AN OPEN LETTER TO BISHOP ROCHE, CHAIRMAN OF ICEL
Dear Bishop Arthur Roche,
I should like to comment on your address of June 15, 2006, to the American Bishops.
THE GRAVITY OF THE PROBLEM
I have spoken to countless Irish Catholics who have given up on the liturgy because of its flatness and dullness and its lack of theological perspicuity. Some have found spiritual refreshment in the Anglican Church. Others send their kids to church, knowing the kids will get ‘zilch’ there, but hoping it will be good discipline.
Soulless and sloppy liturgy has done more to undermine faith in recent decades than the combined labors of Voltaire, Nietzsche and all their cohorts.
Bad preaching, lack of scriptural culture, failure to encourage lay participation, including in the realm of music and art, routinization, and above all soulless language are undermining the vitality of Christian communities, especially in the Roman Catholic world.
You say you thought that translating the liturgy would be ‘a reasonably straight-forward task.’ This suggests that you are not fully aware of the grievous damage done to the church by the flat, sloppy liturgical translations of the last 35 years.
It suggests that you do not understand the effort and inspiration needed to compose beautiful prose, prose that will endure the wear and tear of decades of daily use, prose that will serve as a vehicle for contemplation. ‘We must labour to be beautiful,’ said Yeats. Have any of the authors of the new ICEL translation gazed in admiration and envy at a page of perfect prose?
You may say that this is an esoteric concern and that the faithful are contented with functional prose as they are happy with mediocre music. The result of such an attitude is the sapping of the faith itself.
I suspect that a lot of magical thinking is going on in Vatican circles. They thought that hurtling pellets of Scripture at the faithful would create a scriptural culture in Catholicism, and must be good for the faithful in any case. Now they think that literal translation from the Latin will magically render the English liturgy dignified and beautiful.
This magical thinking is shown in the idea that the authorship of liturgical texts is best accomplished by Bishops, acting in a spirit of prayer and trust (in the words of Liturgiam Authenticam). Bishops are not necessarily skilled writers, nor are they often scholars. Can you tell us who actually composed the new translations? Did they read them aloud before a discerning audience so that any awkward, false or hollow part could be detected? Did the Bishops involved think of drawing on the work of qualified poets and writers, in accord with Vatican II's teaching that ‘the art of our times must be given free scope in the Church.’
‘In using a translation that is more faithful to Sacred Scripture we are teaching ourselves and our people to speak bible! Lex orandi, lex credendi.’ You cannot speak bible without years of practice. This is like someone strewing their speech with mispronounced and out-of-context French phrases, a la George Bush, and then having the illusion that he is speaking French and helping others to do so.
I suggest that we need the humility to consult the Anglican and Protestant churches whose biblical culture and sensitivity infinitely outstrips our own, as to how to use Scripture in such manner as to enrich, deepen and clarify the liturgical action.
AN UNTRIED THEORY OF TRANSLATION
You say that the English translation must have literal accuracy because it is to be used by many translators who do not know Latin well enough to translate directly from the Latin. Now, what is so important about translating Latin texts, many of them of recent vintage in any case? If someone needs an English crib to translate a Latin text he or she should not be translating it at all. If knowledge of Latin is as scanty as your anecdotes suggest then the retention of the Latin as the Ur-text of the liturgy becomes problematic.
‘Faithfulness in translation’ is a difficult idea. The Italian adage, traduttore traditore, works both ways. An excessively literal translation can be unfaithful as much as a loose one. That is why someone who does not know Latin well cannot translate faithfully from the Latin, even if he has an English crib.
‘Its stipulations differ markedly from those of the earlier document known as Comme le prévoit. That was issued in 1969 by the Consilium with the responsibility for putting into effect the Council’s Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium.’ The basic norms of translation have been altered, leading to resignation of the old ICEL in 2002. Frankly, many things differ markedly between what the Vatican today does and says and what the Vatican of the 1960s did and said. Some leading church historians have claimed that this is because a spirit of Vaticanism has replaced, or betrayed, Vatican II.
Liturgiam Authenticam was a quite controverted document. Is it wise to give it such overriding authority in taking a step whose consequences will last for decades? There is even a disturbing of strong-arm tactics in the way the new translations have been imposed on the US Bishops.
You point to the phrase ‘from the rising to the setting of the sun’ and say ‘we have produced a richer and more evocative version, bringing to the mind of the worshipper the beauties of the sunrise and sunset and the closeness of these texts to Sacred Scripture.’ But a poetic prophetical text is not necessarily what one needs for everyday recitation. I find ‘from the rising to the setting of the sun’ an over-heavy adornment of the mass-text for daily use.
Merely to repeat in 2006 a semitism such as ‘fruit of the vine,’ already used in the Offertory in any case, is not to convey the deliciousness of wine, as you claim. In any case the deliciousness of wine has no bearing on the function of the words in the context of the consecration. To speak of ‘powerful salvific resonance because of the symbolic value accorded to the vine plant and the vineyard in scripture, as recalled by Jesus’ elaboration in John 15 of the image of Himself as the true vine’ is a red-herring. And if one wishes to remind the faithful of John 15 (which is distracting in any case in the context of the words of consecration), this is not the way to do it. Such vague, sloppy and promiscuous allusion cheapens the biblical text.
An amazing rigmarole about biblical references to dew cannot justify the contested phrase ‘make holy these gifts, we pray, by the dew of your Spirit,’ which introduces distracting associations at one of the most solemn moments in the Church’s worship. (The US Bishops have wisely asked for ‘dew’ to be replaced with ‘outpouring’ as in the Italian ‘effusione’; but will Rome accept this commonsense proposal?)
‘But surely, dew still exists. I noticed an advert on the street yesterday for a drink called Mountain Dew!’ This kind of fatuous remark could sound as if you were mocking the people of God.
‘If we are not to be scorched and made unfruitful, we need the dew of God. Since we have our accuser, we need an Advocate as well.’ But no one is objecting to dew. The objection is to speaking of the epiclesis in terms of dew. If one speaks of the dew of the Spirit one speaks of it as refreshing the heart, a quite different context. You might say, to be obtuse, that ‘in the beginning, the dew of the Spirit was upon the waters’ would be an acceptable paraphrase of Gen 1.1-2 by your reasoning.
One ICEL statement suggested that if people did not like ‘dew’ they could say ‘dewfall’ instead: ‘Conferences that do not wish to adopt “dew” may wish to consider “dewfall” as an alternative.’ Forgive me if I find this somewhat reminiscent of the famous statement attributed to Marie Antoinette: ‘Let them eat cake!’
This kind of pseudo-poetic reasoning is that of an amateur who has just signed on for Poetry 101.
The same remarks apply to the ungainly expression ‘serene and kindly gaze.’ ICEL noted of ‘gaze’ that ‘some have expressed doubts about the use of this word’ but that after its ‘frequent’ presence in the English translation of Pope Benedict XVI's Lenten message earlier this year, the word ‘seems... to have enhanced its status within Christian vocabulary.’ What kind of sycophantism is this? If a pope uses a word it then becomes desirable for liturgical use? And again I note the atomistic focus on single words rather than on context and overall intelligibility.
PLEONASM AND FLATNESS
Soulless flatness has been the hallmark of ICEL translations. I see signs that the new translations will have the same quality.
You find exemplary the prayer, ‘Stir up your power, O Lord, and come to our aid with mighty strength...’ But ‘mighty strength’ is a pleonasm, a stylistic fault. No poet would be found dead using it. Why not say ‘with mighty might’ or ‘with strongest strength’ while one is at it? The fact that ICEL presents this weak language as exemplary again undermines confidence in their qualifications for their task.
Another text you single out has the phrase ‘grant us the help of your compassion...’ Again this is pleonastic and odd. (‘Sir, could you kindly grant me the help of your compassion?’), as are ‘graciously grant’ and ‘sustained by the help of your mercy,’ etc.
What is needed is a real text, a text with unity, rhythm, persuasive impact, not a string of broken flat sentences such as the current Eucharistic Prayers offer. There is no sign that ICEL thinks in terms of such rich unified rhythmical eloquent texts (even the Roman Canon lost much of its luster in the dull translation). Rather we have a fuddy-duddy fussing about fetishized Latin phrases.
If what we have seen, or been allowed to see, of the Eucharistic Prayers is so full of dubious English, what must be the case with the Collects, Secrets, Prefaces and Post-Communions? Who ever looks at these pieces of linguistic and spiritual sawdust, so expensively printed in our Missals? Who ever asks for feedback about their value? Why not allow a period of testing, so that the people of God can give their response to these texts?
You will reply, perhaps, that such openness to correction would militate against the ideal of having the whole English-speaking world pray in one voice, following a Roman basis. This, you claim, will be a marvelous demonstration of Catholic unity. I see rather a display of uniformity without conviction, and I predict that it will cause nothing but further malaise and embarrassment throughout our paralyzed, silenced Church.
Yours, in sincere concern,
Joseph S. O'Leary