Friday, October 28, 2011

Why change the translation of the Mass? part 2

(Letter to Verne A. Kiular, continued)

Back in the glorious sixties, those heady days after the Second Vatican Council when, at last everything was going to be just wonderful now that the Catholic Church had come to its senses and shaken off the torpor of almost 2,000 years of unbroken tradition, translators of the liturgical and Biblical texts were, in general, students of the Dynamic Equivalence School of language translation. I spent many years at Bathsheba Bible College teaching dead languages to comatose seminarians, and my students were all followers of the Dynamic Equivalence School of language translation because most of them were incapable of translating their way out of a paper bag.

Dynamic equivalence tries to translate the thought of a text, not necessarily its literal meaning. After all, we want to bring the thoughts of the ancients to life, and since they were just folks like us, we should translate their words into modern words and phrases that express their true meaning. Thus, a Latin phrase like “bene optime” (literally, well best) should be translated as “groovy.” Oh wait, no one says groovy anymore. The dynamically equivalent translation of “bene optime” as groovy would have been dynamic and equivalent for about three hours sometime in the autumn of 1967. Now it just sounds ridiculous.

My favorite translation silliness involves the use of the word “to” instead of “at” as in the phrase “to hand” instead of “at hand.” “To hand” was all the rage for a while because it sounded vaguely British and thus sophisticated. The problem is that “to” transforms the noun “hand,” something with fingers, into a verb, having to do with useful things like duct tape, “Have you any duct tape at hand? Is quite different from “Do you have any duct tape to hand?” The second example leads you to stand there waiting for the person in need of duct tape to finish the sentence. You may well ask. “To hand to whom?” as in “Hand duh’ @#$#!@ duct tape to me, you jetrool, so’s I can shut up ‘dis stool pigeon poimenantly!” as one might say in Chicago. (“Jetrool” is a colorful local dialect word implying that someone has the brains of a cucumber.)

Herein lies the first problem with dynamic equivalence. Language changes, and American language changes faster than Liz Taylor changed husbands. (Seven husbands, eight marriages. Richard Burton, ever the optimist, married her twice.) What was “groovy” then is totally lame now. And I have the feeling that “totally lame” is soon to be totally lame. Another fine example of the tendency of American English to change faster than a two-year-old’s britches is found in that beloved old Christmas carol that bids us. “don we now our (festive) apparel... Fa-la-la-la-lah, and mind your own business.” You see, words change meaning. Dynamic equivalence is a useful translation method for about two weeks.

When you are trying to translate a document that is universal and meant to be read for more than two weeks (like the Bible or the Mass), it is necessary to translate what the words actually mean. It may take people a little work to find out what words actually mean, words like “forbear” and “deign.” Scholars thinks that the unwashed multitude has the brains of a cucumber (c.f. above “jetrool”) and cannot look anything up.

So herein lies the second and greater problem with dynamic equivalence. Because they think you are as stupid as a vegetable, scholars will tell you what the text means. And surprise, it means what they want it to mean! That’s why dynamic equivalence was so popular with my students. When one of them would present me a translation of Cicero’s oration against Cataline that involved three clowns and a mule, they would say that it was a “loose” translation and that they were going for what Cicero actually meant. I am sure that some of my students ended up as liturgical translators.

A whole lot of theological revisionism went on under the guise of dynamic equivalence. A glaring example is found in the Gloria: “You take away the SIN of the world: have mercy on us.” The text should read “You take away the SINS of the world, have mercy on us.” You will notice, not being cucumbers, that the correct translation is SINS (plural) not SIN (singular). Plural, shmural? What’s the difference? Oh, the difference is huge.

I can remember some theologians waxing eloquent in the glorious sixties about the Cosmic Christ as elucidated (look it up, jetrool) by Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). Chardin held that humanity is converging toward an Omega point, a “Christ-consciousness" which will result in the Cosmic Christ.” Allow me to quote Fr. Chardin, “The world (its value, its infallibility and its goodness) - that, when all is said and done, is the first, the last, and the only thing in which I believe.” He believed in that and apparently believed in the Piltdown Man an anthropological hoax that tried to prove the bones of the missing link had been found in England. Fr. Chardin was rather heavily involved in that particular hoax. I hope things worked out for him.

Combine the Cosmic Christ with Karl Rahner’s Anonymous Christian and you stop believing in the reality of sins. (Rahner’s concept of the Anonymous Christian hinted that everybody is a Christian, at least all the nice people. They just don’t know it. I suspect that a few Jews Muslims and Buddhists might take issue with that)

Thus we were led to believe that there is clearly sin, but there are no sins. That was the spin put on things by some of my educators. We are all saved because “In Adam all die, and in Christ all are made alive”(1 Corinthians 15:22 ) There is no personal sin or personal responsibility. (Well, maybe Hitler and Stalin and all bank vice presidents.)

Quite a few theological axes were ground under the banner of dynamic equivalence and what we are doing now is making sure that the text is genuinely universal and says what the writers said, not what they supposedly “intended” to say. How do I know what they intended to say? Have I a crystal ball? When someone declares, “ that’s what the author meant to say.” I want to ask said translator, “Oh, did you know him?”

Politically correct language finds a happy home among the followers of the dynamic equivalence school of translation. The assumption is that no good person in the past was a racist or a sexist or any other kind of -ist and definitely not any kind of -phobe. It is always fun to watch people try to explain away the fact that St. George Washington owned 316 persons of African descent at the time of his death and that St. Abraham Lincoln actually said “I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races - that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.”( Fourth Debate with Stephen A. Douglas)

A more modern, and to my lights, humorous, example of the idiocy of political correctness is to be found in a very beautiful church in the better part of the Diocese of Frostbite Falls. It was built just when ecumenism was in its first flower and it was important to make our Separated Brethren feel comfortable in a Catholic “worship space.”

To make things easier for Protestants to swallow and to make Catholicism more “biblical” the role of Our Blessed Mother had to be de-emphasized. She needed to discreetly disappear, like some member of the Russian politburo who was suddenly absent among the dignitaries atop Lenin’s tomb, waving at the Mayday parade. In the sanctuary of the Church there is Christ crucified, Christ, the Sacred Heart, and St. Joseph the Carpenter. Our Blessed Mother was relegated to a hidden side altar, and the rather discouraged looking, small beige image, was hung to one side of the altar, to emphasize the unimportance of Catholic devotion to Mary, the Mother of God. She was demoted from Mother of Church to crazy old aunt who lives in the attic.

That was the political correctness of the times. Thank god, that Marian devotion has come roaring back in the 21st century. Now I look at the sanctuary and, guess what? No women in the sanctuary. This is, of course, a horrendous violation of the political correctitude of our the present era. Who knows what the next course correction the church will have to take in the never ending quest of theologians to prove that we really are nice people? We are a universal church in both time and space. A universal language, whether it be Latin or Greek or Standard English is important symbolically, though it may sound a bit quaint in its vocabulary and phrasing. The liturgy is more than who we are. It is also who we were and who we will become, because “He is the same yesterday today and tomorrow.” (Hebrews 3:18)

Next week: More fun with specific phrases in the “new” text.

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