Translation is not a mechanical procedure, but an art. Take, for example, these verses from Psalm 148. Here’s how the King James translation of the Bible has it:
Praise ye the LORD. Praise ye the LORD from the heavens: praise him in the heights.
Praise ye him, all his angels: praise ye him, all his hosts.
Praise ye him, sun and moon: praise him, all ye stars of light.
Praise him, ye heavens of heavens, and ye waters that be above the heavens.
Let them praise the name of the LORD: for he commanded, and they were created.
He hath also stablished them for ever and ever: he hath made a decree which shall not pass.
Praise the LORD from the earth, ye dragons, and all deeps:
Fire, and hail; snow, and vapour; stormy wind fulfilling his word:
Here is the same passage, from the New International Version:
Praise the LORD.
Praise the LORD from the heavens,
praise him in the heights above.
Praise him, all his angels,
praise him, all his heavenly hosts.
Praise him, sun and moon,
praise him, all you shining stars.
Praise him, you highest heavens
and you waters above the skies.
Let them praise the name of the LORD,
for he commanded and they were created.
He set them in place for ever and ever;
he gave a decree that will never pass away.
Praise the LORD from the earth,
you great sea creatures and all ocean depths,
lightning and hail, snow and clouds,
stormy winds that do his bidding…
The glorious “… ye dragons and all deeps” versus the pedestrian “you great sea creatures and all ocean depths” — I mean, please. I don’t know Hebrew, so I can’t say which is more faithful to the original. But it’s no question which version better conveys the spirit and sense of wonder and praise inherent in the Psalm. Translation is not simply a matter of reproducing a one-on-one correspondence between words and grammar.
Anthony Esolen, who is himself a translator, has written a wonderful essay explaining why the old English-language translation of the Novus Ordo mass was so deficient, and why the new one that’s about to be introduced into Catholic worship is so much more artful, therefore faithful to the Latin original. What’s so interesting about Esolen’s essay is not that he complains about the tone-deaf, flattened English of the current translation — that is a familiar charge — but that he compares the Latin original to the two English versions (the current one, and the new one about to be instituted), and shows how language conveys, or fails to convey, depth of meaning. For example:
Let’s take the new translation (the one in English) first:
May these mysteries, O Lord,
in which we have participated,
profit us, we pray,
for even now, as we walk amid passing things,
you teach us by them to love the things of heaven
and hold fast to what endures.
It is a splendid work. The first element, mysteries, dominates the poem, binding the end to the beginning, and earth with heaven. The alliterating hinge, profit us, we pray, is both accurate and profoundly scriptural. For the word of God advises us again and again about things that do not profit: “What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?” (Eccle. 1:3, KJV). The generations come and go, those passing things, the second element in the poem, and therefore God teaches us, even now, even in our earthly walk. Through the Eucharist he instructs us to love the things of heaven, the third element, with its verbal echo of the second, and not only to love them but to hold fast to them, for they are also the fourth and final element of the poem. They, the things of heaven, are what endures. “Seek the things that are above,” says Saint Paul (Col. 3:1).
Here is the poem in the first translation (the Newspeak version):
may our communion
teach us to love heaven.
May its promise and hope
guide our way on earth.
It seems pointless to discuss what’s missing. Pretty much everything is missing. But something else is going on. I have suggested that this version’s language is the language of gray. There are two ways to look at that. One is to see how it drains everything of color—of music, of scriptural memories, of reality itself in all its startling and specific glory. This is the language of via negativa. The other is to see how it raises gray as the standard of excellence. This is its via affirmativa. Now, the default for human beings, sinners not given to examining their consciences closely, is a gray self-satisfaction. We like ourselves the way we are. That being the case, unless we are struck with poverty or sickness or some other affliction, we like the things around us the way they are too.
So the prayer inverts the message of Advent. A glorious star will shine in the heavens to herald the first coming of the Messiah. The heavens themselves will be kindled to herald the second. But we’ll just plod along. It is not a heavenly mystery that teaches us but our communion. And sure, we’ll love heaven, whatever that means, but the prayer returns us to earth, where we are going our more or less contented way, guided, again, by that communion of ours.
Reading Esolen, it’s clear that the 1960s-era translators of the new mass weren’t simply inept, but ideologically committed to diminishing the mass’s holy dimension, and thereby re-forming the religious consciousness of the people according to their miserable Brutalist vision. Thank God the boot they’ve had on the neck of the Catholic faithful for a generation is about to end. Esolen is more charitable than I would have been:
The prayers of the Mass are not gray. They are colored with all the splendor of truth. Now the color returns. Beauty removes her shroud. The holy word of God is allowed to speak. Who knows why the translators did what they did? It was doubleplusungood; but that is between them and God. When the springtime comes, who cares to remember the winter? Let it pass. For the flowers appear on the earth, and the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.