Saturday, 19 January 2013

Reflecting on translating

I was given a great book for Christmas: Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, by David Bellos.  The subtitle (for those unfamiliar with The Hitch-Hiker's Guide) gives a clue: The Amazing Adventure of Translation.

It is both entertaining and thought-provoking, particularly for those who are engaged in the art of translating between languages, but also for anyone with an interest in language, thought, communication or, of course, translation.

Naturally enough, I relate it (inter alia) to the translating of the Missal, and indeed the Bible.  Bellos makes the reasonable point that one cannot say that one translation is correct, and no other can be.  Translating is not a straight-forward substitution of a word in one language with its equivalent word in another.  For a start, there may be no equivalent word; or there may be more than one; further some turns of phrase express a meaning that simply don't translate in that way: try translating How do you do? literally into any other language you can think of: it simply does not work.

On that basis, one might think that the case is made for the 'dynamic equivalence' approach to translating the Missal that landed us with such a poor translation until recently.  In response to that, many, including I myself, have called for a more literal approach to translation.  But a strict formal adherence to word-for-word translation, word order, and syntax does risk a translation being incomprehensible, or indeed meaningless, as in the example I gave above.

I haven't yet got as far as Bellos' comments on Nida (who coined the term 'dynamic equivalence' in the context of translation), and will be fascinated to see what insights he has to offer.

However, one of the points Bellos makes is that the context is very important in translating.  For example, to translate Molière (or Astérix, come to that) into English without realising that the context is humour could result in accurate translating that completely misses the point.  In fact Anthea Bell's translation of Astérix into English is a great example of translating, though it is far from literal. Dogmatix for Idéfix is simply inspired, adding an English pun to the name that describes his character; but consider how difficult it must be to translate all the other names, let alone all the jokes.

And I think that is what ICEL missed in their translation of the Missal. It simply did not reflect what the Latin was trying to do, at the level either of the meaning or of the effect it intended to convey.  It reads to me as though it was done by people who did not share the theology, ecclesiology and so forth that informed the Latin original, nor understand the hieratic nature of language used in formal worship.

Thus the linguistic register of the translation, designed to be instantly accessible to the casual listener, was very far from the register of the Latin, which, among other things, was sonorous and resonant; and the actual meaning was altered to fit a different intellectual framework: so we lost adoration in the Gloria...  In short, the dynamic equivalence was simply not equivalent.

That is why I prefer the new translation.  It is far from perfect, but it does seem to me to reflect much more accurately both the meaning and the tone of the original Latin.

A perfect translation is, I think, impossible.

For that reason, among many others, I believe the Church should return to Latin as the language of formal worship; then the business of translation becomes less important, and changes to it less fraught;  and also we reduce the risk of what I have termed The Heresy of Understanding...


Unknown said...

I believe the Church should return to Latin as the language of formal worship, primarily for a different reason. To remind and educate us that the Church is one, united as the Body of Christ.

... then the business of translation becomes less important...

John Henry.

Ben Trovato said...

I agree.

I did mention that there are many other reasons I believe that the Church should return to Latin, and that is certainly one of the most important.

mrswupple said...

always my opinion. There are barriers to worship in other countries be ause of the vernacular too. Certainly in my case.

Ben Trovato said...

Even here in the UK, we find parishes split between those who attend the English Mass, the Polish Mass, the Spanish Mass and so on.

The vernacular works against both the sign and the praxis of a Universal Church.

As ou say,when travelling, that is even more apparent - unless you go on the Chartres pilgrimage (qv) for example, when the universality of the Latin Mass is really in evidence: people from many nations worshipping in a common tongue!

Towards the Tiber said...

Exactly why I couldn't accept a Sola Scriptura approach to Christianity - translation is not perfect, so there is no way to guarantee that a translation of the Bible communicates everything beyond the possibility of misunderstanding or interpretation, which it has to if you are taking it as the only guide to everything. (Let's face it, even if the Bible had originated in English it would still be open to multiple interpretations on certain points, but translation makes it many degrees worse!)

Funnily enough I had an argument with someone about the translation of the Mass (he prefers the old, I prefer the new), but we both agreed we'd rather say it in Latin, because a) we wouldn't be having this argument in the first place and b) it elevates the Mass very easily to something above the everyday.