I have translated, into English, three books and several essays from various languages. I mention this because, if you haven’t done such work, you probably won’t fully appreciate how even simple phrases can be difficult to render from one language to another.
Prayers can be especially tricky. Like the Bible itself, religious language is charged with multiple meanings often transcending our ability to parse out. Which is exactly what you would expect, given the Christian God – who both speaks to the simplest souls (i.e., all of us, to a degree) and also reveals things about Himself (primarily the Trinity) that have tantalized great philosophers and mystics for millennia.
That’s one source of the power of religious language. Like poetry, religious language never ceases to speak to us precisely because it can bear such varied significance. Once you start to look at it carefully, it’s inexhaustible.
Which brings us to the recent controversies over changes in the translation of the Lord’s Prayer . For various reasons, having to do with my partly misspent youth, I say parts of the Rosary daily in Greek, Latin, Italian, French, German, and Spanish – sometimes even a little Portuguese. (I don’t recommend this, unless you have some special reason.)
Most languages rightly construe the disputed passage as saying “lead us not into temptation” – Spanish and Portuguese being outliers: “Don’t let us fall into temptation” (no nos dejes caer en tentación). The French used to ask God not to “submit” us to temptation (basically the same as the original Greek) – now changed to “Do not let us enter into temptation.”
I don’t believe it’s a good idea to alter the now-familiar words of the most important Christian prayer. But Pope Francis was right to point to the phrase – and that it needs serious thought to try grasping those mysterious words of Jesus Himself. In fact, the very oddity may be an invitation for us to look further than we might otherwise.
My far greater concern these days, however, is how much the English translations of prayers are sliding into what might be called a kind of emotional blur. It happens at Mass. But I see it especially in Morning and Evening Prayer. You might not notice if you recite the Liturgy of the Hours in English. (I may be wrong about this, but I’m told there’s still no definitive translation.)
Most days, I read those two Hours in Latin (again, just for personal reasons). But I’ll use the English when I’m pressed for time. The Universalis app  is a convenient way to consult them both.
Going back and forth often brings you up short, because the Latin tends to speak concretely about sin, redemption, and mercy in a strikingly vertical way, much needed, in my view, at a time when much of our lives – even our religious worship – is markedly horizontal.
That’s very evident, especially in Advent. If any time of year reminds us that God “comes down,” metaphorically speaking, to become one of us while remaining the eternal second person of the Trinity, it’s now.
Here are some examples, not exactly taken at random, but they almost could be, because the different emphases in the two languages are quite stark:
If you read Morning Prayer today, the first Prayer/Intercession is this:
Christ is coming, the day is near:
In our Eucharist today let us look forward with hope and joy.
– Father of light, we praise you!
Now, there’s nothing wrong with this prayer. It emphasizes positive feelings, a contemporary approach to the Faith – joy, hope, light, etc.
But if you read the Latin, there’s quite a different emphasis:
Christ Lord, who came to save sinners,
Defend us from every opposition of temptation.
– Come, Lord Jesus.
[Christe Domine, qui peccatores salvare venisti,/ nos ab omni tentationum adversitate defende.]
I give a painfully literal translation, which you wouldn’t use for daily prayer. But it’s not difficult to see the main difference; this version reminds us why Christ came into the world: not to cheer us up (so to speak), but to rescue sinners (all of us) and to help us avoid sinful enticements.
The next prayer in English, is this:
As today we hear the scriptures heralding the coming of the Son,
May our minds and hearts be touched by your Word.
– Father of light. . .
Again, taken in isolation, nothing wrong and much that’s right, because it’s not enough – as intellectuals are sometimes tempted to believe – to study the scriptures abstractly; they must become part of our thought and feeling. But note: there’s nothing specific mentioned that’s supposed to touch us, besides the general Word.
The Latin (which I’ll spare you going forward) has both objective and subjective dimensions:
You who are believed will come manifestly to judge,
Show in us the power of your salvation.
– Come. . .
Just one more English passage:
As we receive the Body and Blood of your Son,
May we be healed and refreshed by your love.
– Father of Light. . .
Healing, refreshing, love – all good things. But the Latin is more substantial:
Give to us by the power of the Spirit to keep the precepts of your law,
That we can stand ready for your coming in charity.
– Come. . .
As I say, there seems to be no official translation – or there are two, some of my sources tell me. You can find a rather literal version in English if you look. But it’s reasonable to worry that people exposed solely to the vaguer English version are being encouraged to think and act mostly in the terms of our affluent, comfortable world.
Meanwhile, Christians and other believers are being martyred and persecuted around the globe; there are wars and rumors of wars; poverty, loneliness, neglect, violence, hardness of heart, narcissism. It’s all woven into the fabric of the fallen human condition. We still need a strong God to set us free.
All of which – in addition to the joy over God’s mercy and the Redemption – is reality, and therefore should be very much before our eyes, when we pray.
** Image: The Lord’s Prayer by James J. Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]