Friday, June 15, 2007

Mary Catholic Ponders New Translations, a Bishop's Tantrum, and Efficiency

Recently someone very kindly said that this was a nice place to relax in a Catholic atmosphere. Unfortunately, I'm now going to speak up about a controversial subject. You've been warned. So just move along if you don't want to get riled up ... or just plain don't care, which is fine too...

Translations are tricky things, aren't they?

It is no secret that I have been in favor of the new liturgical translations, purely from the standpoint that the post-Vatican II thinking probably did to the language the same thing that was done to the architecture. Which is to say, they were made so basic and "dumbed down" that we were left without beauty.

I freely admit that this is a large supposition. It was in part based on looking at my New American Bible's language versus some of the older translations. It also was "dumbed down" and left without beauty. Furthermore, as I have been going for over a year to weekly scripture study and the question of accurate translation has arisen, the New American Bible frequently "loses" when compared with other translations and the original text.

However, as I really have no say whatsoever in the matter, I cheered the bishops' approval of a new translation and then largely forgot it.

That is, I forgot until several items popped up recently which I will address in order of occurrence.

The Bishop
Bishop Donald Trautman had an article published in America magazine castigating the accessibility of the new Mass translations.

Please go read it yourself. I was stunned at the sheer lack of professionalism in what looked largely like a condescendingly and poorly written tantrum. I say this because:
  1. Firstly, he is worried about "John and Mary Catholic" and "American English." Isn't this English translation being used everywhere in the English speaking world? What about "Bruce and Sheila Catholic?" (G'day mate!) Or "Tyler and Brittney Catholic?" (See, some of those Catholics are pretty young ... they speak a different kind of English.) Or "Keesha and Darnell Catholic?" (Yep. There are African American Catholics also). Anyway, you see my point.

    How uncharitable of Bp. Trautman to assume that we are stupid, in other words, assume the worst of us, and then insult us by shouting it to the world.

  2. Ironically, the very person complaining about using words that no one understands phrases it in language like this:
    If the language of the liturgy is inaccessible, how can liturgy catechize and convey the reality of the living, risen Son of God in the Eucharist? If the language of the liturgy is a stumbling block to intelligibility and proclaimability, then the lex orandi, lex credendi is severely compromised. If the language of the liturgy does not communicate, how can people fall in love with the greatest gift of God, the Eucharist?
    Inaccessible? Catechize? Didn't he mean "hard" and "teach?" I'm not sure that "proclaimability" even is a word, but a suspicious number of those look mighty hard to understand. I mean to say, there's Latin in there! Could it be that the words he used actually communicated best what he wanted to say ... and that he didn't worry about making it simply understood by the meanest intelligence? That he trusted people to be able to comprehend the article properly? Hmmm ...

  3. Simultaneously, Bp. Trautman supports his statement thusly:
    ... and odd expressions like “What you have charged us to believe will taste sweet to the heart” (Collect for April 21). Does the heart “taste?”
    This makes me feel for the poor bishop who has never listened to modern poetry as it is most commonly contained ... in song lyrics.

    If he missed Rodgers and Hart's "... the conversation - with the flying plates ..." ("What?" I hear him saying, "Do plates fly or converse?"), then perhaps he is thinking of more modern songs.

    Nope. Because here's Kill Hannah's "I want a girl with lips like morphine, Knock me out every time they touch me." And yet, teenagers understand the real meaning. (No actual drug use is being endorsed here, Bishop. Just in case you were worried.)

  4. What annoyed me the most was his exhortation to go speak up. Now there's a fine example from a bishop. I wouldn't like that behavior from a CEO much less someone who is supposed to be able to work on a team and be obedient instead of throwing a tantrum for sympathy from the masses who can't change anything.

    I saw a post by a thoughtful blogger who I respect but who leans in a different direction than I do on many issues. Fair enough. We're together on the things that matter most. However, Bishop Trautman's aforementioned exhortation to "speak up" resulted in this attitude:
    Of all the issues facing the church today – and there are plenty of big, serious ones – why in the world is... who's in charge of this thing? - why are 'they' spending precious time and resources on such a project that will further alienate and distance people from the Mass? We don't need different translations, we need better homilies and more priests! I'm irritated enough to start writing my bishop about this, for all the good that will do. I get cynical and pessimistic as I get irritated.
    Considering how the article was couched, this is a response to be expected. The Bishop's rhetoric simultaneously riles up and depresses people over an issue that they have no control over. That is the way tantrums work. They draw attention and that is the ultimate goal of a tantrum ... to get attention and one's own way.

    However, I think that the above response is possibly forgetting that words and translations do matter. If they matter in everyday life as we all know, then surely they matter when lifting our hearts and souls to God. Surely this is worth hammering out until it is right, rather than convenient "as is."

    If the people and the mysterious "they" have had their hearts drawn closer to God, then the thinking would follow that they will go on to express that love in helping those around them. Indirectly, then, an improved liturgy would logically go on to aid in the "big, serious" things. (Though I am far from admitting that the liturgy is not a "big, serious" thing. Meeting God ... that's big and serious to me.)
To be fair, I do understand the bishop's overall concern. He's afraid that the translators are doing to the liturgy, what that translator did in the picture above.

However, what I am wondering is if the liturgy we have now is the result of that sort of translating.

The blogger trusted Bishop Trautman's word on this. I trust the the translating committee.

So we see the dilemma. Who is right?

That is far as my thinking on the subject went. Until this week.

Comparing Liturgies
The end of our scripture study was different than usual. Our priest had read Bp. Trautman's article. Without talking about the article very much, he wanted to see if the language was too difficult to understand. He then proposed a "liturgical experiment" and handed out sheets of paper. One side had Eucharistic Prayer 1 as we use it now. The other side had the proposed translation of Eucharistic Prayer 1.

Then he read the proposed translation aloud while we read the current side to see how they were different. Afterward, he solicited thoughts from us.

As simple as that.

Yet suddenly everything became unexpectedly clear for me.

This was quite different than having a few sentences compared to each other or phrases pulled out of context for scrutiny. The words rolled over us and I suddenly was awash in phrases that showed me God's majesty, Jesus' sacrifice, my place in it, God's unending love for me ... and I felt gratitude and love in response. This may sound as if I'm overstating it. I'm not. I practically was in tears. That language literally lifted me to God. Meanwhile, I was astounded at the sparseness of the current text that corresponded to what was being read.

Please keep in mind that I am not a fool. I do know that after several months of hearing the language "roll over me" it will become routine. However, the liturgy that we have now stands out for me during Mass in this place or that to call me to God. The proposed liturgy will do so even more if this is any indication.

Mind you, it didn't strike everyone this way. Of the 15-20 people there, three preferred the current version. However, they all used the qualifier, "I am a lawyer" and said that they preferred "efficient language."

Obviously these will be the two attitudes to the proposed change.

Interestingly, one fellow hesitantly said, "But if this new text is mysterious ... isn't that what God and the Mass are? Mysterious?"

Which would seem to be the point to me. That worshiping God and celebrating the Mass are not about efficiency. They are about bringing us to God, lifting our hearts that we might have that veil drawn back for a second or two so that we may truly have a glimpse of heaven.

Think of how many things in our life are not efficient. So many of them are the very things that we treasure most. Preparing a meal and eating it with our families instead of grabbing a sandwich and all going to our rooms. Living as families instead of in communes. The love of a man and woman for each other is obviously terribly inefficient as a way to choose a spouse. As for making love, that most mysterious of all acts which makes husband and wife one on so many levels as well as creating visible evidence of our love (about 9 months later) ... well, I believe science has proven that if all we want is efficiency a test tube or two will suffice.

Let's take it to a more religious level ... the Bible? That's such an inefficient way to communicate, despite all attempted "clear" translations, and difficult to understand on many levels. Jesus' Passion? Sheez, talk about a mystery. Clearly, God is not worried about efficiency. His ways are not ours.

The conversation about efficiency made me think of John 12:1-8. Judas thought very efficiently (for whatever reason).
Six days before Passover Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.

They gave a dinner for him there, and Martha served, while Lazarus was one of those reclining at table with him.

Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard and anointed the feet of Jesus 2 and dried them with her hair; the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.

Then Judas the Iscariot, one (of) his disciples, and the one who would betray him, said, "Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days' wages 3 and given to the poor?"

He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief and held the money bag and used to steal the contributions.

So Jesus said, "Leave her alone. Let her keep this for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."
I would propose that our priest's liturgical experiment is a good one. I have formatted the text so that you can download it as a pdf. Give it a try. Don't just read it to yourself. Have someone read it aloud while you read along. (If you would like to look beyond what our priest chose, go to Whispered in the Sacristy who is one of those who has been asked to be a “reader” of the new translation of the Mass for Bishop CVG. He has more translations available. We will be reading Eucharistic Prayer II next week after our scripture study.)

Will it convince you that a translation is needed? Not necessarily. But at least you will have your own honest reactions to judge from instead of taking someone else's word for it. That is the place for honest conversation to begin.

No matter what, in the end it really comes down to what wise 94-year-old Phyllis said:
No matter what translation they use, in six months we'll all have accepted it and be on to worrying about the next topic.
Remember the writing and ink spilled over The Da Vinci Code? Yet how often do we see people getting all worked up about it now? It too has passed.

Let's do the experiment, take a deep breath, and remember that this isn't up to us. It also would be a very good idea to say a few prayers for everyone working on this translation that God will guide them in how He wants to be worshiped. As I recall He had quite a lot to say about that in the Old Testament in the building of the arc and the temple. Doubtless He has some very definite opinions about this too. He knows what we need and what will work best in achieving it.

May God's will be done.

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