Lost in Translation

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. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.