Not Every Word Translates into Liturgy

By Farrell, Michael J. | National Catholic Reporter, January 14, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Not Every Word Translates into Liturgy

Farrell, Michael J., National Catholic Reporter

This week Opinion Editor John Allen continues his revealing coverage of the tension within the Catholic church over the seemingly innocuous matter of translations (story, page 6). There's more to translations, though, than meets the eye.

The context, for starters, is liturgy. While people join -- or stay with -- churches for various reasons, the liturgy gets vet close to why there is a church in the first place. It's all about the most intimate aspects of humans' relations with their supreme being. Not by accident was it the first major area of reform at Vatican II. Not for nothing have progressive Catholic theorists labored to build on those reforms, just as conservatives strove to bring them to naught. Everyone knows there's a lot at stake, the most basic act of religion: how we worship.

It's an old truism that control of the language is a big step toward control of reality. Whoever can name things can bring the rest into line. Whoever can decide what sin is, for example, can bring the rest to heel.

Old as the church is, it is rather new in the translation business. Until recently the institution said what it had to say in Latin, and that was that, Roma locuta est, authority had spoken. Now that the church is practically universal and willing to speak to its people in their own languages, and now that the people are able and willing to speak back to the church, there is obvious concern over who has the last word.

There might be something we could learn from the wider world of letters. People are so busy gaining access to other desirables that they have no time to learn the languages that give access to literature. So translations flourish.

(Simultaneously, it seems, there is a greater urge than ever before by literary figures to translate the masterworks of yesteryear -- I hope it's not unkind to suggest that when inspiration begins to sag, yet another poetic rendering of an ancient Greek or medieval classic helps keep the wolf from many a poet's door. Never mind that the poet doesn't always know the original language. There are famous cases, such as Ezra Pound translating from the Chinese.)

So there have been debates and skirmishes about translations. Milan Kundera, a Czech perhaps most famous for being a writers' writer, left a publisher who changed his semicolons into periods (yes, sometimes translations come down to that). In an article in The New York Review of Books, South African novelist J.M. Coetzee points out that "a human language is not a neutral code like a computer language." To be English, he goes on, is "to be embedded in the English language and the English language's way of seeing the world." Although this is dragged out of context, it gets to the nub of the church's translation problem, and perhaps wider church problems as well. If the Vatican wants to lose its far-flung membership in a hurry, one quick way to do so is to impose the same clunky, wooden words on all languages, cultures and sensibilities.

A good translation lets a little extra light in between the words. So, of course, does a good theology.

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