Friday, June 06, 2008

Skip a Bit, Brother...

The new English translation of the Roman Missal has been slowly wending its way through the vetting process at the Vatican now for several years. One argument in favor of the older, simpler translations (which I have discussed before) has been that English is just plain fundamentally different from Latin in its modes of expression. Where Latin waxes pleonastic, it is more natural for English to simplify. So a sonorous Latin phrase like "Omnipotens sempiterne Deus" gets turned into the mere vocative "God", or on some occasions, "Mighty God". I don't think that the ICEL translations have been uniformly as banal as this example, but they come fairly close to a certain aurea mediocritas that has generated legions of critics, at least in this country.

Is it really true that simpler, plainer style is the norm in English? I'm not so sure. Although it tends to be rather common nowadays, the plain style is not something that motivated many of those who first translated Latin liturgical texts into English. In his magisterial English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (by far his greatest scholarly work, if you want the opinion of someone whose only knowledge of the subject matter comes from reading the work in question), C. S. Lewis explained in loving detail the various ways in which a desire for stylistic English (as opposed to merely colloquial) drove some of the work (p. 218):
Thus in vota humilium (third in Lent) English forces us to have a noun with humilium so that we get 'thy humble servants'. It then seems to the translator's ear that vota also should have a satellite, and, selecting (for he is an Englishman) one that alliterates, he writes down 'the hearty desires of thy humble servants', where the medieval translator would probably have been content with 'vowes of us humble'. In addition to such rhythmical motives I suspect the influence of a feeling, and, I believe, a just feeling, that the resonant Latin words carry more not only to the ear but also to the heart and imagination than their short English equivalents, so that 'faithfully to fill' is not an excessive allowance for ad implenda nor 'in the midst of so many and great dangers' for in tantis periculis.
I am particularly struck by the phrase "It then seems to the translator's ear...". I wonder how much banality in the ICEL translations could have been avoided by paying more heed to "the translator's ear"? Did the ICEL translators even have ears? Sometimes it seems not. Lewis was a master of translation, of course, and quite possibly the members of the ICEL committee entrusted with the task of translating the liturgical texts were principally trained in matters of theology, as opposed to Lewis's background of classical philology, philosophy, and English literature. One suspects, rather sadly, that even if Lewis had lived long enough to help out with the ICEL translations (and had been willing to, and had been able to, etc. etc.) he would not have been invited to do so. While that is merely a suspicion, it appears to be supported by the actual outcome of the project, given that Lewis was not the only person on the planet with his qualifications and talents.

I'm not at all sure that the ICEL is entirely to blame for the present unpleasantness, however. It takes two to tango, as they say, and the numbers of people who read and take delight in the same sorts of literature that transported Jacksie Lewis and his friends at the turn of the last century are rapidly dwindling. I won't pretend to be a snob in this regard: when I was 14 years old, I was reading Lewis's stories for children; when Lewis was 14 years old, he was reading Homer. In Greek. By the time I was 17 years old, I had read some more Lewis, all of Tolkien (several times) and, for some reason, Thucydides (in English), but by that same age Lewis had been offered a scholarship at Oxford University after having passed an entrance examination that I could never pass in a million years, even now. So I am in no position to lecture my cohort about their reading habits. Our technological age has favored the capacity for quick adaptation to electronic marvels rather than the slow, meticulous scholarship that made Lewis the genius that he was. It's not that we are no longer capable of such genius, it's that we no longer have the patience for it. As I said, I read Tolkien in my teens, and I loved what I read so much that I had read and re-read The Lord of the Rings nine times before I graduated from college. Arguably I should have been branching out a little, but even so: I cannot get my own son to read through the thing even one time. I have tried everything: I got him a very nice, deluxe edition of the thing, which has been gathering dust in his room. I tried reading it aloud to him on our cold, snowy winter evenings, along with servings of hot chocolate and beautiful, atmospheric music; I got a recorded books version that we both listened to together; I got the deluxe version of the DVD of Peter Jackson's movie interpretation and promised him that he could watch the whole thing if he would only read the book first. All to no avail: he still has not gotten any farther than the first third of The Two Towers. And yet he will sit for hour upon hour trying to "finish" Grand Theft Auto IV.

He is typical of a certain sort of adolescent boy. I have no illusions about that: some kids just don't like that kind of stuff, and no amount of immersion therapy is going to change that. I haven't figured out yet what he does like, but reading books is just not on his list. (A little sad, since in a house containing two classicists and a philosopher, there are literally thousands of really good books in the offing, all for free. It's like a fucking lending library in here, but never mind.) The same is true for most of his friends, as it happens. Much the same, I suppose, is probably true in the culture at large. I'm sure there are plenty of kids who do go in for a little more culture than most, but I fear, based not only on my experience with my son and his friends, but on my experience with the average undergraduate student, that the days when Lewis and his ilk formed the dominant culture are long gone, if they were ever really here in a dominant form. There will always be exceptions to the situation I am lamenting. I have a friend that I went to graduate school with who was, in some ways, remarkably like C. S. Lewis: he had a very good, classical education as a young boy, he grew up learning how to play the harpsichord and I don't know how many other musical instruments; he appears to have been as well educated as Lewis upon entering college, and he remains a remarkably able and productive scholar in classics. But in the 30 years I have been in the business, he's the only person I have met like that from my own cohort. And what one sees of the intelligentsia in the mass media these days is only discouraging. Just have a look at what passes for thoughtful, intelligent discourse among the self-styled "Brights", and you will have cause to weep; but much the same can be said for popular "apologetics"--there are no Lewises out there defending the faith today, only Bakkers.

Lewis was an amazing man, a man whose view of reality was animated by a love of myth and whose capacity to see the truth was galvanized by a herculean imagination. Many intellectuals these days are basically variations on the Mr. Spock theme: they are able to excel in this or that technical discipline, but the lack that spark of creative intelligence and imagination that enabled Lewis to see the whole world as it really is. He was a complete man, and his was a complete intellect, in a way that is rare to find these days. The delight that he took in English literature was a manifestation of his fascination for the word as sacramental representation of the truth. That's why he delighted so in poetry, and why he lamented what he saw as the degradation of poetic achievement in modernism.

Few of us, apparently, delight in the sheer poetry of language in the way Lewis did, or we would be far more vocal than we are about the banalization of our liturgy, where the sacramentality of language is more paramount than anywhere else. We have become like Brother Maynard in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who, when the monk played by Michael Palin is reading from the Book of Armaments, urges him to "Skip a bit, brother", when the reading becomes rather more detailed than time would appear to permit. We seem to like our liturgies streamlined rather than drawn out, simple rather than complex, and, above all, something that does not demand too much of us. When we remember why we attend Mass in the first place, we will perhaps begin to recapture something of our own sense of excitement and pleasure in the participation in a feast of words, and start praying for more Lewises in the ICEL.

And no, C. S. Lewis would never, in a bazillion years, have used the word "fucking" in an essay. The times, they are a-changin', baby!


Mark said...

Oh! Such language! You were trying to raise the pointer on your Cuss-O-Meter, weren't you :)

And speaking of language which is the topic of this post, I completely agree and share in your lament. I read about people like Lewis, Tolkien, von Hildebrand, von Balthasar, et al. and it's quite embarrassing. Like you allude to in your post, they were reading Greek and Latin before they even entered a University! Me - I barely knew knew English. At least, I had a good English teacher who made us read Dickens and Shakespeare, but beyond that it wasn't much - certainly nothing pre-Shakespeare.

I do wish we would go back to more of a classical educational system, where Latin and Greek are taken seriously, along with philosophy and theology (in a Christian school). But I suppose we are much to utilitarian these days for that to ever happen. Much of our education has been narrowed down to only what you need to know in order to make you money when you graduate. If you're crazy enough to get a degree in the liberal arts (i.e. philosophy, theology, literature, etc.) it's expected that you will go on to post-graduate school to get a degree in something "useful" (i.e. something that'll make you money) or you've resigned yourself to be a high school teacher or college professor the rest of your life. Not that there's anything wrong with that... :)

Now look at that. I have taken to putting smiley faces at the end of my sentences. Let's see C.S. Lewis do that!

Scott Carson said...

Believe it or not, I totally forgot about the Cuss-O-Meter. I just checked it though, and I'm afraid it hasn't gone up at all! What's up with that?

It seems to me that you're right about the state of secondary education: the liberal arts model that was in place when Lewis and Tolkien were at university is very different from what we have now, at least at universities. I suppose there are still some liberal arts colleges out there where a classical education still means something, well, classical. But I can vouch for the fact that at a big state university you have to work pretty hard to keep students interested in the litterae humaniores.

I read somewhere that Lewis never learned to type, so I'm pretty sure you've got something of a head start on him in the smiley face department. Indeed, I believe I also read that he always wrote with a nib pen! None of these new-fangled fountain pens for him!

Apollodorus said...

If I recall, Lewis had to include a bit in the preface to Mere Christianity apologizing for his use of the phrase "damned nonsense." His defense: he really thinks the nonsense is damned.

As nostalgic as I can get about a 1920's Oxford style liberal arts education that I never had, I do wonder how one's estimation of our current system should change in light of some relevant differences: for one thing, hardly anybody could get the kind of education that Lewis and Tolkien had even in their day, whereas it is now possible for anybody smart enough to get into a public university like OU (and I did it with a G.E.D. and no SAT or ACT score, mind you) to learn to read Plato in his original language.

Scott Carson said...


I think my friend stands as something of a falsification of your claim that "hardly anybody" could get the kind of education that Lewis and Tolkien had, although I suppose it depends on exactly what "hardly anybody" is taken to mean. My friend went to the Choate School, for one thing, and it's true enough that "hardly anybody", in an absolute sense, can go to a school like that, but then, in Lewis's and Tolkien's day the same thing would have been true of the folks who got the education that they got. In those days, a liberal arts education really was an elitist thing.

It seems to me that the difference lies in the "democraticization" of higher education: thanks to the G. I. Bill and other incentives, far more people have been admitted to colleges and universities in the last 60 years than in the preceding 600 years. This is probably what has changed the character of the college experience. Men like Lewis and Tolkien were being trained to be "English gentlemen", but "hardly anybody" these days even wants such a thing.

It is true, of course, that universities like OU still offer courses in the classics, but this is becoming rarer. Classics departments are closing down every year; in some cases they are merged with departments of foreign languages and literatures, but in more extreme cases they are just eliminated entirely. And now the same thing is starting to happen with philosophy departments. This seems to me to be a function what people do want, and that's why I emphasize the "two to tango" aspect of things here. Part of the solution may lie in the high school curriculum, but I think even a reworking of that will have no effect if there is not more support at home and in peer groups for the sorts of interests that would produce a Tolkien or a Lewis. One reason why kids don't like to sit around reading these days is because it is perceived as uncool, whereas success in the video game parlor or in front of the XBox seems to be something of a status marker. Now, in our house, there is a lot of parental pressure to spend more time reading and less time cruising Liberty City, but it has little effect; something deeper and more drastic is needed. But I don't know what it is.

John Farrell said...

Very well said indeed. My wife and I, parents of a 7-year-old and a soon-to-be five-year-old, are constantly rethinking how we should go about introducing them to language per se. The boob tube, as is natural to all members of their generation, is ubiquitous, so, as much as we curtail it, language still deserves a special introduction. And I'm delighted my older daughter is as engaged by the books I read as I have been able to track them down.

And here, Amazon has done a great service in its ability to track down old books!

JackieD said...

At the same time that I'm mourning the loss of education that would produce men of Lewis and Tolkien's ilk, I'm also bewailing the somewhat excessive state of liberal arts education today. We've gone from quality to quantity, and a liberal arts degrees very rarely lead to anything resembling an academic career, simply because they would flood the market.

On a completely different topic, if you'd like to get your video game-geared son interested in Tolkien, you might want to give him some of the more story-based, 'epic' video games. My husband is a stauch Tolkien and casual Lewis fan, but he also thrives on story-heavy games. It might open the door, you never know :-p

Darwin said...

If I recall, Lewis had to include a bit in the preface to Mere Christianity apologizing for his use of the phrase "damned nonsense." His defense: he really thinks the nonsense is damned.

Perhaps Scott was speaking in a similarly literal fashion. I can't be sure, but I could swear that upon visiting I noticed a pair of old paperbacks quietly rutting off in a corner.

My own books are relatively quiet as a rule, perhaps in part because they don't get handled as much as they would no doubt like. But it may well be that in an atmosphere of sufficient intellectual stimulation, the books get positively frisky.