Our Missal is Hard on the Ear!
Sarah-Leah Pimental -I refer to Fr. Chris Townsend’s column of 6 June “Let’s Look at the New Missal Translation – Again”. I similarly struggle with the current translation of our missal. It’s hard on the ear and unless I have the missal glued up against my nose, my mind very quickly loses the flow of the sentence.
As a proclaimer, I read and re-read the text multiple times in preparation, trying to find the best possible intonation so that the congregation can make sense of what they hear. And there are times I fail dismally. I find myself in the middle of a sentence and encounter a preposition or a bunch of filler words that syntactically just shouldn’t be there in English.
I often end up without any way of salvaging the sentence other to beat lifelessly it out word by word hastily. While a proclaimer is not a performer, we have been a gift to give voice to God’s word. And we are called to voice it to the best of our ability.
I am also a translator. This makes me a harsh critic. A cardinal translation rule is that your translation must remain faithful to the sense of the original, but the translated copy should read as if it were an original. Translators can always identify a bad translation — it’s unfriendly on the ear and the grammatical structures end up following the pattern of the original text.
But this isn’t the only problem. A poor translation ends up betraying the original, often unintentionally. The translation ends up losing the rhythms and natural beauty of the original. Like Fr. Chris, I don’t know any Hebrew or Greek, and only understand a smattering of Latin, but I can only imagine that David’s psalms were beautiful lyrics filled with rhythm and rhyme to accompany the notes on his harp. I have now doubt that St. Paul’s letters were fiery to say the least.
I have read some wonderful translations of the Bible that capture the full emotion of some of my favourite bible passages. Reading them out loud is like drinking a full-bodied vintage wine. They are rich and they linger in the air after they’ve been uttered.
Not so the (now not so new) Roman Missal. Some days I can’t make out what the prayers and readings are saying and even when I do, I miss the subtleties of the wonderful imagery that should be alive in our Biblical texts. Instead the brittle twigs of words snap out their literal meaning, but fail to reverberate with the life of the 2,000 year old roots (more in the case of the Old Testament texts).
I give one example from my favourite line in the entire Liturgy – from Eucharistic Prayer III. I still remember the words of the old prayer: From age to age you gather a people to yourself, so that from East to West, a perfect offering may be made to the glory of your name. In this sentence, we see a vision of Church that finds its life beat in every generation; inclusively embraces its sons and daughters from every corner of the earth; and this great community that transcends time and space give glory to God in anticipation of the moment when bread and wine are transformed into flesh and blood.
Compare that to the new translation: You never cease to gather a people to yourself, so that from the rising of the sun to its setting a pure sacrifice may be offered to your name. Although “never” here is meant to show time as a continuum, it is a negative word, robbing the sentence of God’s all-encompassing love. This translation also limits the Church’s universality.
From my veranda, I can watch the sunrise and the sunset, but I can only see as far as the horizon. Similarly, the translation only permits me to see the Church that is within my own experience of Church, subconsciously forcing me to forget my persecuted brethren in Syria or those gathered at the Vatican for Mass. The last part of that sentence focuses on our human action of “offering” but the reason for this “sacrifice” has fallen away; that all we bring is to praise and worship God.
The old translation wasn’t perfect, but it was idiomatic. I also recognise that even if I could speak the languages of the Bible, I would be terrified to be part of a Bible translation team. It is a hard thing to translate. But Fr. Chris is right. A text that is translated by theology scholars — most of whom are unlikely to be trained translators – does a disservice to all the English-speaking people of God who come to Mass to hear God’s word and allow it to speak into our hearts.
Bring on that mid-term review!