Wednesday, August 20, 2008

And With Thy Spirit

As I reflect a little more on my previous post (the one with the video of the Cirque de Sottise) I find myself wondering whether the time has come for folks such as myself, folks who find most contemporary liturgical settings banal and vapid, to recognize the need for what might be called a "Sacred Tongue" or, at the very least, a "Liturgical Dialect". This is not unheard of in religions: the Jews still make use of classical Hebrew in certain settings, as the Muslims do of classical Arabic. Until very recently Western Christians still had their Latin, and the Orthodox--some of them, anyway--still make use of something not very unlike koinĂȘ Greek. The Western Church, famously, tossed off its Sacred Tongue into the dustbin of history in favor of viewer participation or contemporary relevance or something along those lines, and while this makeover of the Mass into the language of the people may have been merely the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, in matters of banalification, it at least has the very salutary feature of being rather easily remedied, at least when compared with such things as getting congregations to use their beautiful, large, fixed altars again (if they haven't torn them out entirely) with the priest standing ad orientem, or making other, comparable, improvements to Things Liturgical.

The Episcopal church--and some other denominations as well--have gone through similar growth pangs even though the liturgical language was always vernacular. When the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was approved for use in churches it replaced the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, which was written in a kind of faux-Elizabethan English that was very popular in some circles. In fact, it was so popular that as late as 1983 there were still parishes that would set aside a service here or there in which the 1928 Book would be used to mollify those persons who continued to be whatever it is you call the Episcopalian version of a Lefebvrist. Now that the Episcopal church is coming apart at the seams, it is a rather easy matter for whole congregations to put the 1979 Book aside and take up such wonderful liturgical resources as the Anglican Missal and the Anglican Breviary, both publications of the Frank Gavin Liturgical Foundation (the Breviary can also be used by Catholics, since it is just an English translation of the secular Latin breviary in use in 1955--see the website, here).

Is there a problem with using liturgical texts written in this strange dialect that, like Homeric Greek or Renaissance Latin, was arguably never really a vernacular language? There are bits and pieces that are taken straight from Cranmer and other original sources, but even those texts are as often as not written in a style considerably more formal than what would have been spoken by most people of the time. The attraction of these texts lies not in their historical accuracy but in their poetic beauty. Whether they are faux or original, they read beautifully, and they make prayer into an aesthetic expression of our deepest longings. Prayer, by its very nature, is always a linguistic expression of one sort or another; to make it into an aesthetic expression is not to deny that or try to escape from the inevitable propositionality of prayer. It is, rather, to add another dimension to the expression, to make possible forms of representation that go beyond the merely verbal and propositional. In this sense, resources such as those provided by the Frank Gavin Liturgical Foundation provide a real service to the Christian believer.

There are some who find this sort of thing objectionable even while lamenting the use of the more popular forms of the vernacular. In the middle of the last century, for example, a new translation of the Psalms into Latin was undertaken by the Pontifical Biblical Commission under Cardinal Bea (sometimes called the Versio Piana since it was approved by Pope Pius XII of happy memory). This new translation was intended to be in a more high-falutin' style than the so-called "vulgate" version, following the stylistic principles of the Renaissance humanists instead of the more proletarian principles of Jerome and his followers. The new version was printed in many breviaries and is, indeed, very beautiful, but it was never as popular as the old Latin versions and it never really caught on, even among the sorts of people we would today call "traditionalists". It is ironic, I suppose, in a way, since what these people deplore about the English translations that have been foisted upon us by the ICEL is manifest also in the old Latin Psalter, but the operative word for some of these folks appears to be "old" rather than "Latin". In this particular case, the "newer" Latin of the Bea Psalter reads more like the Elizabethan English of the Anglican Breviary, while the "older" Latin sounds, if anything, like the sort of prose one finds in the National Enquirer (there is an interesting, if negative, review of the Bea Psalter reprinted here).

I have often blogged on matters of translation, including the very popular Shibboleth of "literalness" (this post is just one among many). Translations do not need to be literal in order to be translations, even good ones, but I find it to be a very safe generalization to say that, the closer a particular English translation is to the Latin of our liturgical texts (in terms of literalness) the more likely it is that the translation is going to sound more like a prayer and less like a whine. But one difficulty with any translation is that it will fail, by its very nature, to capture those elements of the original that are unique to the modes of expression employed in the original tongue. Just by way of example, let's have a look at the petitions from Vespers II of last Friday's HDO. The petitions begin with general invocation:
Deum patrem omnipotentem magnis laudibus extollamus, qui Mariam matrem Filii sui ab omnibus generationibus celebrari voluit, et ab eo supplices petamus: Plenam gratia intuere, et exaudi nos.
This is translated by the ICEL in the following way:
Let us praise God our almighty Father, who wished that Mary, his Son's mother, be celebrated by each generation. Now in need we ask: Mary, full of grace, intercede for us.
As translations go, that one isn't so very bad; as ICEL translations go, it is remarkably lucid and to the point. It's not completely literal (note, for example, that the final phrase has the name "Mary" where the original does not; the original has "intuere" while the translation does not, etc.), but it does far better than many of the scraps we have served up to us on a Sunday at Mass. More to the point, however, is the fact that the Latin prayer is remarkably well-crafted, while the English translation is almost literally limping along to keep up without screwing up. Just for starters, there's no way you can capture, in English, the deep resonances of the Latin phrase "Deum Patrem omnipotentem" while at the same time managing anything like literalness. The English phrase "God our almighty Father" is as literal--and as banal--as it gets (except for the "our" part). The trouble here is not one of failing to be literal, but of a more general failure of English to sound as good as Latin. To assert such a thing, however, is manifestly to assert an aesthetic preference. Lots of people do not share the view that Latin, at least in this instance, sounds better than English. De gustibus non disputandum est, I suppose, but those people are just wrong.

There are a couple of features of the Latin original that are not captured by the English translation, literal though it is to some degree, and these features add to the dignitas and maiestas of the prayer. I have in mind here the fact that the Latin original uses two hortatory subjunctives where the English uses only one, and the Latin original makes use of some rather nice features of the Latin language that have no real parallels in English. For example, notice how Mariam matrem Filii sui, "Mary, the Mother of his Son", precedes the expression ab omnibus generationibus, "by all generations". Because word order is not as strictly governed in Latin as it is in English by rules of syntax, it is possible to put these words into just about any order one might wish; in the present case, the solemnity of the prayer is enhanced by the fact that God's Son, indicated by the word Filii, stands between his Mother Mary (Mariam matrem) and all of the rest of us (omnibus generationibus). Imagine, if you will, a triangle, with Christ at the pinnacle, Mary at one corner, and the rest of us at the other corner. Mary stands as an exemplar for the rest of us, the Mother not only of God but of the Church, the meaning of both roles mediated for us by our experience of the Christ.She is not above us, but rather at the same level; nor does she stand between us and our Savior; but still she is distinct from us--like us insofar as she is at the same level, but unlike us in her sinlessness and special graces. The Latin here is not unusual, or high-blown, or forced--this is pretty much just how one would say, in Latin, what the prayer wants to say. But in saying what it wants to say in a perfectly ordinary way, it manages to say much more than the English could ever say if the English were expressed in a purely colloquial form. Before moving on to the next petition, I will also point out how the Latin original here concludes by invoking Mary's assistance in prayer through one of her most memorable--and pertinent, in the present context--titles, Full of Grace, rather than by her name. This would be possible, but rather unnatural, in English. In Latin it seems as natural as daylight.

The next petition builds the oratorical gravitas:
Deus, mirabilium patrator, qui immaculatam Virginem Mariam corpore et anima caelestis gloriae Christi fecisti consortem, filiorum tuorum corda ad eandem gloriam dirige.
The ICEL gives us:
O God, worker of miracles, you made the immaculate Virgin Mary share, body and soul, in your Son's glory in heaven, direct the hearts of your children to that same glory.
Here, "worker of miracles" seems a little tepid next to mirabilium patrator, though it is certainly better than some alternatives one could imagine, such as "miracle worker". The word patrator has deep religious resonance in Latin, though most of its associations in that language are to pagan rites, so perhaps one ought not to make too much of that whole thing. More to the point is the possible contrast between "worker" and "accomplisher", the latter being far closer to the meaning of the Latin. Someone who "works" miracles may not differ much from someone who "accomplishes" them or "effects" them or "brings them about", but the verb patrare may have some connection to the notion of paternal power to effect creation and, as such, seems far more redolent of God's power than the suggestion that he is just some sort of magician. And why on earth would someone translate caelestis gloriae Christi as "your Son's glory in heaven" rather than as "Christ's celestial glory"? I mean, the mind boggles. It's as if they went out of their way to sound trivial rather than grand.

I'll just do one more and call it a dies.
Qui Mariam dedisti nobis matrem, ipsa intercedente, concede medelam languidis, solamen maerentibus, veniam peccatoribus, et omnibus salutem et pacem.
Which the ICEL turns into
You made Mary our mother. Through her intercession grant strength to the weak, comfort to the sorrowing, pardon to sinners, salvation and peace to all.
Here, I'm afraid, the ICEL has really dropped the ball. "You made Mary our mother"? Are you kidding? One doesn't know whether to laugh or to cry, but it's a safe bet that neither is the emotion that was being aimed at. It's bad enough that they take what in the original is the introduction to the petition and turn it into an independent sentence with little, if any, obvious connection to what follows, but to turn dedisti into "made" is a slap in the face. God gave us a great gift in Mary, a woman who surpasses all mankind in grace and honor. The English would have us hear "Hey, did you know that God made Mary? Well, he did, and she's like a mother to us now. Let's ask her to pray for us." The Latin, by contrast, praises God's loving kindness to us while asking him to listen to our prayers through Mary, his greatest manifestation of that loving kindness short of his own Son. As she has served for us as a strengthener to the weak, a solace to those who mourn, etc., we ask that God grant these same things at our hands to those who stand in need of them. Mary is our mother, after all, and we learn at her knee; the graces that we receive from God through her intercession we are to take into the great family of the Church and thence to all. Here again word order elevates the style of the prayer. Note how the Latin ends omnibus salutem et pacem, so that the prayer as a whole is framed by Qui...dedisti at the beginning and salutem et pacem at the end: may the one who gave us Mary for a mother also give us salvation and peace, through her intercession. It is, of course, perfectly possible to translate et omnibus salutem et pacem not as "salvation and peace to all" but as "and to all, salvation and peace"--it just depends on how important you think what you're saying is.

That's probably enough kvetching for one day; I will resist the temptation to compare the ugly ICEL prayers with the beautiful ones in my Anglican Breviary. That will make for a nice future bit of kvetching.


arturovasquez said...

You fail to mention that many like the monks of Solesmes refused to use the Bea Psalter since they said that it never sang well. And of course, the reason St. Jerome didn't do another translation of the Psalter in his Vulgate was that everyone knew the words to the Psalms, so it would be the equivalent of changing the lyrics of a Beatles' song today. Didn't John XXIII axe the Bea Psalter shortly before the Council anyway, sort of like jettisoning the New Coke?

I knew a couple of old priests from when I was in the SSPX who were already priests in the 1950's and were expert Latinists. They continued to say their Mass in Latin with the "classical" pronunciation (to the glee of all the seminarians who had to serve for them) and prayed out of the Bea Psalter. They were just formed that way and had gotten used to it.

It is interesting that you pick a prayer from the office of the Assumption to analyze. Didn't Pius XII's experts write a new office for the feast of the Assumption on the occasion of its having been proclaimed a dogma of the Church? How old would this prayer be in that case?

Scott Carson said...


I don't know that I would characterize it as a failure that I didn't mention the fact that some monks were of the opinion that the Bea Psalter didn't fit their neumes very well: the issue that I am addressing here is one of aesthetics considered more broadly, not the very narrow question of "does this particular Latin phrase fit well with this particular tonal setting". My claim is only that the Latin of the Bea Psalter, as artificial as it is, is still more beautiful than the Latin psalms that it was meant to replace on the assumption that classical principles are more aesthetically sound than so-called "silver age" principles. That is, of course, already a normative assumption, but it is one that I'm willing to defend.

St. Jerome actually made several translations of the psalms; he doesn't appear to have been too concerned about upsetting the Beatlemaniacs of his day.

The prayers for the Assumption are merely taken from the Common of the Virgin Mary, and most of them are quite ancient, not at all composed just for the occasion of the Definition (the feast was celebrated, in any event, long before the Definition). But even if the prayers had been composed in 1950, my point is not that they are very old--I think I make the point in my post that relative age has nothing to do with aesthetic beauty--but rather that they are more aesthetically sound than even (or perhaps, especially) the most literal ICEL translation. In short, I was trying to show how translation in general, but even literal translation, can fail to capture the grandeur of the Latin originals. This was meant to be an argument in favor of either (a) retaining the Latin originals or (b) having recourse to English versions that attempt to reproduce, in English, the grandeur that is present in the Latin (for example, the translations in the Anglican Breviary).

Although my own training was as a classicist, when I pray in Latin I prefer to use the Italianate (so-called "ecclesiastical") pronunciation. I'm not sure why; I started off using classical pronunciation, since that was what I was taught, but I gradually moved away from it toward the Italianate. It now seems best to me, for whatever reason.

voltape said...

As you are talking about Pius XII psalter I must say I am a married layman and began praying the breviary around 1960. My first impression was the Pius XII psalter and only after many years I found the Gallican. Used to the clarity and expressiveness of the Bea I felt and still do the Gallican or even the New Vulgate are prosaic and inaccurate. So much so that I am producing the Liturgy of the Hours with the Bea psalms. Blessings.