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?

12 Comments

  1. Because of my life experience in the RCC,(in my late 70’s now) I have learned when ever the hierarchy says “do or don”t” I always view and factor two point, 1) Who gets the power, and 2) follow the money. That being said every English speaking church is going to have to buy a new Sacramentary , new Roman Missals and other necessary books for officiating liturgies plus the laity will be asked to do the same with a personal missal. Just how much does that add up to in profits for the hierarchy? Care to accept my bet that in the not to distant future the Vatican will say, “Oh we didn’t get it right, it’s not working, we will have to revise it again” and more money will pour in because the intelligent laity just refuses to support the culture of clericalism and the suppression of Vatican II.

  2. And, who exactly is to say the post-Vatican II translation was so correct. Perhaps, the challenge is not the Latin to English translation is “off”, but that the way modernity has stripped away the beauty of the English language. No one speaks or even writes like the classic authors, even of the 20th Century. And, while one may be correct regarding the bookish-ness of new translation, the point is to be more “universal”. If the other languages of world, whether or not they are romance lanaguage derived, can be more intune with the Latin, then why cannot English?
    Additionally, and whether one likes it or not, there is a difference between “Et cum spiritu tuo” and “Also with you.” The latter is more like a common greeting, (e.g. Aloha or Peace dude). The former is more addressing the supra-nature of the priest’s “spirit”, and not solely the humanistic “back at ya, babe.” Yes, I realized that I am being a bit flippant, but only to make a point. Of course, no matter what, everything must be taken in context. Any one of us, can say one thing with our lips, but mean something completely different in our hearts or by our acitons.

    As an imperfect, obendient servant to the Holy Mother Church — a believer that the Roman Pontifif is the successor of St. Peter and Vicar of Christ, with the faith and knowlege that the he is surrounded by numerous theologians and scholars; and he does not make or take any decision lightly as guided by the Holy Spirit — I am very much looking forward to the implemention of a more correct translation coming this Advent.

    PAX et vivat Iesus!

    1. Your description of “Holy Mother Church” has little to do with the Church as defined by the Constitution on the Church or the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World of the Second Vatican Council … You may be looking forward to the implementation of a more correct translation, but you will not get it this coming Advent …You will have to wait for the 4th edition…

  3. I’m not sure how many bishops are making money off the new translation. Your bishop isn’t selling the Roman Missal, publishing houses are. Those are the places where the money is going. That’s where the money goes every time your parish buys a seasonal missalette or a hymnal. That’s where the money went in the 70’s. That’s where the money is going now.

    Should we ever produce another edition of the Roman Missal, then, if money will have to exchange hands?

    There are positives and negatives about the new translation. I am generally in favor of it, although the process leaves much to be desired, and some of the last-minute tweaks have wreaked havoc on otherwise fine prayers; some things have been out-and-out mistranslated by the Vox Clara committee, much to my disappointment and others’.

    As far as piling up adjectives, I do not think the effect is always one way or the other. Perhaps you read when you were a child the book “Alexander and the Bad Day”? No, you didn’t; that book doesn’t exist. But the book “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” does exist. And it expresses a great deal more in those multiple, overlapping adjectives than a single adjective could.

    1. Jeffrey, You’re not completely correct. A large portion of the new translations profits do go to the bishops as all liturgical texts are copyrighted, controled by and owned by the International Commission of English in the LIturgy, ICEL. So every published new Mass Setting in Hymnal, Missal or Octavo as well as MP3, the Bishops makea great deal of money. That being said, I don’t think this was their intent. Their intent was to reform and continue to control the liturgical texts used in the Mass. But a side benefit will be windfall royalties that will need to be paid for the transistion to the new Roman Missal. For most publishers, it’s been a headach and one where they have had to invest large sums of money upfront to effectuate these changes. Will they make money? Yes, but not as much as if things were left as there were. Most publishers are barely making it. OCP, the largest is owned by the Archdioce of Portland and is a non profit. It gives most of it’s money away.

  4. Matthew, you’re correct, no one should say that the Post Vatican II was so correct, althought it was instituted by the Holy Mother Church. But as you say, you believe the Roman Pontiff is the successor of St. Peter and Vicar of Christ, so I suppose you can’t dismiss that part of history. BTW, how are those Vicars of Christ from the Bourges family working out for you? Enough said. But, the Roman Church moves slowly, holding on for dear life, it’s tradition (some worthwhile, some having no real meaning in the modern world). Who thinks, reads, or understands Ancient Greek, Latin or 17th Century English? It would be great if we did but we don’t. The World Wide Web is here, the Holy Father now Tweets, and more and more people don’t care what the hierarchy has to say. More of the laity are now better read and informed than those running the ancient church. And sadly, a higher percentage of the laity no longer blindly trust the hierarchy. Why, because the hierarchy has failed miserably. Fortunatly, they only represents one percent of the church and they are not the church. Despite the politics, and last second backroom switching of the new Missal, the Holy Spirit will guide us forward, taking what is good and right and helping to make benign what is seemingly senseless. Pastoral shepherding will be the most helpful in instituting the new translations. We will move forward despite the rhetoric, self important posturing. Good will come out of it all. Not because of the new Roman Missal but because people of good hearts, faith and love of Jesus Christ will prevail.

    1. “More of the laity are now better read and informed than those running the ancient church.”

      Do we have statistics on this, or is this just a generalized imagined truth to make the hierarchy look like ignorant fools in the face of an enlightened laity?

      1. Perhaps I should have qualified this to those living in “deveoped western countries.” When empirical evidence is so strong, “statistical evidence isn’t necessary. To wit, leadership breakdwon leading to civil and criminal lawsuits aganist the heirachy and their diocean corporations. Bankruptcies, leading to the closure of schools and Catholic ministries. Priests removed from ministry. Unwillingness to be transparent with finances with laity and continuing to be out of touch with reality. While there are many well meaning bishops, many live cloistered and celebate (we think) surrounded with like minded minons and suck-ups who help foster a culture of self importance and lack of reality. If these were public or private corporations, they would have been fired long ago for mismanagement. But mother church is still run like a fuedal estate. Reminds me of the white Russian aristocrasy just before the Russian Revolution. They didn’t see if coming.

  5. I will not disagree that history has proven that Satan has sucessfully infiltrated the Holy Mother Church, in much the same way as the progressives, utra-femists have destroyed much of society, all the name of “equality”, but that is a different discussion.

    The reality, at least MHO is that the faithful have not supported the Church, moreover the priests and clergy. We have not prayed enough for them, nor have we tried to understand the great and awe-some position inwhich they hold. Since we in the “civilized” western culture are so “educated”, why then are vocations diminishing, yet booming in the underdevelop counties? I would submit that we have lost our “child-like” innocence that we are called to have.

    Another point is that while Vatican II helped bring a more pastoral awareness or social advocacy, it also brought a demystification of the priesthood — lowering their sacramental consecration/vocation to a mere human level.

    Now, I am in no way dismissing the tradegies that have occured, nor am I attempting to rewrite history. As the recent results and editorials about the great scandal of our time has been released, root causes where identified, mainly in the screening and formation process — and NOT because of the vow of celebacy (which if one understands, is a sacrifice, but moreover a great, and most precious gift that no everyone is called to give!)

    1. I’m not sure how you would define “the progressives or the utra-femists” who you say have destroyed much of society.” Galileo was a “progressive” and he didn’t destroy society. So was Michael Angelo, Louis Pasteur. Victor Hugo, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, all progressives who pronounced contempt for authority from King and Church.

      No one will debate the holiness of the office of the priesthood, the bishops and the Bishop of Rome. And yes, we shoud pray for them as some of the problems we’re experiencing are about the people who hold these positions, not the office. But better screening or formation isn’t going to fill these positions.

      Vocations are diminishing in the western world for many reasons, some because celebacy isn’t sustainable, or the office has been tarnished and abused by sinful men. (Priest purposly do not wear their collars on planes as mothers will move their children to another area. Sad but true). Most new positions in the US are being filled by priests from Mexico, the Philippines, India, and other third world countires. They send their money home to help their families.

      In Mexico and some central and south American countries, some priests have wives and families. In these third world countires, the priesthood still holds that awe mystical power but it also laced with a whole different dynamic.

      For most Americans, everything is black and white but the reality is the Roman Church operates under Roman/Cannon law and a culture which is more, “out of sight, out of mind”. The Italians who work in the Vatican often comment that it is the Americans who sit at a deserted red light at three a.m. waiting for it to turn green before crossing. Italians respect their road signs but don’t necessarily follow them. La dolce vita. They say they can always spot an American priest visiting the Vatican, they’re the ones wearing gold watches and who take everything a little too seriously. But these are still holy men. We must pray for them.

  6. I think your stylistic critique overlooks a number of relevant distinctions, chiefly the distinction between translation and original composition, but also the distinctions between liturgical speech and written journalism and between multiple modifiers and synonymous modifiers.

    I can’t propose a hard and fast rule for drawing the line between “fussy” and “sacred,” but I don’t think it’s self-evidently wrong if the Missal doesn’t read like the Times.

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