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Lost in Translation Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Now that we finally have the Novus Ordo translated into English, it’s time to look at the other mistranslations that plague us Anglophones in the Church. I’d like to begin with the lectionary.

Apologists for the cardboard-twinkie texts we gnash down every week argue for something called “dynamic equivalence,” by which is meant the translation of the general idea of an original text into something that conveys that idea in the receiving language. But the premises here are corrupt at the roots.

To see why, consider the Bauhaus modernist architecture of the twentieth century. Architects like Le Corbusier proclaimed that they were going to create “machines for living,” utterly rational – it was supposed – boxes designed for maximum efficiency for our daily needs. But who wants to live in a box? The hideous Pruitt-Igoe apartment complex in Saint Louis, inspired by modernist theories of urban renewal, quickly became a pool of social disintegration and crime. 

Human beings are embodied souls. They crave beauty. They like music. They invent poetry. The Italian housewife in the second story of a medieval stone house festoons her balcony with geraniums and eggplants. She keeps pictures of her nieces and nephews in a glass hutch with fancy knobs, next to a statue of Jesus of the Sacred Heart.

Such things are not “extra,” no more than food, for a human being, is simply fuel. Animals gobble; human beings celebrate meals. Our very aspirations to the sacred are expressed in earthy, bodily ways, and our humblest bodily needs, like eating and drinking, or caring for the sick, or taking our rest, are most humanly fulfilled when they point to what transcends the human – as when a child kneels down to pray for his sisters and brothers before he goes to sleep. 

This is true of our language also. When we speak, we do not simply convey information, as data might be fed into a computer. We express surprise, gratitude, humor, sadness, love. We revel in the physicality of our words. We bring whole scenes of life to mind. We combine and recombine images that we may never have combined before. 

              The Fruit Harvest by Natalia Goncharova (1909)    

So Jesus doesn’t say, “The kingdom of God has inauspicious beginnings,” but “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.”  He doesn’t say, “One should try to cultivate inattention to acts of charity,” but “Let not your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” It is not simply that his phrasing is better suited for simple people who need to see things to understand them. It is that both his thoughts and his words are essentially poetic, delving into the heart of things by a means inaccessible to the bald abstraction. 

We’re meant not just to compare the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed and then to toss the seed away once we have “understood” the motive behind the metaphor. We are indeed invited really to see the Kingdom of God in that seed, and that is why Christians came up with the charming and deeply human custom of enclosing a mustard seed in a brooch, for girls to wear, as testimony and remembrance.

The reason why we don’t always translate word-for-word is not, then, that the particularities of the words are unimportant, but that a mechanical substitution of words in one language for words in another may do violence to the words themselves, or may fail to convey the fullness of the human expression. So the good translator seeks to penetrate more deeply into the beauty and the richness of the words and the expressions in the original language. Poetry should be translated as poetry, prayer as prayer, oratory as oratory. 

It’s nonsense to suppose that some “common language” of the street corner exists, into which the common Greek of the New Testament should be translated:  nonsense, because in both contexts we are dealing with human beings, not data processors, and human beings, especially in the time of Jesus, speak one way when they are ordering their groceries, and another way when they are praying. 

They launch into flights of fancy; they rhyme, they alliterate, they build to a climax; they repeat themselves, they reverse direction; they shed light upon a vista of meanings as various as the flowers in a garden, then they shroud all in darkness. Thus it may be rightly said that the problem with a mechanically literal translation is that it is not literal enough, that is fails to capture the fullness of meaning suggested by the fascinating bodiliness and spirituality of the speaking human person.

Here is an example. Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a landowner who left tenants in charge of his farm. Then he sent servants to collect – what? The Greek reads tous karpous, literally, the fruits, what you pluck from the tree. By that simple word “fruit,” a vast field of Scriptural imagery is brought before our eyes. Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit.  Abel sacrificed to God the first fruits of his labor. Jesus tells us that a good tree is known by its good fruit. Saint Paul says that Christ is the first fruit of the resurrection. 

So what do the lectionary translators do? They build the Bauhaus. They forget the echoes. They muffle the poetry. They disdain the body. Therefore they disdain also the soul. The landowner sends his servants to gather “the produce.”  

And we lovers of Scripture cry out, like the martyred souls in Revelation, “When, O Lord, when?”

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest book is Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College. 

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written by Dave, November 23, 2011
Thank you, Professor Esolen, thank you. The translations used in the Breviary seem somewhat better; but the RSVCE is, understand, the official English translation of the Church. Seems to me it should be the translation used in the lectionary. Better yet, an updating of the Challoner Douay-Rheims Bible, retaining its poetry while eliminating archaic usages, would go far to restore the poetry of the text and place the language of the readings at the same elevated level as the now correctly translated Novus Ordo. However and alas, the USCCB owns the copyright on the NAB, so I fear no change is in sight. Let us hope they authorize an update of CDR and own that copyright as well.
written by Petros, November 23, 2011
Three words: Traditional Latin Mass
written by Mack Hall, November 23, 2011
"Cardboard Twinkie" -- perfect! But of course now you must apologize to Twinkies!
written by Msgr Charles Pope, November 23, 2011
Thank you for this beautiful essay. It is so well stated. We are often so mechanistic today. But, as you point out, we are made to love beauty, savor food, and to speak soulfully. At a practical level, it might be nice for some of us, whether you or others in the blogosphere, to begin to collect our concerns by way of example. I personally stumble over a lot of the current lectionary when proclaiming it just because my soul is soaring but the words, often so dull and earthbound, drag me down. Again, thank you.
written by TeaPot562, November 23, 2011
@Petros: For the 98% of weekly Catholic Mass attendees who do not understand Latin: Would you have us just read the old Fr. Stedman weekly missals while the presider does his thing?
If we are to get any benefit from the Epistle, Gradual and Gospel readings, they must be in a language that we can understand.
written by senex, November 23, 2011
Thanks for an inspiring piece. Modern education has dumbed down our language, not to mention the effects of texting. A good example, (which Fr. Neuhaus repeatedly pointed out) is the NAB translation in 2 Timothy4:7 "I have competed well", rather than following the imaginative words in other translations "I have fought the good fight". We need more uplifting language.
written by Scaevola, November 23, 2011
@Manfred One must remember that the Novus Ordo is also the Ordinary Rite of the Church. A rite, it must be added, that "seemed good to the Holy Spirit," to quote Acts of the Apostles.
written by Martial Artist, November 23, 2011
Dr. Esolen, I join the other commenters in thanking yoiu for an insightful and inspiring piece, and in hoping the the lectionary might be the next priority for liturgical translation along the "functional equivalence" lines used in the corrected translation. And I am also thankful that we have an imminent answer to your ultimate question, at least with regard to the Ordo, to wit, this coming Sunday!

Pax et bonum,
Keith Töpfer
written by Manfred, November 23, 2011
@Scaevola: Please cite for me precisely in the Acts of the Apostles where the Novus Ordo Missae "seemed good to the Holy Spirit". The Extraordinary Form was THE Ordinary Form until 1972 which is why on Nov. 27th you will hear in English the responses of the traditional Mass.
written by Tony Esolen, November 23, 2011
Thanks for the encouragement, gentlemen. To Dave: a comrade of mine in the trenches for preserving a knowledge of Christian literature has recently suggested that he and I come up with a revised Douay-Rheims-Challoner, after the fashion of the revised King Jameses. I think it's a terrific idea. (My comrade is not even Catholic.) Also: Baronius Press has for several years been just about to publish a Psalter based on the Vulgate texts. Yours truly was commissioned to translate 100 of the Psalms. That was before I learned a little Hebrew ...

Meanwhile ... the great historian (and convert) Robert Louis Wilken has given me an article on the deliberate leveling and desacralizing that went into the post-Vatican II Mass. I haven't read the article yet. I will say, frankly, that I've attended the Novus Ordo all my life, and that any desacralizing that was done in the Latin text was as nothing compared with the desacralizing done in the English translation.

My most recent reading of Sacrosanctum Concilium suggests to me that the Council fathers wanted to make the beauty of the liturgy, of the daily office, and of the Church's treasury of chant and hymnody MORE readily available to the people, not less. That is, if you read the document itself and not the tendentious notes that editors append to it, you will see how flagrantly its directives have been disobeyed, and in the very name of the council itself. Priests and liturgists and bureaucrats and renegade nuns invoked the council to contradict what the council expressly said, in favor of a vast land of conditionals and subjunctives: what they would have said, what they might have said, if only, if only.

I'd dearly love to hear a conversation like this someday:

"Why are we chanting this prayer in Latin during Advent?"
"Because Vatican II says we should."

"Why are we dusting off the pipe organ?"
"Because Vatican II says we should."

I have blamed the Council for not seeing the train careening toward the brick wall -- the sexual revolution. A more careful reading of the texts shows me that the Fathers did indeed address that matter. There were all kinds of stupid mistakes made afterwards, some of them in bad faith....
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, November 24, 2011
The task of the translator is always challenging and sometimes impossible.

To take one example, in the Book of Esther, when Queen Esther says “Let the king and Haman come today" (5:4), the Hebrew has “Yavo Hamelech V'Haman Hayom,” which is an acronym of the Divine Name. This serves to remind us that the very name of the book, Megillas Esther means “the revealing of the hidden,” for the word Megillah, a scroll comes from “galuy,” meaning “revealed” and the name Esther is from “hester,” meaning “hidden” Indeed, the whole story is about the hidden hand of God.

What is the translator to do with this?
written by Bain Wellington, November 24, 2011
While the promotion of sacral language in prayer is very welcome, different considerations apply to Sacred Scripture where there are numerous "registers", from high to low. Viewed in this perspective, there is nothing bathetic about "produce" in this parable of the wicked tenants, any more than there is anything to object to in the use of "interest" in the parable of the talents (33rd Sunday in Ordinary time). The landlord wanted his rent in the former parable, and it was rent in kind.

Indeed, "produce" is not a mistranslation of καρπός which applies not only to fruits that can be plucked from trees and vines, but also to field crops (Mt.13:26) and, by extension, to human progeny (Lk.1:42). Trees produce leaves in spring, do they not (Lk.21:30)?

As for the imagery that has allegedly been squeezed out by the use of "produce" instead of "fruit(s)", none of the examples suggested by Professor Esolen has any relevance to the parable, that I can see (for example, Christ as the firstfruits of those who died – 1Co.15:20,23 – is purely accidental in English; Greek and Latin use other words for that which concentrate on the firstliness and ignore the fruitliness, so to say).

Word associations are not always relevant, and can even be counter-productive.
written by Flamen, November 24, 2011
Michael Paterson-Seymour's observation on the text of Esther is revealing. However, the English translation presents the story line. No one-voluime translation of the Bible could contain all such commentary. Only perhaps a commentary like the New Jerome Biblical Commentary could try to do justice to all the nuances of every passage. It would probably call for a one volume translation and commentary as in the Anchor Bible series.
written by Tony Esolen, November 25, 2011
Brian, you have got to be kidding.

I know quite well that there are different registers of language in Scripture. But "produce"? What is gained by that word? The concrete, specific word "fruits" does indeed translate karpous, and of course it includes in its signification everything that "produce" includes. If someone talked about the fruit of the land, or the fruit of someone's labor, or about a project that bore fruit, we would know what he meant. Jesus uses the word "fruits" quite often -- I would hesitate before saying that there are no interesting associations to draw between this use of the word and the others. Given the choice between the striking and the pallid, or the rich and the bland, or the concrete term which implies the abstract, and the plainly abstract, I'll choose the former every time. As for "interest": that's what the word in that context literally means; we could not say "offspring."

On Esther: it's my understanding that that is simply the name Ishtar, the Babylonian Venus. Am I mistaken in that?
written by Kevin, November 25, 2011
All due respect to the learned and the wise Anthony Esolen. I prefer to keep the Traditions of Holy Mother Church and speak the Church's antique language and trust in the Holy Spirit's inspiration in St Jerome and myself. It is my duty to accept what is handed down from antiquity and Tradition in The Church, not give into arrogance and make it up as I go along. Inclusive language being a most hostile and rebellious example. I hold to Pope Leo Xiii encyclical On The Study of Holy Scripture. ..."Hence those preachers are foolish and improvident who, in speaking of religion and proclaiming the things of God, use no words but those of human science and human prudence, trusting to their own reasonings rather than to those of God. Their discourses may be brilliant and fine, but they must be feeble and must be cold, for they are without the fire of the utterance of God."... As for the rest of you? Go your own way.
written by Petros, November 25, 2011
TeaPot 562,
I am pleased to see the new, corrected translation and pray it will have great effect on the faithful who attend the Novus Ordo. That said, I think the "benefit" of hearing the readings (and the entire Mass) in the vernacular is debatable. I think the vernacular has played a part in bringing the Mass down to the people instead of elevating the people up to the Heavenly Banquet. And yes, one could read their missal while Father 'does his thing'. One could also properly assist at Mass with his prayerful silence. The idea that audible recitation of set responses makes for better participation at Mass is also debatable. Lastly, for the benefit of those without missals, the Epistle and Gospel are read in English prior to the homily at the Traditional Latin Mass.
written by Bain Wellington, November 26, 2011
I am genuinely sorry to have rubbed you up the wrong way (the more so since I have enjoyed your "Commentary" on the new translation of the Roman Missal), but you are now defending a personal preference whereas I was originally disputing your claim that "produce" was a mistranslation.

First off, I don't take your point that "produce" (or "crop") is "pallid" or "bland"; and even if it was, that has nothing to do with the question of correct or incorrect translations. You claimed that "produce" is a mistranslation of τοὺς καρποὺς αὐτοῡ at Mt.21:34 (repeated at v. 41), and I suggested otherwise. We disagree, evidently, but I don't see why I should be taken to be kidding just because I don’t agree with you. In context, the phrase refers to the rent payable by the tenants and it can, with equal exactitude be translated "fruit" or "produce".

My access to multiple English translations of the NT is limited, but not only NAB (1986), but also NJB (1985) and NRSV (1989) all give "produce" at both places, while NIV (1984) gives "fruit" at v.34 and "produce" at v.41. My French translation (Maredsous text, éditions Brepols, 1977) gives "produit de sa vigne" and "le produit" respectively, and my Die Gute Nachricht of the Deutsche Bibelgesellscaft (1982) offers "Ertrag" ("yield" or "produce") in both places.

Furthermore, there is nothing "plainly abstract" about the word "produce" (or "crops" come to that). It is generic, but that doesn't make it abstract. And in the context of the parable, "fruits" isn't particularly specific, since the subject is clearly grapes. The same goes for Gospel references to the fruit of trees, In most cases the fruit genus is supremely irrelevant (e.g., Mt.3:10, 7:18, 12:33; Lk.3:9, 6:43). The anecdote about the fig tree is the only exception that comes to mind (Mt.21:19, cf. Mk.11:14; Lk.13:6).

My rather unexceptionable point was that word associations are not necessarily relevant and may even be misleading. The issue you haven't addressed is how, exactly, a word association with, say, forbidden fruit or any of the other "fruit" examples you offered (at least one of which was misconceived), has the remotest relevance to the parable of the wicked tenants.


Finally, it is not helpful to say "Jesus uses the word 'fruits' quite often" since that is begging the question. The evangelists report uses of καρπός, sometimes meaning fruit, and sometimes field crops (I can add to Mt.13:26 further citations at, e.g., Mt.13:8, 26; Mk.4:7, 29; Lk.12:17; Jn.4:36) where "fruit" would definitely not be correct English. In fact it is impossible to identify the crop alluded to at Lk.12:17 or Jn.4:36 as either fruit or grain. Even in the case of trees, καρπός does not necessarily refer to fruit, since the word can also apply to nuts : καρπός is what the tree brings forth, what it produces.
written by Bill Russell, November 27, 2011
In the Doxology at the end of the Canon, the new translation repeats the mistaken inversion as it was in the old translation:

omnis honor et gloria = all glory and honor.

And the solecism of the old translation in repeated in the new translation’s wrong verb agreement:

all honor and glory IS yours

Very annoying. I assumed without that this would have been one of the most obvious corrections. How could something so glaring have been overlooked?

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