Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Eucharistic Prayer II: The New Translation

In recent weeks on this blog I've turned to the to-be-released-in-2011 new translation of the liturgy a couple times to try to understand the intention behind some phrases in our current Eucharistic Prayer III.

As of tonight, I am helping with an 8-day retreat for Jesuit scholastics and novices in Racine, Wisconsin, (Say a prayer for us!) and I have no idea what sort of internet access I'm going to have, so I thought it might be fun to post a couple pieces that begin to walk step by step through the new translation of Eucharistic Prayer II, to give a sense of what we're in for. So, as of today, Tuesday, I'm posting ones for tomorrow, Thursday and Friday. And if I can get internet access, I'll post the rest next week.

As a primer, let me give you a thumbnail sketch of two different theories of translation and the conflict that has led to this new set of texts.

Theory 1: The Word
One take on translations of liturgical texts is that above all they must be true to the original language used. That is to say, in some sense the revelation of God's spirit is most fully captured in the original language and construction, and therefore what is required is the most literal of translations.

The problem with this, of course, is that different languages construct their ideas differently, and contain very different conceptions within them. They say Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow; English has only one. English tends to be very direct in its construction, offering subject and verb near the beginning of a sentence. Latin texts often involves many introductory dependent clauses. A literal translation can consequently make for difficult or confusing reading, and involve new gaps in information, too. It might literally say what the Latin text says, and yet also be far less clear and meaningful to those hearing it.
Theory 2: The Spirit
A second theory of translation is that one begins with the actual text and attempts to understand it on its own terms; what truths or information is it trying to express, and how? What's the "spirit" of the words, and the style? And then, in translating one attempts to make sure that those truths, that spirit and style are conveyed through language that befits its audience. Of course, the translation must ever be grounded in the original text, or it is not a translation. But one must be willing to adjust the language and construction so that it makes sense, or revelation is impossible.

The problem with this approach is the possibility that in the name of so-called "truth" or following "the spirit" one can veer far away from the actual original text, and even introduce one's own personal spins. If you've ever been to a Mass where the presider added material to the prayers and found yourself getting uncomfortable, you've had an experience of how "spirit" translation can go bad.

Up until about ten years ago, the International Committee on English in the Liturgy, the Church's official body on evaluating and revising the liturgical texts, had been working from a tempered theory 2, attempting to fix where early post-Vatican II translators had lost track of the text, while maintaining the sort of poetic style, structure and language that befits prayer in the English language.
A set of translations were completed, only to be pushed aside and the committee dismissed, in favor of a new team and far more literal translations. It's those translations that we have coming in the next year.

The two posts that follow (beneath this one) look at the introductory call and response of the new translation of Eucharistic Prayer II.


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