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.
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.