The Search for Catholicity in English

By Harbert, Bruce | National Catholic Reporter, May 26, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Search for Catholicity in English


Harbert, Bruce, National Catholic Reporter


The International Commission on English in the Liturgy--ICEL--seeks to develop a liturgical language that will address God with no less courtesy than we use toward one another in our everyday conversation.

When my friend lost her mother recently and I called to say, "I am sorry to hear your mother has died," I was telling her both that I had heard the news (so that she need not inform me) and that I was saddened by it. It would have been brutish to say simply, "I hear your mother has died."

Expressions like be sorry to are common in English: we have deserve to, need to, have to, be glad to and many others. Sometimes they are called catenative after the Latin word for chain, because they need to link with another verb to make sense. They are common in liturgical Latin too, and are the bane of the liturgical translator.

The Draft Translation of the Order of Mass that ICEL proposed in 2004 contained a prayer to God the Father "deign to make this offering in every way blessed." Many respondents objected that we no longer use deign except ironically, as in "Would you deign to close that door?" addressed to a careless teen. So the commission began searching for another translation of Latin dignor. Condescend and stoop would have been accurate, but vulnerable to the same objection as deign. "Please bless this offering" was tried, but that was found too informal.

The translators were faced with the issue of register. A register is a subset of a language appropriate to a particular context. Deign had been found too formal, please too informal. One solution that has been widely used in the past is to omit the catenative altogether and pray simply, "Bless this offering." The proponents of dynamic equivalence favor such a translation because they hold that fidelity to the original refers to the content or meaning of the text, not to its form. They forget that the form we choose to convey a message often expresses our feelings about its content.

Consider the following polite ways of making a request: "Please close the door," "Kindly close the door," "Will you close the door?" "Would you close the door?" "Would you mind closing the door?" and so on. All convey the same message, but with different nuances. If you read the list again, substituting "bless this offering' for close the door, you will readily appreciate a difficulty liturgical translators face: They tread a tightrope between formality and informality. Few, if any, of our ways of making polite requests belong to a register appropriate for the liturgy. Hence the use of expressions like "be pleased to" instead of deign or please in an attempt to translate dignor adequately.

Two similar words deserve mention. Firstly, mereor, which has given us the English word merit, means to receive something in exchange or payment for something else. In prayers, it is important to avoid the obvious translation deserve, because we deserve nothing from God. American English offers a perfect translation, get to, as in "I got to meet the President." But again, the register seems wrong, Do we want to ask God "that we may get to enter eternal life"?

Thirdly, valeo, which means be able to. The proponents of dynamic equivalence cannot distinguish between "I closed the door" and "I was able to close the door. …

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