Wednesday, June 18, 2008

On Language

After the decade-long project to rework the translation of the Roman Missal deigned to hit something of a speed-bump at last week's USCCB meeting near DisneyWorld, the chair of the conference's recently-renamed Committee for Divine Worship, Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Paterson, took to the pages of his diocesan Beacon in support of the new texts:
Words, like people’s dress, change from one generation to the next and from one group to another in the same society. What one individual calls a “swamp,” another more ecologically conscious individual calls “wetlands.” A politician waxes eloquently about “public participation.” His audience understands him to say “self-denial.” The corporate world routinely uses the noun impact as a transitive verb. People follow happily along.

Today, politically correct as well as linguistically conscious individuals carefully circumvent the word “man” not to offend women. Past generations pronounced the word with never the slightest intention of excluding women. But times have changed. We speak now about humankind. Certainly, we have gained inclusivity. Yet, we have sacrificed language that is not so abstract.

English always has been an open language, ready to welcome neologisms. The Internet has enriched our speech with new phrases and words. Text messaging is altering our spelling and our syntax. Language is a human expression. As people change, so does the way they speak.

In his popular rhetorical guide, De duplici copia verborum ac rerum, Erasmus, the 16th century Dutch humanist and theologian, showed students 150 different styles they could use when phrasing the Latin sentence, Tuae literae me magnopere delectarunt (Your letter has delighted me very much). Clearly, no single translation of any sentence or work will ever completely satisfy everyone. Even the best of all possible translations of the new Missal will have its critics.

But there is something more at stake than pleasing individual tastes and preferences in the new liturgical translations. The new translations aim at a “language which is easily understandable, yet which at the same time preserves … dignity, beauty, and doctrinal precision” (Liturgiam Authenticam, 25). The new translations now being prepared are a marked improvement over the translations with which we have become familiar. They are densely theological. They respect the rich vocabulary of the Roman Rite. They carefully avoid the overuse of certain phrases and words.

The new translations also have a great respect for the style of the Roman Rite. Certainly, some sentences could be more easily translated to mimic our common speech. But they are not. And with reason. Latin orations, especially Post-Communions, tend to conclude strongly with a teleological or eschatological point. The new translations in English follow the sequence of these Latin prayers in order to end on a strong note. Many of our current translations of these prayers end weakly. Why should we strip the English translation of the distinctive theological emphases of the Latin text? A slightly non-colloquial word order can lead the listener to a greater attention to the point of the prayer.

Our present liturgical texts are framed in simple syntax. The new translations use more subordinate clauses. This, in and of itself, does not render them unproclaimable. By the very fact that, in some instances, the new translations require thoughtful and careful attention to pauses when speaking helps to foster and create a less rushed and more reverent way of praying. Not a small gain for a proper ars celebrandi.

The new translation at times may use uncommon words like “ineffable.” The word is not unspeakable! For sure, this word does not come from the street language of the contemporary individual. But, then, why cannot the liturgy use words that elevate the language from the street to the altar? People may not use certain words in their active vocabulary. This does not mean they will be baffled by their use in the liturgy. “If indeed, in the liturgical texts, words or expressions are sometimes employed which differ somewhat from usual and everyday speech, it is often enough by virtue of this very fact that the texts become truly memorable and capable of expressing heavenly realities” (Liturgiam Authenticam, 27).

Liturgical language should border on the poetic. Prose bumps along the ground. Poetry soars to the heavens. And our Liturgy is already a sharing of the Liturgy in heaven.

The liturgical texts that we are now using are not perfect, but they are familiar. This familiarity makes celebrants at ease with the present texts. The new texts are better. When the new texts are implemented, they will require more attention on the part of the celebrant. But any initial uneasiness will yield to familiarity and to a language that is well suited to the Liturgy.
According to the current timetable eyed by BCDW, the US bishops would reach the final of 12 "grey book" votes on the various sections of the new English Missale Romanum at their November Meeting in 2010.

To date, the first part of the package -- the bulk of the Order of Mass -- was long ago approved (with amendments) by all of the English-speaking episcopal conferences, but still awaits the recognitio (confirmation) of the Holy See. With the Proper of Seasons already passed by four of the conferences (pending the result of the Stateside body's mail vote), the USCCB will debate and vote on the second section of the standard Mass prayers at this fall's plenary.