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Strangers in a Strange Land, Part Two Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Thursday, 22 December 2011

Imagine someone writing a love poem. Would he look up words in a data bank, as the translators of the New International Version have recently done, to determine the percentages of people who say this or that? Wouldn’t that be a self-defeating thing to do? 

For his very purpose is to write not a grocery list or a memorandum, but to bring forth a work of art, and to express a glorious passion, one as odd as the plumes of a peacock. Would he say to himself, “I dare not rhyme,” because people don’t leave telephone messages in sonnet form?

Those who say, then, that a translation of the sacred poetry of Scripture or the Mass must reflect the ordinary usage of the people are wrong. They proceed from two false premises.

They assume, first, that the translator must efface the strangeness of the original language – for all languages have their own peculiar strangeness – and, second, that Jesus and Saint Paul and the other speakers and writers in the Bible used only ordinary language when they spoke and wrote.

On the first count, the peculiarities of the original language are a boon to us, not a hindrance, precisely because they allow us to see what otherwise we might miss.  Every foreign language strikes the hearer as poetic, because, in fact, it is so, though the ordinary speakers of it may grow too familiar with it and so miss the poetry.

Let me give an example. When Adam took Eve as his wife, the Hebrew reads yada’, “he knew,” which the King James Bible translates accordingly: “And Adam knew Eve his wife.”  Now we don’t say things that way in modern English.  But that’s just the point! 

Unfortunately, the New American Bible here punts: “The man had relations with his wife Eve.” Well, yes, we understand that. We know a little about biology. But the word “know” implies much more. It suggests an intimacy of knowledge, a union of personal beings at the deepest level. 

It helps to reveal the incoherence of sins against marriage, whereby a man and a woman who do not know one another know one another.

So let us welcome the blessed stranger into our midst. When Jesus says, in a faithful translation of the Greek, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow,” it’s absurd for us to protest, “But people do not construct sentences like that anymore!” 

More’s the pity that they don’t, but so long as the sentence so constructed is comprehensible in the new language, the translator ought to receive it as a gift, precisely because the hint of strangeness may cause us to stop and really consider those lilies of the field. 


       Jesus Preaching the Sermon on the Mount by Gustave Doré (c. 1860)

The translators of the New American Bible, however, give us instead, “Learn from how the wild flowers grow,” effacing the flair of the original, and taming those flowers. For everybody has seen a wild flower, but a lily of the field, now that’s something to catch the eye, or the soul.

But the second point is more important than the first.  It isn’t simply that an oddity in the original ought to be reflected in the English.  It’s that the Hebrew or Greek or Latin we are translating is often intentionally poetic to begin with. 

Jesus uttered oratorical poetry of the most brilliant sort.  Saint Paul composed theological poems in prose form.  They echoed the poetry they knew best, the prayers and prophecies of the Old Testament, which they read and uttered not in the Aramaic of the street corners, but in Hebrew, and, in the Psalms, a Hebrew that uses words that even the ancient Hebrews no longer used, except in their sacred poetry. Again, the translator should welcome the strangeness. It is not a burden, but an opportunity.

Let me give an example from the Mass. The English translators of the 1973 Order of the Mass thought like office managers.  Efficiency was their idol. They hated strangeness, because strangeness is inefficient; it might require a pause, a turn of the head toward something no longer taken for granted. 

Therefore, they truncated wherever they could. Here was their translation of the central portion of the Gloria:

Lord God, Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world:
Have mercy on us.
You are seated at the right hand of the Father:
Receive our prayer.

Now that is not what the Latin says. The Latin embeds a poem within a poem within a poem: a three-part poem of petition within a larger poem (the Gloria) within a still larger poem (the entire liturgy). 

That three-part petition echoes the three-part acknowledgment of sin in the Confiteor, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault (a prayer that the office managers also truncated).  It prepares us also for the three-part petition of the Agnus Dei. Like the Agnus Dei, it is a three-part petition with variation.  Here is the correct translation:

Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father,
you take away the sins of the world,
    have mercy on us;
you take away the sins of the world,
    receive our prayer;
you are seated at the right hand of the Father,
    have mercy on us.

The interlocking repetitions reveal a profound truth. The mercy for which we pray at the beginning and the end is made possible by the sacrifice of Christ who takes away the sins of the world. When we say “receive our prayer,” the central request, we look back to the truth that Christ takes away our sins, and forward to the truth that he is seated at the Father’s right hand, to intercede for us.  All these things are intimately related; they are linked as in a golden chain.

It’s bad enough to have the dreary wherever we turn in this modern world. Why should we have it within our churches?  Even if a parish has no money for stained glass windows, everybody can afford stained glass prayers. 

No one is too poor for poetry. The Son of Man Himself, who had nowhere to lay his head, was abundantly rich in that.  Let translators take heed.


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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Comments (12)Add Comment
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written by Ars Artium, December 22, 2011
Like the former translations, this piece is not at all dreary. It brightened a decidedly dark and wintery morning. Merry Christmas.
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written by Dave, December 22, 2011
Thank you, Dr. Esolen, for another tour de force. I recalled at the outset of my reading the roughness of St. Mark's Greek and the Aramaic form of St. Matthew's Gospel and wondered how the article would work out. And you are right: the depths of Holy Scripture's languages, images, metaphors, and turns of phrase, and the architectonic wonder of the Roman Rite, were obliterated in the modern translations, almost as if the the operating principle behind them were "flat, ugly, and prosaic is better, because it is more authentic."

That principle emptied the churches, in a way parallel to the emptying of the mainline Protestant churches during the same period: once religion turns away from calling us to greater depths and higher levels of living, what is the point of it? Religion that ceases to transform is false religion. Protestantism ran out of gas as it turned away from the truths of Sacred Scripture accessible to its exegetes, pastors, and faithful laity, and what's left of it is little more than the leftist political activism which promises transformation without personal conversion: a real dead-end, and a nightmare for those whom that activism attempts to force to change. The Church's faithful find that her liturgy still does transform, because it is animated by the Spirit of Christ, however muffled that Spirit may be in forms that obscure His presence, and because, ex opero operante, the sacraments have their own efficacy, on the promise of Christ himself, quite apart from the worthiness, or, in this case, the tastelessness of this or that priest or this or that translations committee.

During the nineteenth century the Anglo-Catholic parishes of the Church of England were packed: the beauty and the pageantry with which the service of Holy Communion was celebrated, and the glory of the language, told working-class people who packed the churches that there was more to life, more to which to aspire, more for which to hope, than the banal, intramundane promises of glory that the gods of this world promise or can ever hope to deliver. And until the Council, the pages of the conversion stories are replete with accounts of awe and wonder at the august majesty with which the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was offered, even - especially? -in the humblest of parishes.

My own conversion occurred in the early 90s, and it was not because of the Church's liturgy but rather because of the unity of truth in the Church's teachings and because of some rather extraordinary graces by means of which I was given to see past the banality of those earlier translations of the Novus Ordo to the realities toward which the liturgy points. I was blessed to have benefited from a rather rigorous education and an innate passion and drive to know the Truth that sets one free. But it was also a case of echoing the words of St. Peter: after having traversed the right wing of Protestantism through the wastelands of mainline Protestantism, there was one place, and only one, left for me to go in my search for truth: the Church that always proclaims the fullness of the Truth that she alone possesses, however clear or obscure in her liturgy and teaching documents her presentation of that Truth may be.

It is my hope that the new -- correct -- translation of the Novus Ordo will bring many to the Church: many Catholics back, and many outside the fold in. For while the changes appear to be small and few in number, the entire tone of the Mass has been changed from a celebration of "the community" to the worship of Almighty God, and the quieting down of the congregations during Mass is truly a wonder to behold. We would have gotten much farther down the road had the American bishops used the RSV-CE, which does retain much of the strangeness of language that causes wonder and reflection upon the contemplation of Sacred Scripture; but alas, whilst the USCCB owns the copyright to the NAB, those days are far off.

Still, we are in much better shape than we have been in for a long time.

Thank you again for a beautiful reflection.
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written by Manfred, December 22, 2011
While your essay, Dr. Esolen, is well thought out and very well written, it concerns a liturgy which 50-80 brilliant Italian scholars, both religious and lay, have just described in their joint letter TO THE POPE as a Protestant liturgy. In fact, they are challenging the entire Council and it's aftermath and they are requesting (politely demanding?) that the Pope set up a Magisterial Commission to study and to determine, with the full authoriy of the Magisterium, what "teachings", if any, the Council imposed. Two notable signatories of this letter are Msgr. Gherardini and Roberto de Mattei. The SSPX just handed back the Preamble the CDF handed them on 9/14, unsigned. Bright Catholics are voting with their feet. I have been in a FSSP parish (yes, we are no longer just a chapel) for years as have my grown children, as we no longer had the patience to deal with liturgical fraud. While I pray that B XVI lives for many years, I also pray that he is succeeded by Pius XIII, as all the Popes (beginning with Pius IX who took the name Pius were known for their orthodoxy in the face of Modernism.
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written by Other Joe, December 22, 2011
Poetry points to the ineffable. Prose is a painted surface. Street jargon is - as noted - the worn out poetry of everyday use from which the sheen of strangeness has been abraded. We live in a time of surfaces, in which we like to pretend that the paint we apply is all there is and one color is as good as any other. We trivialize the transcendental with a thin coat of prose lite and then, when the trivial fails to hold our attention, we turn sullenly to our worldly pursuits. In a man-centered world, there is no place for strangeness and it is often observed that familiarity breeds contempt.
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written by P.D., December 22, 2011
Great article!

One thing, though, stands out to me after several years of Latin class: Should not "qui tolis peccata mundi" be translated as "who take away the sins of the world," rather than "you take away the sins of the world"? As far as I understand, this should be an appositive for the purpose of addressing the Lamb of God, rather than telling the Lamb what He does (which He already knows!), such that the whole phrase should be, "Lamb of God, Who take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us..."
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written by MikeS., December 22, 2011
May I, with due respect, disagree?

The "translation" of God's actions in the world, as a Burning Bush or as a Child in a Manger or anything else, into words, is infinitely more "flattening" and removed from direct experience than any of the subsequent translations of scripture into any vernacular could possibly be, yet somehow we soldier on.

The ongoing crisis of the Church owes far more to the improper actions of the Church in the world, (especially an apparently vast multi generational descent into secret sexual deviance) than it does to any infelicity of language or ceremony.

Our problems are not primarily linguistic; the solutions to our problems are not primarily linguistic either. We need God's grace in order to mend our actions far more than we need to mend our words.

Our problem is not faulty ritual; it is our hearts that are most flawed.
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written by Scaevola, December 22, 2011
@MikeS.
I don't think that the point of the article was to state that linguistic, translational problems are the core cause of All That's Wrong With The Church (which is really to say All That's Wrong With Humanity). It was just to point out that our new translation of the Mass is a more accurate and thus more poetic and better translation than the old. And I think Dr Esolen did that quite well.

@Manfred
oh, never mind. Obedience to the Church is paramount. This includes what may seem to our eyes a stupid and poorly-written liturgy, for like so many other apparent stupid decisions of God in our salvation history "it seemed good to the Holy Spirit" and to the hierarchy under His guidance and inspiration. Let's not forget that Christ Himself lost many followers by telling them to eat His flesh. Count your blessings instead, and thank God for a translation of His liturgy that better fits His liturgy--that shows the underlying glory of the Latin text.

By the way, when was the last time you heard of Protestants using a Latin liturgy?
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written by Manfred, December 22, 2011
@Scaevola: Before you respond to other bloggers, you may wish to secure an education. The new translation? You may want to locate a 1962 Missal and read the English text which accompanies the Latin. The 2011 translation almost COPIES THE 1962 MISSAL WORD FOR WORD. My point: the Church has known for CENTURIES what the correct translation has been. The obvious question: WHY WAS IT EVER CHANGED? Now I know you are much more informed of the facts than Brunero Gherardini and Roberto de Mattei, but why don't you Google their letter and read it before you challenge anyone?
Thank you.
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written by Achilles, December 22, 2011
Manfred, you must be unable to hear but for the din of self-congratulation. Your comment about "voting with their feet" you would encourage disobedience while claiming to be obedient, you speak with phrases of power, not Truth.

Fr. Schall in his new book talks about the future and history and this might be helpful to you: “If what we think is “past” did not actually happen or was different from what took place, we are dealing with ideology not reality.”

You, Manfred speak in the phrases of an ideologue-
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written by Tony Esolen, December 22, 2011
PD,

You are quite correct. What little inside information I have suggests that the committee members believed that the locution "you who" was to be avoided. I actually made the suggestion that an old-fashioned personal use of the relative pronoun "that" would solve both problems at once: "You that take away the sins of the world."

Actually, "who take away the sins of the world" would be perfectly fine, without the "you" to precede it, but people are so grammatically ignorant these days, they might think we were asking a question....
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written by Patrick, December 22, 2011
In order to make a plant grow more vigorously, one prunes the branches.
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written by Manfred, December 23, 2011
@Achilles: As part of turning the other cheek, it is a distinct pleasure to hear from you!

Merry Christmas!

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