Melville, Hemingway, and new Mass translations

May 31, 2010

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. Read the rest of this entry »


More Praise for Clunky Translations

January 4, 2010

+AMDG+

As the list grows of those who wonder what if they just said ‘wait’ to the new translation of the Missal, I thought it might be helpful to draw another historical parallel (in addition to the parallel I already drew to early Christian Latin).  A quick read of In the Beginning, Alister McGrath’s history of the King James Bible, reveals that many of the controversies surrounding the proposed liturgical texts resemble the controversies attending the first translations of the Bible into English.  And, as it turns out, the translation philosophy that guided the Vox Clara commission is also the philosophy that produced the King James Version, once reckoned the “noblest monument of English prose.”

At least two of the charges commonly leveled against the Vox Clara translation—that it is foreign-sounding and unintelligible to the average person—could also have been leveled against the KJV (and commonly were). Read the rest of this entry »