforward and laudable, but simple comprehension is not the only quality we should expect in our worship language.  In fact, sometimes it’s desirable for language to sound unusual and, yes, even foreign.  To help me make this point, let me call on two old friends from my days as an undergraduate English major:  Herman Melville and Ernest Hemingway.

Writing in the nineteenth century, when America was still a fledgling nation, Melville was part of a generation of writers eager to show that this young country could compete culturally with its European forbearers.  American writers before him had produced some decent short stories, masterful sermons, and memorable essays, but Melville wanted to show that America could compete in the highest echelons of literary culture, which for him meant classical tragedy.  Melville looked to Shakespeare, and to Shakespeare’s greatest works—Lear, Hamlet, Othello—as his standard of judgment.

Melville’s great novel Moby-Dick is packed with Shakespearean (and Greek) allusions and techniques, and at the heart of that novel is a figure meant to stand on the same stage as Hamlet or Macbeth or Oedipus:  Captain Ahab, “a grand, ungodly, god-like man.”  Ahab is a figure meant to speak on equal terms with gods and devils, and Melville realizes that for him to do so, Ahab must use the language of gods and devils—not New England sailors.

And so that Ahab can speak in a manner “not unworthy a Scandinavian sea-king, or a poetical Pagan Roman,” Melville goes out of his way in Moby-Dick to provide a biographical justification for Ahab’s elevated speech.  Ahab, he tells us, grew up in an intense Quaker community, where from childhood he imbibed “the stately dramatic thee and thou of the Quaker idiom.”

Now, of course, I’m not suggesting Captain Ahab as our model of liturgy, or anything else for that matter, but what’s important to note is that an artist with Melville’s command of our language and its resonances would choose to write with cadences and vocabulary that are deliberately unnatural, deliberately distinct from everyday speech.  He does so because he recognizes that how we speak is as important as what we say, and he wishes to raise the weight and dignity of his language to a higher level.

A very different writer, and one who might be expected to provide a counter-example to the above, is the twentieth century master of the simple declarative sentence, Ernest Hemingway.

But check out the dialogue in Hemingway’s masterpiece of the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls.  You’ll see lines like:  “This boy carried thee much, and in that moment thy legs said nothing to any one,” and “Dost lack anything, Inglés?”

Makes “And with your spirit” sound downright folksy.

Hemingway’s hero Robert Jordan is an American fighting with the Republican forces in Spain, so all of the dialogue in the story is spoken in Spanish, a point which Hemingway goes out of his way to reinforce by employing an English that might be transcribed from castellano.  He translates Spanish idioms literally and even goes so far as to adopt “thee” and “thou” for the Spanish tu form.

At first reading the dialogue is a little awkward and resolutely foreign.  Why would this great practitioner of literary simplicity adopt a style that to any English-speaker is bound to jar?  Perhaps Hemingway wants us to be jarred.  Perhaps he wants us to remember that For Whom the Bell Tolls is a Spanish story and the Spanish-ness of it is important.  A student of language such as Hemingway knows how much can be lost in translation, and as an author he’s made the decision that preserving the rhythms and subtleties and ambiguities of Spanish are worth the price of a bit of initial awkwardness for his readers.  Plus, like Melville, he wants the love and heroism and tragedy of his story to rise above the everyday.

The Church has made essentially the same calculation with the new translations of the liturgy.  Great writers realize that sometimes “foreignness” is a virtue in language, and it can be a virtue in liturgy as well.  Using a liturgical language is by no means a uniquely Catholic practice—think of how important learning Hebrew is for many Jews or Koranic Arabic for many Muslims.  Try ordering a Big Mac in Moscow using Old Church Slavonic.

The liturgy should sound at least a little foreign because it calls us to a country, a Kingdom, in which none of us are native speakers.  At the same time the language of the liturgy should bear the mark of the times and places through which it has passed, reflecting their rhythms, subtleties, and ambiguities as well.  We should relish the Hebrew figures of speech from the Old Testament, the Greek Kyrie eleison, the echoes of Latin from the catacombs.

The new translations are, to be clear, still in English.  At first, they may sound a bit jarring, a bit awkward, a bit strange, but they will not be totally incomprehensible to anyone.  A good bit of the criticism directed against them has been greatly exaggerated, at times even churlish.  The linguistic sensibilities behind the new translations are far more sophisticated than what their critics allow.

In some forms of writing—say a legal brief or analytic philosophy—clarity is prized above all else.  In others—in tragedy and literature and poetry—foreign cadences and nuances are to be valued rather than avoided.  I’m glad that when it comes to the liturgy the Church has chosen the sensibilities of poets rather than legal analysts.  And I’m glad that the Church hasn’t given up her foreign accent.


The new translations have been discussed before on Whosoever Desires by my Jesuit brother Aaron Pidel here and here.

7 Responses to Melville, Hemingway, and new Mass translations

  1. Fred says:

    This is a good case that shows the Jesuits can still be counted on to bring a global perspective to things! Another good thing is that the English will now be closer to the Spanish (and other Romance languages) and the English world will have share a common translation. Besides, as a layperson, I can say that dew is certainly an experience of my daily life, LOL.

  2. Qualis Rex says:

    Anthony very well written. I especially like the juxtaposition of American secular literature. And I agree with your point entirely; sometimes in literature the use of lofty sounding language is almost like an underscore or bold type– it makes the sentence stand out from the mundane (i.e. what the reader hears every day). And of course, this is PRECISELY what the liturgy should be; an escape from the mundane to glimpse at heaven.

    The utter irony here is that the majority of people who lamment this new language will no longer “speak to the younger generation” are themselves so out of touch with what the younger generation wants. Doubtless this group would prefer the words “groovy” and “right-on” to be generously used throughout the mass to appeal to “the younger generation”. I’m sure they’d rather replace “and with your spirit” with “you bet your sweet bippy”, so as to relate to the “younger generation”. Cuz that’s what all the kids are saying these days.

    The utter cluelessness of this group is indeed manifest in that online petition you mentioned. While everyone knows the Vatican always caves into random online petitions, the results of this one must have reached Our Beloved Pontiff AFTER he decided to form the commission (but not before he fertilized his pumpkins in Farmville, between facebook “likes”).

    As I usually attend Tridentine mass, I don’t know exactly when I will hear this new translation. And to be honest, I’m pretty sure the parishes in my immediate vicinity will be hold-outs, if not refusing to use them entirely. We’ll see how this one plays out.

  3. Father Joseph Leppard says:

    A great piece this day after Memorial Day . ..having taught literature for many years, I appreciate such writings. Personally, I am not too sure what language is spoken at our liturgies because I think our people in the pews, not all of them, have no idea of the mystery and wonderment that is taking place. So, as for the language being more in line with our beloved Latin . .something I cherish since in my days of theolgy in Rome all our courses were taught in Latin . .so I can well appreciate, but, for those sitting there in blank wonderment, I have reservations.

    I do pray that we can prepare our people a little better than we did after Vatican II.

    But, I have reservations on that also, but, faith that somewhere in it all, the Eucharist will remain as always the Eucharist. .it’s as simple as that.

  4. Qualis Rex says:

    Hello Father Joseph,

    I read your comment and have some real questions here:

    Personally, I am not too sure what language is spoken at our liturgies. Really? You, a priest, are not too sure what language is spoken at your liturgies?

    but for those sitting there in blank wonderment, I have reservations. For these people sitting in blank wonderment, do you really think the change in language will make any difference whatsoever?

    I do pray that we can prepare our people a little better than we did after Vatican II. If by “we” you are counting yourself in that crowd (since it’s your job, right?, then I will join you in your prayers. And I absolutely agree with you that many, (if not most) priests did a miserable job in upholding dogma and tradition after Vatican II. I place most of the blame squarely at the top (i.e. the magesterium) but I also believe all it really would have taken was enough good priests and lay-people to stand together and say “Enough!”

    Like Joni Mitchel (and Janet-baby) said, “you don’t know what you got ’till it’s gone…”

  5. Joe O'Leary says:

    You give no example of the beautiful language of the new translation. You do it great honor by comparing it with the prose of Melville, but is it worthy of the honor?

    Here are some samples:

    “For he assumed at his first coming

    the lowliness of human flesh,

    and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago,

    and opened for us the way to eternal salvation,

    that, when he comes again in glory and majesty

    and all is at last made manifest,

    we who watch for that day

    may inherit the great promise

    in which now we dare to hope.”

    “For in the mystery of the Word made flesh

    a new light of your glory has shone upon the eyes of our mind,

    so that, as we recognize in him God made visible,

    we may be caught up through him in love of things invisible.”

    “For through him the holy exchange that restores our life

    has shone forth today in splendor:

    when our frailty is assumed by your Word

    not only does human mortality receive unending honor

    but by this wondrous union we, too, are made eternal.”

    “For you have given your children a sacred time

    for the renewing and purifying of their hearts,

    that, freed from disordered affections,

    they may so deal with the things of this passing world

    as to hold rather to the things that eternally endure.”

    “For you will that our self-denial should give you thanks,

    humble our sinful pride,

    contribute to the feeding of the poor,

    and so help us imitate you in your kindness.”

    What is so beautiful about this???

  6. Fiona says:

    Oh dear, poor Mr. O’Leary! I’m so sorry that you can’t see the beauty in what you’ve quoted.

  7. […] the sundry tasks with which my new assignment presents me is overseeing the transition to the new translation of the Roman Missal in the parishes of the Rosebud Reservation.  The transition here promises to […]

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