Why My Students Should Know Something is Wrong with the New Translation
I have returned to the East Coast after a 24-hour delay caused by mysteriously bad weather in San Francisco that led to the cancellation of the first leg of my flight home on Friday from Santa Barbara to SFO and then onward East. While I was unamused by the delay after looking forward to returning home, all was not lost. I was able to spend another day with my friar brothers on the West Coast and three of us even went out Friday night to see the final installment of the Harry Potter films. So things work out.
Now, in an effort to forestall the effects of a thirteen-hour journey that has all but kept me awake for two consecutive days, I have been looking through the stacks of mail that has been delivered to me while I was away for the month. One of the things I glanced through was a recent issue of Commonweal, specifically the article by Rita Ferrone titled, “It Doesn’t Sing: The Trouble with the New Roman Missal.”
The entire article is worth reading, James Martin, SJ, has referred to the piece as “provocative,” others have described it in positive and negative terms across the blogosphere. I think Ferrone makes some very good points, many of which are reiterations of critiques and praises made elsewhere.
Yet, she offers something of a substantial foundation for those who, as her title captures, generally don’t like the flow, syntax and construction of the new language (“It doesn’t sing”). One such substantive critique is less theological than it is grammatical. Ferrone writes:
The demand to translate every Latin word in the new translation has also resulted in the use of multiple adjectives. Yet English is especially effective when plain and unadorned. Multiple adjectives weaken a text rather than strengthen it. When adjectives pike up, the results seem stagy or false (p 17).
She is absolutely, positively, 100% correct! (Note: If I just said “She is correct,” the force of my statement bears greater strength than when I pile up the adjectives — see what we’re saying?)
This is a mistake that high-school students, undergraduates and far too many others make for a variety of reasons. My suspicion has always been that those who write lengthy adjective-laden sentences believe that they are emphasizing their point or argument. Much like one adds negatives in a Spanish sentence for emphasis, yet the same practice in English results in a negation, the so-called “double negative.”
Likewise, piling up adjectives in the English language weakens the gravitas and challenges the logical objectivity of the claim. This is a perfect illustration of how the New Missal is — whether intended or not — written in very poor English. One would never imagine literally translating the multiple-negative Spanish sentences into English, because the results would be a mistranslation. In a similar way the attempt to translate the Latin of the Roman Missal into a literal English reproduction might very well be described as a mistranslation.
I have been one of the many who has sought to strike a middle-of-the-road approach to the translation: I’m not terribly excited about the idea, but I’m also aware of the reality of its impending implementation. I have even told myself (and others) that several of the translated portions better reflects what we pray in Spanish, French and many other languages.
Yet, I didn’t think of this point I just made with Ferrone’s help. The Romance Languages, all of which are direct descendants of Latin, can be more literally translated precisely for that reason without losing much of the meaning. English is nothing like the Romance Languages and must be approached as such.
But here we are: A lesson learned as a freshman journalism student, and something that I have subsequently sought to instill as a writing (and life) lesson to my college students many years later, serves as the cause for pause when critically examining the new missal. If my students should know something is wrong with the new translation, why can’t others?